The thing our friend AJ was most excited to see in Colombia was coffee fields. As the former owner of a coffeehouse, AJ knows all about how to turn roasted beans into a great cup of coffee. But she knew less about what happens to those beans before they get to the United States.
To learn, we spent two nights at Hacienda Guayabal, a three-generations-old coffee farm near the town of Chinchina. There, a terrific English-speaking guide took us step by step through the coffee production process, from bush to cup.
Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee producer, after Brazil and Vietnam. It has a reputation for growing exceptionally high-quality beans, most of which are exported to the United States, Europe, and Japan. Coffee is a huge part of Colombian culture. Colombians drink it throughout the day, traditionally in the form of a very low-quality, strong, sweet, black coffee known as tinto (often sold out of a big thermos by a street vendor). Better-quality coffee is starting to become more popular with wealthier Colombians, but the best-quality beans are still generally exported.
Do you remember ads on U.S. television featuring Juan Valdez, the mustachioed Colombian farmer leading his mule through the coffee fields? Juan is a big deal here. He was invented by Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers in the late 1950s and helped cement the country’s global reputation as a producer of fine coffee. His image appears on the federation’s signs and in its nationwide chain of Juan Valdez coffee shops, which are Colombia’s equivalent of Starbucks.
Coffee in Colombia is grown on steep hillsides, mostly on small, family-owned farms (about 500,000 in all). Virtually all of them produce arabica coffee beans, which tend to be milder, less bitter, and lower in caffeine than the other main species of coffee, robusta. Colombia’s geography is considered ideal for growing Arabica coffee, with high altitudes near the equator, mild temperatures, volcanic soil, regular rain, and no frost. Another thing that distinguishes Colombian coffee is that it is picked entirely by hand, rather than by machine, so it contains a much higher percentage of fully ripe beans.
As we learned at Hacienda Guayabal, there are 10 main steps in producing Colombian coffee, all of which are very labor intensive:
1) Coffee plants are started in nurseries from beans; when the seedlings get big enough, they are planted on hillsides 1 meter (about 3 feet) apart. That spacing ensures that pickers always have room to move between the rows of trees. Plants don’t start producing coffee beans for another two years. During that time, they are shaded by taller plants, such as banana or palm trees (which are sometimes cut down for convenience once the coffee plants start producing beans).
2) Coffee plants produce beans for five years and then are cut back to regrow for two years. After three of those seven-year cycles, the plants are uprooted and replaced with new seedlings.
3) Coffee cherries—the fruit surrounding the beans—are harvested twice a year by pickers who try to select only cherries that have ripened to red or yellow. A good picker can pick 100 to 200 pounds of fruit per day (they’re paid by the pound, though we didn’t find out how much). Women are considered better pickers than men, so they tend to earn more. At Hacienda Guayabal, the pickers are seasonal laborers who live in cottages scattered among the fields and who move between Colombia’s different coffee-growing regions every few months. The work is arduous, lasting from daybreak until about 5 p.m., taking place on steep slopes, often in the rain.
4) The day’s pickings are dumped into a giant trough and then sent through a machine that removes the outer shell and fruit around the bean. (These are saved and composted for use as a really smelly fertilizer.)
5) The deshelled cherries are soaked in water for 24 hours to remove the thin layer of mucus surrounding the beans, which also removes some of the caffeine. The beans are then separated by weight: The best-quality beans sink to the bottom, while beans that have had holes bored in them by pests are lighter and float on top.
6) After separating, the beans are dried—out in the sun (on small farms) or in ovens (as at Hacienda Guayabal). Drying preserves the beans, turning them from a gray-greenish color to a yellowish tan.
7) Dried beans are bagged and sent to the local branch of the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, a nonprofit trade association that buys and sells almost all of Colombia’s coffee. The federation ensures export standards for Colombian coffee, creates and maintains infrastructure, and sponsors research. It also runs a tracking system so that importers can trace beans to the individual farm where they were grown.
8) At the federation’s plant, beans go through a machine that removes their papery husks (like the ones around peanuts or almonds). The husks from Hacienda Guayabal’s beans are sent back to the farm, which uses them to fuel its drying ovens.
9) The dehusked beans are graded by color and size according to an elaborate classification system that the federation uses to ensure the quality and consistency of different grades of Colombian beans.
10) Unroasted (green) beans are shipped to roasters, usually overseas. Different roasts—light, medium, and dark—mean the bean was roasted at a lower or higher temperature. The amount of caffeine in the coffee declines as the roast gets darker. After that, the roasted beans go to all kinds of coffee sellers and then into your cup.
As part of our coffee tour at Hacienda Guayabal, we got to spend some time picking coffee cherries in the fields. Melissa was declared to be a pretty good picker, so if this editing and photography stuff doesn’t work out for her, she has another career option available.
Our coffee education in Colombia wasn’t all serious business, though. We also spent a day at the Parque del Cafe, where we watched coffee-themed folk dances and rode everything from sedate carousels to vertiginous rollercoasters set among coffee-covered hillsides. In between rides, of course, we stopped for coffee and pastries at the inevitable Juan Valdez cafe.