Colombian coffee is coffee from Colombia, a South American state in the Andes mountains. Though it's easy to mistake the spelling, we'll be talking about Colombian coffee today, not Columbian coffee.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's a question for you: Which country's coffee production is the best? Many people would say Colombia.
If you're a coffee-lover, chances are your favorite medium or dark roast originated in its farms nestled high in the Andes. In fact, Starbucks uses beans from the Nariño region for their cold brew.
Colombia's production is not homogenous in flavor or acidity. Though many experts report that the region's java is among the best in the world, there are significant variations in the different types of roast that come out of Colombia. Read on for a thorough report that might change your preconceived notions about the most popular flavor of Colombia.
Colombia produces 15 percent of the world's beans, and according to a World Bank report, the coffee trade represents 7 to 8 percent of its overall gross national product. This statistic makes Colombia the world's third-largest producer behind Brazil and Vietnam.
Countries located in the so-called "Bean Belt," between 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South latitude, have the best conditions for the crop. The superior Arabica beans, which provide a more vibrant, sweeter taste than their cousins, the Robusta beans, prefer high elevation.
Colombia sits between 4 degrees S and 12 degrees N. It has high altitude in spades, thanks to the Andes mountain range running right through it.
Colombia's success in the industry is based mostly in part on its decision to grow only Arabica beans. This distinction ensures that its brews are better than any brands that mix the two types(usually higher in acidity and bitterness).
Coffee beans love volcanic soil, which abounds in Colombia. The country also has two other resources necessary for growing good java and lots of it – rain and sun. Thanks to a ton of rainfall, powerful sunlight due to equatorial proximity, and a lack of seasons, coffee trees flower year-round in Colombia.
These favorable conditions allow their beans to be harvested twice per year instead of once. All of this adds up to supporting the perfect growing conditions that will enable this little South American powerhouse to export a high quantity of excellent quality java.
Colombian coffee is grown on small farms run by families (known as "fincas") – about 600,000 of them, most of which are less than 12 acres in size. Elders pass down these fincas to new generations of coffee growers who grow up with the craft and have a culture all their own. Because most of the coffee production is considered "small batch," the beans enjoy extra attention to detail. More extensive plantations cannot match the improved quality of these smaller farms.
But despite a nearly 200-year history of the coffee trade, the country's coffee industry is not without its challenges, and there is room to improve the main services that support production. The landscape is so steep that transportation proves difficult – even in the global age. It's not uncommon to find Colombian brew transported from the coffee growing regions via donkey.
Farmers grow Colombian coffee on terraces taming steep Andean slopes. Banana plants and other vegetation shade the trees, protecting their beans from the harsh sunlight until farmers pick them by hand.
The harvest from these tree methods, known as "shade-grown," is one of the growing conditions thought to improve flavor. Shade-grown coffee cherries contain a lower acidity content than fruit from plants exposed to full sun.
As with many things in life, carefully picking beans by hand raises the quality of the end product. Families of experienced coffee growers can tell the difference between a perfect bean and those that are unripe or spoiled. They'll select only the best, which is something current machines cannot do.
Rather than "stripping" the coffee, whereby machines strip all the cherries at once, Colombian coffee growers "cherry-pick" only the best beans. They will then return to the tree about ten days later to do it again. Since real people pick the cherries by hand, a bag of Colombian coffee is guaranteed to contain only the cream of the crop.
At least, this is true of exported beans. The coffee industry knows that it sits on a gold mine and has wrung the most profit from it by shipping most of the best beans overseas, where they will sell for more money.
The inferior beans stay in Colombia, where they are used to make a dark, murky beverage called "Tinto." Tinto translates to "inky water" and is commonly sold by private citizens out of thermoses on the street for the cost of a few cents. However, you can also find it on the menu at shops in the country, for a slightly higher price.
Where is the coffee grown?
Colombia has a staggering range of microclimates and rich biodiversity. The Colombian coffee zone (Eje Cafetero), considered to have the best coffee growing conditions, is in the heart of Colombia, in a triangle formed between the cities of Bogota, Cali, and Medellin.
These farmers work between 4900 and 5300 feet above sea level. They are between 4 and 7 degrees N. The coffee produced in this region is harvested year-round and creates a strong, yet balanced cup featuring fruity and herbal notes that is lower in acidity.
In the southern growing regions (between the Equator and 3 degrees N), beans are grown between 4900 and 5700 feet. There is only one main harvest in this region, typically in the first half of the year. The coffees grown here are of medium body and are higher in acidity than in the central zones, but still share smooth and sweet citrus notes.
The coffee regions to the north, set between 9 and 12 degrees N, are a little lower in altitude, sitting between 3600 and 3900 feet. Coffee, typically shade-grown, is harvested from these fincas in the second half of the year. These Arabica beans contain less acid while bringing a nutty, chocolatey flavor experience.
No matter what your preference, there is a Colombian roast for you.
Colombia's coffee history
The rich history of Colombian coffees is shrouded in mystery, as no one actually knows when it came to the region. Some think that Spanish Jesuit priests brought the crop along with Catholicism when they came to convert the population in the 18th century.
If this is true, coffee remained a secret of the regional farmers until the first export shipment to the United States in 1835. It did not take long for coffee production to take off, however. Within 25 years of that first shipment, taxes on coffee exports had become the main moneymaker for Colombia.
The crop gained in popularity until the cart overtook the horse and global production began to exceed demand in the 1920s. This event coincided with a concerted attempt by Brazil to corner the world coffee market.
In response, Colombian coffee farmers, with the support of the government, created the National Federation of Coffee (Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros) in 1927. The association's primary purpose was to promote Colombian coffees, thereby protecting the financial stability of the industry.
In the 1950s, the federation hired a U.S. marketing agency, Doyle Dane Berbach (DDB), to create a symbol that would promote their product to the world. Juan Valdez was born. If you've turned over a package of Colombian beans, you've seen the symbol.
A rugged Andean coffee farmer, Valdez is dressed in the traditional poncho and hat of the region, and pictured with his mule, Conchita. His name and likeness have symbolized quality Colombian beans ever since.
The federation still exists today. Though it does not have any authority to set the price of coffee, today, it employs 1500 technical advisors who visit six to eight farms per day. Their frequent visits provide support and educational services to farmers.
In 2002, the federation opened its first Juan Valdez Café in Bogota – the Starbucks of Colombian-grown coffee. Now, there are more than 300 Juan Valdez coffee shops around the world, offering rich brew to those seeking to experience a Colombian roast.
These days, the federation focuses on trying to protect its growers from falling prices, seeking to set prices at a cost that would be more sustainable.
In addition to making money on exports, Colombian coffee producers have turned the coffee industry into a strong tourist attraction. Many of the Andean fincas in the Eje Cafetero also run bed and breakfasts. There, visitors can enjoy the farmers' company, learn about the coffee trade, and see how coffee cherries are grown, picked, and processed firsthand.
There is even a coffee theme park in the coffee zone. Visitors to the National Coffee Park (Parque Nacional del Café) can ride a themed roller coaster, stroll in the coffee gardens, and eat coffee-infused snacks.
What's more, they'll sip on a medium roast, brew while they hike on a trail that runs through a picturesque plantation.
Did you wash up?
Learning about coffee production and processing are all part of the experience of staying on one of the region's farms. It's not only the volcanic soil and expertise of the workers on the farms that improve the quality of Colombian brew.
There are three basic categories of coffee processing: washed, unwashed, and semi-washed.
The method used to process the cherries affects the final quality and flavor, and the success of Colombian brew is based partially on the technique used in the region. Before we report on the different methods, however, it's essential to understand what coffee looks like when it's on the tree.
Did you know that coffee isn't actually a bean? It's a fruit, commonly known as a "coffee cherry." What we call the beans is just the inside of the fruit.
Each fruit contains two beans surrounded by a thick, gluey substance called the mucilage, which is enclosed by a thin skin called the "parchment."
In washed coffee processing, workers remove the parchment, leaving the beans and mucilage to ferment for a time in the water - usually two days or so, until the beans are no longer sticky.
This fermentation develops the sugars and amino acids in the mucilage. It creates the coffee flavor that we all love so much. The longer the fermentation, the stronger the coffee flavor.
The heralded washed method produces the highest quality coffee, leading to 100 percent of Colombian coffee undergoing the process.
Unwashed coffee is the oldest method of coffee processing. Coffee cherries are washed in water and then dried in the sun for several weeks. After the cherry is completely dry, the workers remove the beans from the fruit. This method is a little less complicated than the washed way and tends to be popular in areas with low humidity or where water is scarce.
Semi-washed coffee is a hybrid method that combines elements of both the washed and unwashed processes. Like with washed processing, machines extract the beans from the cherry. Then, as in the unwashed process, the beans are left to dry in the sun.
Colombia's coffee culture
It may seem hard to imagine a ripe coffee culture existing in a country that trains workers to select and export the most excellent coffee in the world. Colombia restricts its citizens to instant granules made from the leftover beans that weren't good enough to ship.
Even without the nuance related to determining high-quality coffees, the drink is an integral part of Colombia's cultural heritage, and that's not about to change any time soon.
Coffee in the United States is a functional drink – something people slam for an energy boost, but stop drinking after lunch so that they'll be able to sleep at night.
Not so in Colombia--Colombians drink coffee at all times of the day. In fact, cafes are more likely to have customers later in the day than in the morning, including after dark, and decaf is very uncommon.
Suppose you are interested in making cold brew with Colombian beans, you are in great company since Starbucks uses beans from this region for 70% of their commercial cold brews.
Remember that coffee is an opportunity for Colombians to sit down and connect with family or friends over a cup. It's part of their national identity. A social event to be savored, not chugged.
It's all the more remarkable when you consider that a large coffee at a Juan Valdez in Bogota comes in a 12-ounce cup(a "tall" at any Starbucks). There is no such thing as a "venti" in Colombian shops.
Baristas serve Tinto in even smaller sizes. Locals report that enjoying a cup of coffee in Colombia has less to do with the beans' origin, the brewing method, or even the overall taste. Instead, it has to do with the social niceties and rituals that accompany it.