Colombia is renown for producing high end, refined, luxury coffee thanks to its near perfect growing conditions of the arabica bean. The culture of coffee growing is central to the country’s rugged, rural identity. And for years, Colombian coffee has been a household name and beverage. Why does it rate as one of the best coffees in the world?
Coffee plants originated in Arabic countries and were first introduced in Colombia in 1723 by the Jesuits. By 1930 Colombian had become a coffee growing powerhouse. Today it is the third largest coffee producer after Brazil and Vietnam and the second largest producer of arabica coffee.
Coffee thrives in Colombia due to a perfect balance between climate, rainfall and a rich volcanic soil. Quality coffee must grow between the 30th parallel N. and the 30th parallel S. – a belt stretching around the world just north and south of the equator. The tropical climate of Colombia’s Andean mountains offers ideal altitudes of 900 – 2,000 meters (2, 952 ft. – 6,561 ft.); while an annual rainfall of 200 cm. (80 inches) provides optimum conditions for cultivating coffee.
There are more than 600,000 coffee farms in Colombia, 95% are smaller than 12 acres and over 1 million families work growing and harvesting coffee which is 7% of Colombia’s export revenue and 3.4% of its GDP.
High quality beans are grown in the shade of banana trees which protect the coffee bushes from the searing tropical sun. The plants produce two harvests a year. Colombia produces 11.5 million bags of coffee annually. The bags are standard, large burlap bags of washed coffee beans weighing 60 kilo (132 lbs.) each.
The beans are grown on the coffea plant or bush. The coffee beans are nearly all hand picked at just the right time when the beans turn a ripe, bright red. This method of hand picking, called ‘cherry picking’, is far superior to mechanical harvesting where all the beans, ripened and not, are harvested at once.
The beans are then passed through a wet mill to extract the coffee seeds from the cherry fruit. The beans are spread out over large ground cloths to be dried in the sun, after which they are bagged, loaded on Willy jeeps, drove to town and sold to the consortium.
What kind of coffee does Colombia produce?
Most Latin American countries grow arabica coffee, but in Colombia it excels. Arabica is a more refined bean producing delicate and complex coffee. Colombia’s coffee is smooth, light and sweet. And though it takes more work to produce, it brings a higher price.
Robusto coffee is grown mostly in tropical Asian and African countries. It is the hardier of the two species producing a bolder, more acidic and bitter coffee but delivering a higher yield. Of the two, arabica is the most highly prized.
Colombian coffee is famous for its strong aroma, high acidity, medium body, well balanced taste and mild complexities
The most famous coffee-producing region lies in the central part of the country and contains Colombia’s famous coffee triangle. Colombia’s heartland produces fruity and herbal coffee.
The coffee produced in the south of the country, closer to the equator, grows at higher altitudes than in the rest of the country due to a higher heat index closer to the equator. Here the beans ripen more slowly and develop more complex flavors. The yield is lower but the coffee has a citrus flavor with a hint of acidity.
Coffee produced in the north, near Santa Marta between Caribbean coast and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is Colombia’s oldest coffee region. The coffee here shows hints of nuts and chocolate with less acidity.
47% of the Coffee produced in Colombia comes from the departments of Huila, Antioquia and Tolima.
Coffee on the market in Colombia is selected and divided into categories according to quality. Supremo is the highest grade and the best coffee available. Most of the coffee rated supreme is exported. The second grade is Extra while the third grade, Excelso, an inferior mix or both Supremo and Extra.
Colombian coffee is usually shipped unroasted or ‘green bean’ to roasters in Colombia and abroad who roast the beans according to their client’s tastes.
Colombia coffee should have a light to medium roast to enjoy the subtle taste to its fullest. A darker, expresso roast extracts more caffeine, makes the coffee bolder, more bitter and tends to mask the subtle taste profiles. A lighter roast brings out the bright flavors, clean texture and rich flavors making it ideal for a Colombian colado coffee, a French press brew, rich cappuccino and iced coffee. Green Colombian coffee beans can also be purchased from roasters around the world for the consumer who wants to roast his or her own.
Colombian Coffee Promotion
In 1927, the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia) was formed to regulate and grow the coffee industry. A non-profit consortium or family run farms, the Federation taxes every pound of beans produced in the country. The money is used to help the farmers by monitoring production to ensure quality standards and promote Colombian coffee around the world.
The Federation has been criticized by the Colombian left who claims it over-taxes struggling farmers and works with the government and church to maintain law and order in the remote coffee growing regions where the government has little or no control.
In 1958, a Manhattan ad agency produced the Juan Valdez promotional campaign for the Federation. Valdez was a Aguadeno straw hat, poncho wearing, mustached Colombian coffee grower with his donkey named Conchita. They became a beloved symbol, not only of Colombian coffee, but of Colombia itself.
Juan Valdez is also the name used for a franchise of modern, multinational coffee houses which can be found in all major cities around Colombia.
In 1995, the Federation created a coffee theme park near the town of Montenegro in the ‘coffee triangle’ called National Coffee Park or Parque del Cafe. At the entrance of the park there are museums and exhibitions detailing the history, culture and process of growing coffee. A few years later, to attract younger crowds, an adjacent amusement park with rides and shows was built. Cable cars connect the museums with the theme park in the valley below. There is also a delightful ecological pedestrian trail winding down the hill, through a plantation of coffee bushes and bamboo trees, to the amusement park. Take the trail down and the cable car back up.
Climate Change and an Ailing Industry
Climate change is affecting Colombia’s coffee production. Rainfall has increased by 25% in the country bringing more fungal diseases, landslides and flooding while a steady rise in temperatures and extreme weather events has put more than 30% of Colombia’s low-altitude coffee growing regions at risk. Conditions may soon become unsuitable for arabica coffee and the growers may have to consider alternative crops.
Meanwhile, historically low commodity prices on the international market is not only hurting the coffee growers but also causing the industry to contract.
The farmers are paid $282 for a sack of coffee but they say it costs $366 a sack to produce. A decade ago a pound of coffee on the commodities market was $3. Today it is $1.28. The farmers say it’s not enough to cover the costs of production. Hiring coffee workers is becoming a prohibited expense even for the large ranchers. On the small coffee farms the families do all the labor. Meanwhile the young farmers and laborers are abandoning the farms and leaving the countryside for better opportunities in the cities. Roughly 20% of the land, once under cultivation for coffee, has been abandoned.
Colombia currently has 880,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) planted to coffee but since the 1990s has lost 20% of the land cultivated to coffee crops. Low coffee prices are to blame.
Coffee growers from Colombia to Brazil want to set a bottom-line price the buyers must not undermine. This would ensure farmers get paid a fair price amid the lowest global market prices in a decade. The farmers blame the international brands, negociants and middlemen involved in the export, import and distribution of coffee for taking an unjustifiable share of the profits.