What’s in my Coffee?
Is it balanced? Is it bright? What is its body like? How flavorful will it be? Answering these questions depends in part on how long ago the beans were roasted and how they were harvested and processed. Like drinking fine wine or eating dark chocolate, there is just a lot to learn. Knowing what you don’t know comes in handy before you travel to Colombia so you can make the most of this journey to coffee’s heartland.
The terms supremo and excelso refer to the size of the beans, these two designations meaning large. Big beans don’t necessarily translate into great coffee. You’ll know more about the quality of what you are drinking if you know the origin of the beans and the altitude where they were grown. With the growth of the specialty coffee industry and the increasing sophistication of the modern palate, more roasters these days are providing much information about their product, letting consumers know the region the beans came from and even the farm. By knowing the farm, you may be able to learn if the coffee is shade-grown, if the berries are selectively picked at the peak of the harvest instead being stripped from the branches, the unripe along with the ripe. You may also find out if the fruit is de-pulped by hand or in a di-mucilating machine, if it dried in the sun or in a mechanical drying silo. The answers to all these questions go into determining the quality of a cup of coffee.
If you travel to Colombia with Southern Explorations, we offer a variety of ways to learn about coffee. Besides being able to enjoy coffee in specialty coffee shops in such cities as Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena, we visit some coffee-growing regions on the Colombia tours we offer. Some of our Colombia travel itineraries include a barista demonstration at a signature coffee plantation in the Zona Cafetera. The Colombia tours to the Santander and Antioquia regions include a stop at a coffee hacienda to sample brews and roasts. You’ll come home from your Colombia vacation knowing much more than whether you want your latte with or without foam and with non-fat or two percent milk.
As visitors on Colombia tours to the country’s coffee regions will learn, what coffee grows where is determined by the environmental conditions that exist in the country’s three mountain ranges and the Santa Marta peak where coffee is cultivated. Certain areas of Colombia are conducive to shade-growing methods.
Of the many Arabica coffees, mostly Typica and Bourbon heirloom varietals are grown in Colombia. Typicas, which reach about ten to fifteen feet at maturity, have a low yield but produce very flavorful coffee. Some Colombian coffee mutations are natural. These include the large-bean Maragogype, a Typica mutation from Brazil that grows taller than either the Typica or Bourbon varietals. Bourbon varieties produce more but smaller beans than the Typicas. They grow faster and are more apt to blow off the trees during harsh weather. The natural Bourbon mutation, Caturra, also from Brazil, produces a higher yield than the traditional Bourbon varietal and is more disease-resistant. It does however require fertilizer and is more labor-intensive to cultivate.
The aroma, acidity and flavor of Arabica coffee beans make them a common ingredient in blends to improve the taste of robusta varieties. In any area of agriculture that grows a crop vulnerable to pests and disease, it is always a struggle to maintain quality when trying to produce a higher yield. Some hybrid cultivars such as Castillo and Tabi produce higher yields and are hardy, less susceptible to coffee leaf rust, but do not necessarily taste better than the heirloom varietals.
Genetically-modified cultivars are being developed in Colombia’s coffee laboratories. Purists believe that growing cultivars that combine Arabica with robusta degrade the quality of Colombian coffee. Others maintain that for the health of the industry, the increase in crop yield is worth whatever slight modification in taste coffee drinkers may experience. The debate about how to grow the industry without sacrificing quality goes on outside the purview of coffee drinkers. During travel to Colombia, visitors will have opportunities to taste a wide range of coffees.
Though most of Colombia’s best coffee is exported, visitors on Colombia tours may expect premium coffee brewed from native beans wherever their travels take them, whether in the major cities, the coffee-growing regions or elsewhere. Check out our Colombia tours that visit the regions where coffee is grown.
The Coffee Traditions of Colombia
Coffee is not native to the Americas. Brought here by one invading country or another, coffee began to be grown in the territory that is today Colombia in the 1700s. By the 19th century, the crop had become an economic powerhouse, thanks in large part to government efforts to support the growers in regions where coffee grew best. When plummeting international coffee bean prices and civil war destabilized Colombia at the start of the 20th century, it dramatically reduced the profitability of large scale coffee plantations, giving small growers the opportunity to take over the industry.
In 2011, UNESCO named the country’s coffee cultural landscape a World Heritage Site. The area is comprised of six farming landscapes in the western and central ranges of the Cordillera de los Andes on Colombia’s west side that carry on the small-plot cultivation methods used by the growers here. The designation also recognizes the unique architecture of the eighteen communities in the foothills above the coffee fields that contain colonial-style buildings constructed with traditional materials, cob and pleated cane walls and red-clay tile roofs. These attributes make the coffee regions a popular destination on Colombia tours.
Visitors who travel to Colombia and are accustomed to ordering their morning Starbucks brew in a vast array of combinations will find fewer options, but delicious coffee nonetheless. If your usual is an iced grande non-fat caramel macchiato melted, you’re probably out of luck. Black coffee is referred to as “un tinto.” For latte lovers, café con leche may contain more milk than they are used to. Soy and lactose-free milk are generally available.
Colombians drink their coffee with meals on work breaks called media nueves or half nines and onces (eleven), a break that may occur in the morning as its name implies or in the late afternoon modeled after afternoon tea. Brewed coffee is widely available from street vendors.
And where there is a product that people love, you can bet there is tourism, whether the object of desire is wine, chocolate or coffee. These Colombia tours offer the one-of-a-kind accommodations favored by the kind of tourists who wish to combine their love of learning with their love of the beverage. Check out our Colombia tours that include travel to the country’s coffee regions.
Coffee Industry of Colombia
The federation has a membership of some half-million coffee growers and supports academic research for the betterment of the industry’s crops and practices. It plays an instrumental role in setting coffee industry policies to increase the efficiency of shipping on which the industry depends to distribute its products.
The federation has had a major impact on the coffee business and the lives of the farmers it represents. Visitors who travel to the country’s coffee-growing regions during their Colombia tours will see the work of the federation everywhere. It has developed a coffee growers’ bank with hundreds of branches nationwide and an insurance company to keep premiums within reach of its member growers. Almacafe is responsible for export quality control and logistics. Most Colombian coffee finds its way into cups located in the U.S. Japan and Europe. Lucky for Colombia, the country has both Pacific and Atlantic coasts from which its beans can ship.
In the increasingly competitive world of commercial coffee cultivation, retaining Colombia’s position of prominence has been challenging. Brazil and Vietnam surpass Colombia in coffee production. The federation uses a portion of its National Coffee Fund to stay competitive, seeking ways to reduce production costs through technological advances and finding other ways to modernize the industry. Cenicafe, a national coffee institute funded mostly by the federation, conducts the most advanced coffee cultivation research operation in the world.
Fluctuating commodity prices have brought about new coffee traditions to Colombia. Some farms are supplementing their income by catering to tourists who wish to learn about how coffee is grown during their Colombia tours. Others are experimenting with natural growing methods to capture a share of the growing organic coffee business in first-world markets. Visitors preparing to travel to Colombia may learn more about the industry at www.cafedecolombia.com. Southern Explorations visits coffee-growing regions during most of the Colombia tours it offers.
Growing Coffee in Colombia
At this point the raw beans leave the farm to be processed. Beans are categorized, separating those of sufficient quality for export. When export beans reach the mill, they travel through machines that remove the husk and outer skin. Beans are sorted according to size and origin, ready for sale.
Coffee farmers determine what Arabica varieties to plant based on what will bring them the highest yield and be most pest and disease-resistant for the environment where the farm is located. For instance, the Bourbon varietal grows best between 3,500 and 6,500 feet. Growing the Bourbon mutation, Caturra, at lower altitudes increases its yield but lowers its quality.
Weather variances wreak havoc on the coffee plants. A fungus that didn’t exist in Latin American plants until the 1970s, coffee leaf rust is a reality in Columbian coffee cultivation today, especially when weather is unusually wet. The rust creates orange spots on the leaves, causing them to drop. Eventually the tree will die. Whether shade-grown trees are less vulnerable to the condition is a matter of debate within the industry though all agree that dealing with the problem is complicated.
Coffee consumers share a love of Arabica coffee with a wide range of wildlife, birds, moths, butterflies and especially beetles. Over the past few years, temperatures have been rising and rains have become heavier and unpredictable, occurring during periods that are usually dry. If the needed dry periods don’t occur, the shrubs become vulnerable to pest infestations. Integrated pest management, instead of insecticides, is increasingly being employed to protect plants from predators and to combat coffee leaf rust. These problems have diminished crop size and led to the higher prices consumers see for Colombian coffee in their supermarket and coffee shop.
As visitors will discover during their travel to Colombia, premium coffee is an important component of the country’s culture and economy. Colombia slipped to third place in coffee production and second place as Arabica producer due to weather problems, producing about 9.5 million 132-pound bags of Arabica beans in 2011. Our Colombia tours visit the coffee regions to show visitors how coffee is grown and harvested.
Zona Cafetera of Colombia
The Zona Cafetera is a seismically-active area. In 1999, a major earthquake that measured 6.2 on the Richter scale devastated a huge area between the cities of Pereira and Armenia, leveling the homes of some 200,000 residents and killing or injuring over 2,000. The destruction was an enormous setback for an industry already struggling to hold on to its position in a global now highly competitive world. The cost to re-build totaled half a billion dollars.
The Zona Cafetera is not entirely rural. The cities of Manizales, Pereira and Armenia are the region’s largest urban areas and are short on sights that would be of interest to tourists who travel to Colombia. What attracts visitors on Colombia tours to this region is the beauty of the landscape, its intense green, and outdoor activities in the countryside. Some farms in the region have gotten into the coffee tourism business, inviting guests on Colombia tours to learn about the growing of Arabica coffee and to stay in picturesque coffee plantation settings.
Near the town of Montenegro in the southern area of the Zona Cafetera is a Disneyland-style theme park devoted to coffee and fun. Funded by the nation’s federation of coffee growers, the Coffee National Park opened in 1995 and contains a history museum, a coffee plantation that grows different varieties of coffee bushes, a bamboo forest and even a live show about the crop’s history and its cultural significance to Colombia. There are rides for the kids, including a rollercoaster.
Experiences such as these during travel to Colombia help international visitors to appreciate the hard work and meticulous attention to detail that goes into producing this country’s coffee. A trip to Starbucks after the Colombia vacation ends will never be the same.
The region offers more than coffee. During their Colombia tours here, many visitors stop at Los Nevados National Park on the eastern edge of the Zona Cafetera where the hiking is splendid and the views spectacular. The quaint town of Salento about forty-five minute from Armenia and the vibrant metropolis of Medellin about seventy-five miles north of the region are also popular destinations. Southern Explorations offers trips ro the Zona Cafetera.
The Coffee Regions of Colombia
The most northerly of Colombia’s coffee regions is located in the Magdalena, Cesar and Guajira departments. Here coffee grows at lower elevations and higher temperatures, conditions similar to those found in the coffee-growing regions of Central America. In some locations such as the high elevation of the Serrania del Perija and Colombia’s tallest peak, Sierra Nevada de la Santa Marta, the intensity of the sun makes growing coffee in the shade of the forest canopy a necessity.
Further south are the coffee-growing regions of the Antioquia where the city of Medellin is located. In some areas of this region, shade-growing conditions produce fuller-bodied coffee with lower acidity. Colombia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, making shade-grown coffee an important sustainability goal. To the east is the Santander region, north of Bogota. Beans here are less acidic than the western coffees. Coffee grown in areas around Bucaramanga is mild and heavy-bodied.
In the central part of coffee country lies the famed Zona Cafetera. Here in the departments of Caldas, Tolima and Quindio is the most productive of the country’s coffee-growing regions, a destination favored by coffee lovers who travel to Colombia. The most southerly of the country’s western coffee-growing regions are found in the Cauca, Huila and Narino departments where its location closer to the equator allows coffee to thrive at higher elevations.
Southern Explorations visits some coffee-growing regions on the Colombia tours we offer. Two Colombia travel itineraries watch a barista demonstration at a signature coffee plantation in the Zona Cafetera. Our Colombia tours to the Santander and Antioquia regions include a stop at a coffee hacienda to learn about shade-grown organic brews and roasts.
Juan Valdez & Starbucks
Juan Valdez went global in 2002 though not with as wide a reach as Starbucks. It operates some 130 retail stores in Colombia that serve coffee by the cup, as well as selling beans and coffee paraphernalia. About thirty-five such stores are located in other countries in addition to selling packaged coffee in grocery stores abroad and on-line with attractive shipping rates to the U.S. It produces several different roasts, some mild, some strong, ranging from low acid, medium-bodied coffees to strong, full-bodied ones, in both caffeinated and de-caffeinated forms. Colina, Cumbre and Volcan are its largest selling roasts. One of its roasts is organic. Its Buen Dia coffee is freeze-dried, with or without caffeine. The federation is the majority owner of the chain with the remainder owned by coffee growers.
A portion of the proceeds of the Juan Valdez company goes to better the lives of its growers. It has financed schools, teacher housing, health clinics and vaccination programs for children, as well as infrastructure for rural communities, highways and bridges.
Visitors on Colombia tours will also encounter the country’s other major coffee purveyor, Oma. Started in 1970, Oma sells coffee retail and owns a restaurant chain plus a roasting facility. Both Juan Valdez and Oma sell alcoholic beverages too, a game that Starbucks is just now getting into. Where you will find the best tasting coffee during your travel to Colombia is a matter of personal preference. A number of small gourmet companies also exist in Colombia, giving visitors on Colombia tours a range of brews and roasts from which to choose.
Is there a Starbucks in Colombia’s future? With the road already paved by its competitors, you’d surely think so, though to date, the coffee colossus has not opened any retail operations. Of course Colombians are big coffee growers though not necessarily big coffee drinkers. Some sources estimate that almost all Colombians drink coffee but not in the abundant quantities that Americans and Europeans do. In a move that surprised some, the federation bought into Starbucks in 2009, purchasing between six and seven percent of the company’s stock. Perhaps Juan Valdez will go head to head with Starbucks one day, giving visitors on who travel to Colombia the opportunity to sample both.
The Colombian Barista
With help from USAID, a specialty coffee program has been underway since 2002 to encourage farmers to be in the coffee, not the coca, business. The effort is aimed at helping these farmers to be successful in growing the more lucrative, gourmet coffees by enhancing the quality of their beans through training in harvesting and handling methods. Visitors on Colombia tours will encounter both premium coffees and average cups during their vacations here.
Last year Colombia was selected to host the 2011 World Barista Championship, an international coffee competition promoting excellence in the preparation of coffee drinks. The four-day event took place in June at Bogota’s convention center before a large audience of coffee aficionados. This is the first time it has been held in a coffee-producing country. Here over fifty baristas demonstrated their talent, hoping to win the coveted distinction of making the best cup of coffee in the world. Colombia’s entrant was a female barista, the daughter of a coffee grower in Armenia. Now in its twelfth year, the competition is jointly sponsored by the specialty coffee associations of America and Europe and attracts baristas from throughout the world. The event is preceded by local, regional and national competitions to determine which barista will represent each country in the national event.
Seven judges consider different elements of the barista’s work. Each contestant has fifteen minutes to prepare twelve drinks, an espresso, a cappuccino and an espresso-based signature drink of the barista’s choosing for the four sensory judges. Round One eliminates all but twelve contestants. The semi-finals reduce competitors to six for the finals. Contestants may bring music to add mood to the performance. Contestants are judged on the quality of their beverage, their technical skills, their knowledge of coffee and their qualities as a role-model for the profession. A Guatemalan won, also a first that the prize would go to a contestant representing a coffee-growing country.
Southern Explorations visits some of the country’s coffee-growing regions on the Colombia tours it offers. Visitors watch barista demonstrations at a signature coffee plantationand taste an award-winning roast during the travel to the Zona Cafetera. During our Colombia tours to the Santander and Antioquia regions, our passengers learn about brews and roasts in the Bucaramanga coffee region.