Everything I Learned About Coffee in Columbia

When you think of Colombia there are two consumable products that start with “C” that come to mind and one of them is Coffee! Anywhere there is coffee and tourists in Colombia, there are coffee farm tours. We had a great time on some cocoa tours in Costa Rica and love learning about local things while traveling so went on a couple of them. Here is what we learned:

Where does coffee come from?

There are two main branches of coffee beans consumed in the world are Arábica (70%) and Robusta (30%). Arábica makes up most of the gourmet coffee beans you find around the world as they are known as higher quality, sweeter/smoother and more delicate. The story often told is that Arábica beans were the first type of coffee discovered in Ethiopia when a shepherd noticed his goats acting more energetic than normal and having trouble sleeping. Our shepherd followed the goats one day and observed them consuming the fruits of Arabica coffee plants. Taking these fruits back to his village, they began experimenting with them and experiencing the energetic joys of caffeine themselves. Coffee culture was born.

While Arábica is grown at elevations of 2,500-7,000 ft, Robusta is grown lower at 0-3,000 ft. The caffine concentration range of Robusta is about twice that of Arabica (1.7-3.5% vs 0.8-1.5%) and that is one reason it is considered hardier by being more resistant to insects. Robusta is native to the Congo and because it is considered more bitter, with higher caffeine, it makes up the majority of instant coffee.

Despite South America being well known for coffee production (Brazil at #1 with ~25% and Colombia at #3 with 8%), these coffee beans are actually not native to the continent since these plants are from Africa. Also surprisingly, many top coffee exporters produce no coffee at all but do the roasting and grinding there (Switzerland #2, Germany #4, Italy #6). Also, the most coffee consumed per person is not in any of the places I associate most with coffee culture like Italy, France, the major coffee producers or the US. While the US does consume by far the most coffee by volume… Surprising (or not), it is actually the colder Northern European countries who consume the most per person with Finland often topping the list with 4 cups per person per day!

How is coffee grown?

A bed of plants both sprouting (brown bulbs) and in the ‘small plant’ stage before potting

In the 6,000-7,000 ft growing range of cloud forest which once dominated the very popular tourist town of Salento, Colombia there are well over a dozen coffee tours. Most the information we learned in Salento at Ocaso was identical to what we learned in our first coffee tour lower down and closer to the coast outside of Minca (2,000-5,000 ft) at La Candelaria. So, in Colombia this is generally how its Arábica beans are produced.

First you buy planting coffee beans from a certified farm that only grows and certifies the highest quality beans. Then you grow the plant in a bed until it reaches a few inches, then a for a while in a pot, then in a field, allowing the plant to grow for three years. Then comes five years of production / harvesting with the middle year being the highest quantity (quality is considered consistent over those years). After the fifth year of harvest (plant lifetime: 8 years), the coffee plant is cut down and allowed to grow another three years before another five year harvest cycle two more times. After these three harvest periods (~24 years), the plant is then taken out and a new one is planted.

A coffee plant with green unripe fruit

The main challenges for coffee plantations are the Coffee Leaf Rust (a fungus) and the Coffee Berry Borer (an insect which uses the coffee fruits for reproduction). There have been several epidemics of Coffee Leaf Rust across Colombia’s coffee plantations and a Colombian university has created a hybrid of Arábica and Robusta which can better deal with this fungus. If a few plants have it, it seemed like not a big deal. However, if a big area have it then another counter-fungus is used to combat it.

Some fungus found on the property of a coffee farm

Coffee Berry Borers on the other hand burrow into the the coffee fruit and plant their larvae which feed on the coffee fruit and bean. The common approaches to reducing infestation are ensuring all fruits are collected during harvesting so these left-over fruits cannot host borer populations, spraying a fungus which infects these borers or releasing non-reproducing wasps from Africa which target the borers. We’ll talk more about what happens to coffee beans infested by the borers later. 

How is coffee made?

While the harvest time of year varies depending on local factors like elevation, climate, etc. there can be two harvests a year. The coffee fruits are green when they are not developed and typically red, orange or yellow in color when ripe. For Arábica coffee grown on mountainsides in Colombia this is typically done by hand and workers are paid by the kilogram. Brazil can attribute its massive production in part to less mountainous areas for plantations which can be harvested by machine.

A bunch of ripe coffee beans

These red coffee fruits are kind of like a hard cherry with the large beans inside. In Minca we were able to take coffee fruits all the way to a cup of coffee in the (mostly) traditional method without any machines. That is, except for the roasting which we accelerated using a custom ‘boutique, small batch roaster’ improvised out of an alcohol stove and parts of an old small washer machine and microwave (picture an all-metal front-loading drier contraption the size of a large kettle with an alcohol stove burning underneath it).

Anyways, first the coffee fruit is peeled to expose the bean (coffee fruit anatomy).

De-pulping machine separating beans and fruit

For its other part, while there is often two beans, in a low-single-percentage of the time there can be a single “Peaberry” bean (the most prized because it has higher concentration) or even three beans (even less common). Then the beans are immersed in a water trough so that lower quality (Grade 2, Pastilla) beans float to easily sort them from higher quality (Grade 1). Why do lower quality beans have different density? Often because they have been infected by the Coffee Berry Borer larvae… In Colombia 95% of Grade 1 coffee is exported and most coffee (outside of nice cafes) is more likely this Grade 2 which also is more often used in instant coffee.

I think this is the original Juan Valdez imagery?

If you picture a mustached man with a stripped poncho and a tan hat when you think of coffee. That is Juan Valdez, the curated Colombian coffee farmer image which is supposed to be an indication of Grade 1 Colombian coffee. (Fun fact, the original Juan Valdez actor was actually Cuban, although later Juan Valdez’s were actually Colombian coffee farmers)

Back to coffee. On the industrial scale, the beans are next sorted by size using a vibrating table with different sized holes to sort the mono-, dual- and triple- beans from each other since the mono-bean “Peaberry” is extra prized and the triple less-so. Then the ‘first shell’ (the sweet mucilage) is often removed before the beans are placed in a barrel to ferment (more about fermentation later). The mucilage is typically discarded typically as compost, but does have a little caffeine so is sometimes used for jam or tea. After fermentation, the beans are dried. In Salento, our farm dried them for 13-15 days in a greenhouse but in Minca the farm dried them part by sun and part by furnace to speed up the process. 

At this part the ‘second shell’ (parchment/husk/cisco) is cracked and the bean needs to be husked. The traditional method is using a wooden mortar and 2.5 ft long wooden pestle to break off the shells and then air-panned the husk into the air by hand to leave only the beans. In Salento, their machine does this and collects the dried husk to be used as fuel for the roasters so the beans don’t pick up other flavors during roast from burning other materials.

Now that we have a de-husked, sorted by quality and size bean, it can be exported to those countries that are not coffee producers but are coffee exporters who do the roasting and then sell it as coffee. …or it can be roasted by the farm or in-country and then sold as beans or ground.

How does a coffee bean from the same species taste different?

One important factor for why there is so much variation of the subtle flavors of coffee is that the soil and environment play a factor. Some examples given were elevation, climate or for example, farms with a specific type of volcanic soil or nearby citrus trees. However, it seemed like most of the flavor comes from variations of fermentation and roasting processes.

While farms can and do develop their own special fermentation processes, there are three main types: 

  • Natural – fermentation with the skin on (more fruity)
  • Lavado (i.e. Washed) – skin/pulp and mucilage removed, then the beans are washed before fermented (more sweet)
  • Honey – Skin/pulp removed but mucilage left on for fermentation (nutty, Carmel)
Beans of different methods

An example of a custom fermentation is Passion 300, which was invented by Ocaso using a double fermentation of natural and then honey with 300 total hours of fermentation. Another example might be extended fermentations in the 500-600 hrs range.If you know a little about coffee, you know roasting is a big deal and that roasts range from light to dark. While the Minca farm just raised the beans to a temperature for a given time (and didn’t talk about fuel choice). The Ocaso farm has a whole temperature profile where it first put the beans to a consistent temperature before starting to raise the temperature over a given time and then holding it at their roasting temperature for a specified number of minutes (7-8 min for light, 10 min for medium, 14-15 min for dark). It also only used the bean-husk (cisco) for fuel to avoid introducing other flavors.

How can I recognize Grade 1 coffee?

As said before, Grade 1 coffee from Colombia is typically marked with the Juan Valdez imagery. However, other ways to figure it out are to only get beans since ground coffee is easier to blend. Also, Grade 1 coffee will contain more of the important information mentioned above like fermentation, flavor profile, region instead of just roast. Finally, avoid dark roasts since they can more easily hide imperfections and lower quality beans.

Why is there so much similar but not exact information online about coffee production?

There is actually a lot of ‘mostly accurate’ information online which confuses what I say here, but this is what I heard firsthand and it is as fact checked as I could. For example, this reference of the anatomy of a coffee fruit/bean is pretty good, but probably this article describing the different fermentation processes has the best discussion of the anatomy of a coffee fruit since most references only talk about the mucilage and not the parchment (second shell).

Also, this is an organic process originating in many different cultures across the world and many small farms. So while there did seem to be some consistencies, I also found some inconsistencies in processes or order of processes as described in just two tours in different regions (Minca, Salento) of a single country (Colombia).

…and now, onto coffee cupping.