Cultivating Colombian Coffee

When I tell people that I just moved back from Colombia, there are a few questions thrown at me in any order: Was it safe?  Are you crazy?  Are there drugs everywhere? And, how was the coffee? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am an addict, but I do enjoy coffee…a lot. When I was an office drone (aka administrative assistant), coffee was my best friend and I would easily drink up to six cups throughout the dull work day.  Now, coffee is still the highlight of my morning when I successfully distract a toddler and find time to load up the French Press.  Colombia is the second largest exporter of coffee (behind Brazil) and Colombian coffee has always been famous for its rich taste.  To put it lightly, I was greatly looking forward to trying the coffee of Colombia and learning more about the production of Colombia’s #1 (legal) money-maker.

I didn’t account for the fact that good Colombian coffee is too expensive for most Colombians and the vast majority of coffee is quickly shipped to the US (the largest importer), Brazil (shocker!) and Europe.  I tried tons of street vendors and a handful of cafés. Coffee on the streets of Colombia is strong and drinkable once you become accustomed, but is definitely instant Nescafé style.  Cafés were sadly disappointing.  Juan Valdez (the famous Starbucks of Colombia) was the best I could find… until I found myself at the “entrance” of Don Elias’ organic coffee plantation in Salento, located in the hilly Zona Cafetera.

A warm family greeted us and whisked us on a tour through their backyard of coffee plants, banana trees, and wax palms.  They spoke slow Spanish (thank you!) and explained the entire process of coffee production and the reasons why Colombian coffee is superior to other varieties. The Arabica bean, harvested by Elias, prefers high altitudes and drier climates than the lower quality Robusta bean. The arid mountains and the rich volcanic soil of Colombia provide ideal conditions for growing this high quality Arabica bean.  If you are like me and enjoy learning how food and beverages are produced, I’ve simplified the process which is all done by the family’s hands…

1. The coffee “fruits” are picked from the self-pollinating coffee plants in April and May.  The Arabica fruits have a green or red shell (depending on how ripe they are, and must be grown in the shade of trees).

Coffee Beans (with Shells) Harvested
Coffee "Fruit" Ready to Harvest

2. Beans are run through a hand-cranked machine to remove the green shells. Surprise!  The naked beans are white.

3. The naked white beans are washed with cold water to remove shell remains.

4. Beans are laid out in the sun (or greenhouse) to dry.  This process can take one day or one month (depending on how sunny and hot the weather is).

Naked Beans Sunbathing

5. Beans are roasted on the stove in metal pots (where they turn brown) and start to smell like coffee.  The beans are picked through to remove any pieces of shell or other earth debris still attached.

6. Coffee is ground & ready to brew!

Finally, the Best Cup(s) of Coffee in Colombia!

The best cup(s) of coffee were served in the Elias’ kitchen (my dad, a coffee hater, even drank an entire cup!) and our questions about the coffee production and business continued.  The family explained that they receive 10,000 Colombian pesos (about $5) per kilogram of this coffee, while a non-organic grower only gets about 7,000 Colombian pesos ($3.50) per kilogram.  They only sell to visitors (foreigners) and to a coffee co-operative based in Manizales which handles the business side of shipping to the US and Europe.  Nescafé (or whichever instant brand is cheapest) is what their family drinks.  I walked away with three bags of coffee for gifts, a caffeine buzz from the best coffee in Colombia, and a strong appreciation for the tedious process of coffee production which Colombians depend on for survival.

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