Bean by Bean: a Journey into Colombia’s Coffee Region
In this post we journey into Colombia’s Coffee Region and take a closer look at coffee farming, production and coffee tourism in Colombia – written by Teresa Schumacher for Other Way Round.
There’s a long line in the coffee shop this morning.
A man in a crisp suit stands in front of me, talking into an earpiece and gesturing dramatically for an audience that isn’t there.
Behind me a group of students stare solemnly into their cellphones, backpacks slung over hunched shoulders.
The woman at the front of the line is juggling a toddler on her hip and a wallet in her hand, ordering a fancy latte with lots of syrup and soy.
I glance at my watch, already resigned to the fact that I’m going to be late for work.
Outside, an Ohio winter has consumed the landscape.
Overcast sky converging with the deeper grey of pavement, last night’s snow turning an ugly shade of brown in between.
I turn my attention to a giant map on the wall, where countries are outlined in white against a black background.
“Coffee Regions of the World” it says.
Little white dots signify specific regions in each country where coffee is made.
And there, at the end, is the distinct outline of COLOMBIA.
My eyes settle here, and for a moment I’m no longer standing in line for coffee on this cold wintery day in Ohio.
I’m somewhere else entirely, somewhere that is so much more than a little white dot on a black map.
It’s a place I’ve been before.
Little Towns and Coffee Farms
We drive south of Medellin, heading towards Colombia’s coffee region, escaping just in time as rush-hour traffic hits the city.
Over rolling, green hills laced with vibrantly painted homes.
Yellow, fuchsia, teal – cheerful tones against a cloudless sky.
Through little towns where men ride horses down dusty streets and mangy dogs nap, oblivious to the cars driving just inches from their outstretched paws.
Old friends lounge on porch steps, sipping “limonada de coco” and watching the traffic pass by.
Time moves a bit slower out here.
Our driver and tour guide for the day, Andres, is a native of Medellin and knows these winding roads like the back of his hand.
Up and up we go, winding through the lush green mountain landscape as he eagerly tells us about this place he calls home.
About an hour outside of the city and we reach a beautiful, isolated coffee farm nestled in the mountains, a ranch style home sitting atop one of the highest peaks, neat rows of coffee trees spilling down the hill in every direction.
An elderly couple approaches the gate, smiling and waving a welcome.
We shake hands and introduce ourselves.
Nena and Jose do not speak English, but I do what I can with my limited Spanish and Andres fills in the blanks.
Jose exclaims when he finds out I’m an animal doctor.
His eyes light up instantly and he leads me around the property so that I may be properly introduced to all the four-legged, furry members of the family.
They are a motley crew, dogs that were wandering the streets or neglected in previous lives.
One sweet old mutt climbs out from under the shade of a truck and hobbles over to greet me, her hind limbs weak and disfigured from a chronic back condition.
Jose is asking for advice about an energetic pup who “eats everything but is still so flaco!” when Nena gently redirects us to seats on a veranda overlooking a stunning landscape.
I take out my camera to capture the view, but even the best photograph won’t do this place justice.
Nena offers us all cups of steaming coffee – black, no sugar.
The cups are tiny, ones you might find at a child’s tea party.
This is custom in Colombia, where coffee is designed for leisurely sipping.
No venti lattes here.
“Cheers!” Andres exclaims.
We raise our little cups in a toast, the universal symbol of camaraderie.
The Humble Coffee Bean
Andres clears his throat, and the rest of us get quiet.
“Everything starts with a seed”
We lean in like children at story-time.
Andres tells us that it takes about two months for this little seed, under careful tending, to grow into a sprout that then produces little rounded leaves.
“Como una chapola!”
He spreads his hands to mimic the wings of a butterfly.
At this point it must be planted with plenty of room to grow under the soil, otherwise its roots will get twisted and it won’t grow straight.
And crooked trees are worthless to a coffee farmer.
The straight ones will continue to grow one pair of leaves each month, and when they reach four months of age, they are transplanted outside where they continue to grow and mature until they produce little flowers that “smell a bit like jasmine.”
Andres plucks a tiny object off the table and raises it in the air dramatically.
“Three days after the flowers emerge,” he says,
“You get this beautiful little bean!”
Nena pours us more coffee.
It’s strong, and as much of a coffee addict as I am, I can feel my nerves starting to tingle and my heart thumping in my chest.
Jus when I’m starting to wish I had something to absorb all this caffeine, Andres pulls out some donuts he bought from a little shop on the way and passes them around.
They are homemade, coated with sugar, and delicious.
Next Andres lines up little beans in a neat row on the table and describes their growth, showing us how their color transforms from a vibrant green to a deep red.
Nine months from conception, the “coffee cherries” will be ready for picking.
“Just like a human baby!”
We all smile.
Andres’ enthusiasm is contagious.
He adds up the math for us, reviewing all the life stages and how long they take.
Depending on the variety of coffee, it can take between two and four years for a coffee plant to finally produce mature beans.
Andres describes some of the threats these little beans face on the long road to maturity.
Tiny beetles called coffee berry borers can burrow into mature cherries, resulting in damaged beans that fall prematurely and have a bitter and fermented taste.
Mealy bugs can wreak havoc on crops by secreting sticky substances that lead to formation of black mold.
Coffee leaf rust is a worldwide problem.
Caused by a fungus that thrives in warm, humid conditions it causes extensive damage to crops.
And unpredictable weather patterns due to CLIMATE CHANGE certainly aren’t making the situation any easier for these already highly sensitive plants.
As Andres tells us all of this, I find it a miracle that any of these beans actually make it to my cup.
He holds up a coffee cherry that has a distinctive hole in its side, the aftermath of a borer beetle.
“This, my friends” he says with dramatic flair.
“Is your instant coffee!”
The Coffee Production Process
Energized by the carbs and caffeine, we head out into the rows of coffee trees to try our hand at PICKING BEANS.
Jose watches over us, kindly scrutinizing our technique and offering advice when needed.
I’m distracted by a sweet puppy that’s following me around, chewing on my shoelaces, and when it comes time to head in and show our yields, Nena takes one look at my pathetic little pile of coffee beans and shakes her head.
“Yo jamas contratarte!”
She says with a laugh that is contagious.
I agree, I probably wouldn’t hire me either.
We continue our tour and discover what it takes to get the mature beans ready for the roasting process.
It turns out there is still a long journey ahead for these future cups of coffee.
The cherries must be de-pulped, dried, separated by weight, and fermented.
After this entire process is done, the beans must be evaluated and defective ones removed.
In smaller operations without the benefit of big machinery, the beans are examined grano a grano, or bean by bean.
It’s only at the very end of our coffee tour that we see the room where the beans are roasted.
Andres explains that this coffee farm is unique in that the beans are roasted on-site rather than being shipped elsewhere.
I think of all the beans it takes to make my morning cup of coffee.
“Who examines all of these beans before roasting?”
Andres gestures toward Nena and Jose.
I picture the couple gathering in their living room after a long day of coffee farming, settling down to examine the beans, grano a grano.
I imagine they must close their eyes at night and dream of coffee beans.
Too soon it is time to leave the farm, and we say our goodbyes, besos y abrazos like old friends.
I pet the dogs one last time.
I tell Nena that if she ever changes her mind, I’d be happy to work for her up here in this little slice of heaven.
She laughs and says I’m welcome to visit anytime.
I leave the farm that day with a pound of fresh coffee in my hand, a head buzzing from so much caffeine, and a completely new perspective of coffee farming.
A Closer Look at Colombia’s Coffee Industry
On the ride home, Andres’ enthusiastic, cheerful demeanour sobers a bit as he describes an industry “crisis” affecting smaller, family-owned farms like the one we just visited.
As if the inherent difficulty of growing coffee plants wasn’t enough, Colombia’s coffee farmers also face threats from the industry itself.
A “boom and bust” cycle of productivity, due to unpredictable weather, disease, and other factors, means that the coffee production varies considerably from year to year.
This instability makes it difficult for smaller operations to compete with big plantations such as in the coffee regions of Brazil and Vietnam, where huge spikes in productivity (often of lower quality coffee) can subsequently decrease profits for small operations to a level that is unsustainable.
Coffee produced by smaller farms can always be replaced with cheaper alternatives, while the smaller farms cannot lower their own prices any further or they will not survive.
And even if supply and demand were on a consistently even field, the farmers still don’t see much of a profit.
The world coffee industry sees revenues over $200 billion a year.
However, only $20 billion actually reaches the country where the product originates, and of this, less than 10% actually ends up in the hands of those growing the beans.
The demand for coffee certainly isn’t going anywhere.
But what will happen if more and more coffee farmers continue to abandon ship in search of a more sustainable income?
There is NO SIMPLE ANSWER, but there are some possible solutions out there.
One is to promote the consumption of coffee in the countries where it is produced.
Interestingly enough, the majority of high quality Colombian coffee is exported for use in other countries.
I was shocked when I first arrived in Cartagena and ordered a cup of coffee, anticipating an exquisite Arabica blend, only to be served a steaming mug of Folger’s.
Another solution may be to promote direct relationships between growers and roasters as well as direct purchasing from smaller farms at a fair price.
This goes hand in hand with the need for big buyers to offer fair prices and stop bombarding the market with low quality, cheaper alternatives.
As consumers, we should pay attention to the source of our coffee and buy from companies that promote Fair Trade.
We may spend a little more for our coffee, but in the end we will be supporting the sustainability of a higher quality product.
Supporting Colombia’s Coffee Farmers Through Coffee Tourism
There is one more thing we can do to help.
As the tourist industry continues to expand in places like Colombia, more and more smaller coffee farms are offering private tours of their facilities as a way to not only educate the public but also provide an additional source of income.
So if you happen to be visiting Medellin, Colombia (or other regions of the world where coffee is produced) I encourage you to book a tour.
“Ma’am, can I help you?”
Back in Ohio, I pull my eyes from the map on the wall and step up to the counter, asking for a large coffee.
“Make it the Colombian blend today” I say with a smile.
And as I head out into that gray wintery day, cradling my warm beverage, I’m thinking of Nena and Jose, somewhere on that map.
Examining beans, one by one.
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