This is an expanded section of a larger article detailing tea growing in Colombia and my travels there. You can read the full article here.
The history of tea in Colombia is, in part, a history of the Llano family.
At the beginning of the 1950s, the Colombian Department of Agriculture set out to stimulate their export economy, after a series of conflicts and economic downturns, with tea seeds bought from Sri Lanka (both sinensis and assamica). They originally planted these seeds in Cundinamarca department (around Sasaima) and Santander Department (north of Bogotá). It seems it was Don Alberto Llano Buenaventura who convinced his father, Don Joaquin Llano Gonzalez, to plant the tea in his already thriving coffee farm in the mountains of the West Andes, in Bitaco.
Don Alberto Llano Buenaventura had the tea bug from the start and traveled to Peru to learn the tea making trade. In 1954, the Llanos produced the first finished tea from their farm, under the moniker “Té La Sofia”, after their estate, Hacienda La Sophia. This estate was, and is still currently, the only place in Colombia growing tea commercially.
In 1960, after purchasing tea making equipment from the United Kingdom, Ecuador, and Argentina, Don Alberto rebranded the finished tea as Hindú. They sold loose orthodox black tea and a new trend on the market, tea in tea bags (but not yet CTC). Hindú became instantly and widely popular with the Colombian market, since consumers were not yet avid tea drinkers and the tea bag was such a convenience.
In the early 1970s, the Colombian Coffee National Federation began creating a demand not for traditional and better quality arabica coffee, but for the higher yielding but poorer quality caturra variety. As a result, Bitaco switched to only growing tea. Unfortunately, the troubles that plagued Colombia in the 20th Century swelled again and the entire Bitaco workforce went on strike. Amidst trying to negotiate and solve the problem so as not to lose the estate, Don Alberto died. The tea grew wild and the company was liquidated by the government.
Their story was not yet over. In 1984 the widow of Don Alberto, Marichu de Llano, and her seven children reclaimed the former estate and began to process of rebuilding what their family had started 30 years earlier. They founded Agrígola Himalaya, S.A. and her son Alberto Llano Restrepo (Jr.) was tasked with running the company. Marichu was incredibly hands on, building a church, promoting the company, and starting the social and environmental programs that would define them to this day. Alberto Jr. was a strong leader and was responsible for buying the CTC equipment from India and designing their processing facility that would ultimately turn Hindú into the largest tea brand in Colombia and many parts of South America. During this period, they also produced their first flavored teas and herbal teas.
In the 1990s, the violence and conflict in the country reached even to Bitaco, where guerilla rebels (known as FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) would frequently seize supplies and trucks and stir up trouble amongst the workforce. Sadly, this culminated in Alberto Jr. being shot and killed.
Marichu and her daughters took control of the company and hired an outside CEO, Andres Velasco. In particular, it was Carlota Llano who decided to make the company as a kind of memorial to Alberto Jr. and spearheaded the social and environmental needs they had created. Conflicts eventually stopped and the country set out towards a path of peace.
In 2011, Bitaco worked with and was certified through UTZ, an international sustainable agricultural organization.
Finally, in 2013, they made the key decision to branch Hindú off in Agrícola Himalaya and refocus their tea on a new brand: Bitaco Unique Colombian Tea. This is a throwback, an endeavor to produce the best quality loose tea from the plants they’ve been tending to and harvesting for over 60 years.
Note: Most of this history was compiled by Beatriz Llano (referred to as the family historian), one of the six sisters who ran the company along with their mother and helped usher Argícola Himalaya to its current success.
To read more on Colombian tea, check out the expanded articles: