16th May 2016
I did not drink a single cup of tea in Colombia. The concept was almost unheard of. Instead, I was in the third biggest coffee producer in the world, and before I left I was going to be a connoisseur of coffee. This would include understanding quite how that plant full of berries they claim is coffee exactly makes it into the swirling brown elixir of life so many of us rely on daily.
Colombia’s Zona Cafetera or Triángulo del Café, has three regions at its heart, with three respective capital cities: Pereira, Armenia and Manizales. Coffee enters all aspects of life here and 540,000 families are supported by the industry. 80% of the coffee farms in the region are small farms, with only 5% larger than 100 acres. The roads here can boast being the ‘best in the country’ in order to facilitate efficient transportation of the coffee out.
Something striking about the area are the tall and elegant banana and plantain trees growing absolutely everywhere on the verdant, rolling hills, more noticeable even than the coffee crops. It transpires that the banana tree was imported specifically to provide shade for coffee plants to grow. Previous trees for shade would steal water and nutrients from the crops, but banana trees worked perfectly. If you see coffee growing without banana trees beside it, they are the result of a new variety of coffee created right here in Colombia at the 'National Coffee Research Centre' (yes, a real place, apparently).
There are two cultivated species of coffee plant in the world: Arabica and Robusta. In Colombia, you will only find Arabica, which originated in Ethiopia but had spread to Colombia by 1790. Strict national laws control coffee growing in Colombia, dictating the processes that can be used and which species are allowed to grow.
I visited Café San Alberto, an award winning coffee farm, to take in the whole process. At 1500M above sea level and in the heat of the day, the climb to the top of the farm can be tough – remember water and a hat, or the farm have the option to drive you up if you'd prefer.
The views are stunning however, overlooking Colombia’s smallest town, Buenavista, surrounded by rich green hills stretching in every direction. Winding your way up the plantation you’ll see gorgeous red ‘el baston del rey’ (‘stick of the king’) flowers as well as hibiscus, planted here for their heightened sensitivity, much like roses in vineyards, to protect the precious coffee plant by detecting any diseases first.
Once at the top of the farm, there is a hub of activity. The biggest harvests are in April and October and pickers live up on the farm for this period. They are paid by the weight of a bag of berries picked. It is the heat of the day, so we creep past several napping pickers sprawled out with sleepy dogs. The first stage of life is the ‘coffee nursery’, where lines of little seedlings are starting life. Seeds are planted on river sand and after 3 months, they graduate to spending 6 months in the soil.
Careful transportation is required as each flower of the plant is to become one coffee berry. The flowers live for only 3 days before the berry begins to grow. Red berries are the right colour for picking. The coffee berries are then dried, taking a week if natural methods are used, though semi-natural and superficial methods can speed this up.
Berries are then separated, peeled and put down a pipe with water to be washed and sorted. But not before some quite essential stomping:
Bad or still green berries float and are removed, good berries head into a pulping machine. If you take a berry and squeeze it yourself, breaking the red skin, you find fruity pulp inside, sweet to eat, with two small beans in the center – our coffee - then put through a friction machine, which can mechanically grind up to two tons at once. The red skin of the berry is used as compost to re-fertilise the soil. One member of the group asks if they've ever tried to brew it into an alcohol. They claim not.
Then it’s into the lab, home to a big purple machine (loving referred to on the farm as ‘their baby’ and which looks more like it belongs in a “fro-yo” store or on the set of Telletubbies), used for roasting the beans. Yet more often than not, Colombian coffee is exported at the ‘dry parchment’ stage, before being roasted, due to differences in consumer tastes. Italians and French prefer high roasted coffee (15 minutes) whereas the authentic Colombian roast is a medium (12 minutes). The beans are also sifted by hand in the lab to sort for quality, any defected beans are sold locally and off brand rather than making it as San Alberto crem de la crem!
Down at the farm house it is time to put our noses to the test. Given eight categories of scent created by some French geezer, we are asked whether different samples smell ‘musty’, ‘chemical’, ‘fruity’ and so on. I fail miserably. We are told when you smell dry coffee it is a ‘fragrance’, but when wet it is an ‘aroma’. Colombian coffee is known for its slight fruity flavour.
A good test of whether coffee is recently roasted is that freshly picked coffee will bubble when water is added. Good coffee will also have a long aftertaste. It should never be mixed either, making Starbucks a house of sin for Colombians. The chain was banned by law until the current president allowed them in just last year, under the condition their signs sell it as ‘Colombian coffee’.
Finally, your Colombian coffee experience is not complete without trying your hand at 'latte art'. Make a stop in the nearby town Salento, worth seeing in itself for its colourful steps and traditional llanero, Colombian cowboys, hanging around the lively plaza. Here you can stop at Café Jesús Martín to paint pictures in the froth with steady-handed César. My ‘dog’ emerged a little pig-like, but I was proud of him nonetheless.