Growing Coffee: Colombia Edition

I am currently traveling in Colombia, the world’s third largest producer of coffee last year, and I have fully immersed myself in all the joys of this flavorful, earthy beverage.

My friend Mark lives in Medellín, and he considers coffee to be one of the major food groups. The next stop on my journey from that beautiful city was to be the pueblo Salento, and Mark told my travel buddy and I that the best café in town was called Jesús Martín, where he wanted us to pick up some beans for him. His housemate also gave us a tip on where to get the best coffee farm tour, Finca Don Eduardo, which just so happens to be organic. Neither was disappointing.

If done well, from growing, processing and roasting the beans to creating a tasteful beverage and serving it, coffee is truly an art. I was a barista for six years and am unabashedly proud of my coffee history and latte art skills.

Finca Don Eduardo is over one hundred years old, but the current owner, who is originally from London, bought it six and a half years ago. He takes coffee much more seriously than he takes himself, and gives a fully immersive and informative tour of his farm and the process of producing good coffee.

The traditional coffee species of Colombia is Arabica, which originated in Ethiopa. For the best yield, it is normally grown between 1,200 and 1,600 meters. In Salento it is grown above that, at 2,000 meters. This is called high mountain coffee. It has less yield at this altitude, and according to Don Eduardo, better value.

He grows two varieties of traditional Arabica beans, Typica and Bourbon. These plants need shade, and the traditional way of planting them here is two meters apart with one row of shade plants such as bananas or plantains between every two rows of coffee.

Modern hybrids are being grown more and more in Colombia. These are Arabica bred with Robusta for several benefits to the farmer. The plants are smaller and don’t need shade, so they can be planted a meter apart and don’t need to be intercropped with plantains and bananas. They are also more pest resistant, and produce larger beans and a higher yield. Farmers here need all the help they can get, so modern hybrids and monocropping are replacing the traditional coffee varieties and growing methods.

Finca Don Eduardo grows their own seedlings, germinating them in a sandy medium to get healthy, straight roots. At about 12 weeks, they have a fósforo, and at 16 weeks a chapola. They then transplant into large, black plastic bags filled with soil and fertilizer. They use cut beer bottles to aid in placing the transplant without too much handling. One of the Colombian beers, Aguila, is said to be best for this because of its long neck—or maybe that’s what the workers prefer to drink!

At five months, the transplant is ready to go into the ground. This can be done at any time of year here, but it is usually done during the rainy season.

The traditional Arabica varieties need about five years before they can be harvested, then produce well for about ten-fifteen years. After this, they can be cut back and will produce again at a slightly lower rate. Modern hybrids need three years to begin producing, and then will produce for five-seven years before being cut back for another round.

The coffee cherries ripen about 36 weeks after flowering. This happens during the rainy season, so they need to be harvested in the pouring rain most of the time. They are harvested by hand into baskets strapped onto the pickers. The baskets have holes in the bottom to allow the water to drain out.

After harvest, the cherries are put into a despulpadora, which removes the skins from the bean. The skins are used to fertilize the soil.

The beans then go through a washing process during which they are soaked in drinking water (it must be good quality as this affects the final flavor). The floaters are removed as low-grade. When the water changes color and thickens like miel it means the sugars have been extracted from the beans. This is necessary to produce good flavor during the roasting process; if the sugars remain, the roast is uneven and burnt. The water is then changed repeatedly until it is clear. In some places here, a type of coffee wine is made with the honey-like water.

Traditionally, the beans are then dried in the sun on concrete because it absorbs heat well and releases it at a slow, even rate. It would take about three-five days to dry the beans in full sun. However, since coffee ripens and is harvested during the wet season here in Colombia, it usually needs to be covered to dry and takes about two-three weeks. The varieties are kept separate at Finca Don Eduardo, and can be up to eight inches deep, so they need to be moved around regularly with a rake in order to dry evenly.

At this stage the beans are called parchment coffee. A trilladora is used to remove the two skins left on the beans, the parchment skin and the silver skin, producing green coffee beans that are ready for roasting.

This is where the work of the farm normally ends, because the roasting is usually done as close to the consumption of coffee as possible. One reason for this is because it saves the farmer money on export. In addition, once the coffee is roasted it begins to degrade. On the other end, the cafés making the coffee typically prefer to have as much control as possible over the roasting process, as it affects the flavor and quality of the final product profoundly.

Traditionally in Colombia, the green coffee beans are dry roasted in a pan over high heat while stirring with a wooden spoon. The beans pop a bit, like popcorn, as they cook from the inside out. They must be removed from the heat before they are the color you want because they continue cooking for a bit. This requires much practice, seguro!

100 kilos of coffee cherries produces just 14 kilos of roasted coffee beans!

So, the next time you enjoy that espresso or latte made by your usual barista at your favorite café, think of all that goes into making that cup of coffee. Like wine, the flavor of coffee is affected by many things: the species and variety of the coffee plant, the growing region, the climate, the plants around it, what is in the soil, how it is fed and watered, how it is harvested, washed and dried, how it is roasted and stored, and finally how the actual beverage is made.

It’s pretty amazing, and you will probably enjoy drinking it that much more. I know I did!

¡Que rico!

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