My parents never let me drink coffee as a child, even though I begged. Finally, in a ploy to cure me of my curiosity, when I was eleven years old they let me try coffee for the first time. It was disgusting. I vowed to never again allow that bitter brew to cross my lips.
I’m so glad we are allowed to change our opinions, especially because I now live in a country where coffee is so important that the coffee producing region has been declared a World Heritage Site.
Experiencing coffee in Colombia, however, is not at all Starbucks and double-doubles.
Small sips of warm, sweet, milky, cafe con leche. Syrupy shots in tiny plastic glasses. Grounds boiled in a metal pot, balanced between two bricks, over the fire. The mug on my desk that I drink from all morning. Coffee cherries picked from a bush in the back yard. Giant urns filled with weak coffee poured over reused grounds at retreat centres. A cappuccino with perfectly steamed milk. A jar of Nescafe sitting on the counter at a coffee farm. A white porcelain cup and saucer emblazoned with Cafe colombiano on the side, served with a sugar packet by the “general service” lady at meetings.
Producing all of this coffee is back-breaking work, as we learned on a recent coffee farm tour in Salento. Tiny seedlings are planted on steep gradients. Pickers generally work long hours in the rain, filling the baskets tied around their waists with pounds of ripe coffee cherries. The cherries are then hulled, soaked several times to remove sugar, and finally dried. Depending on the farm, the beans are either sold to the local branch of the Colombian Coffee Federation, or specialty roasted.
Farm owners are faced with numerous choices throughout the process. Arabic plants (better taste) or Robusta (higher yields)? Many farmers over crowd their plants and chemically fertilize heavily. While higher yields are produced, eventually the soil runs out of nutrients. Erosion is common. World market prices, however, heavily influence the lives of thousands of Colombians. A glut on the market from Vietnam or new trade policies with the United States makes a big difference in how much food kids living in the coffee region will have to eat. Strikes dominated the news last year. Unsustainable farming practices are justified in the minds of many as a way to make ends meet in the midst of uncertainty.
Coffee is present in every aspect of daily routine. This is true whether one lives on a coffee farm or works in an office. Breakfast is served with cafe con leche and the day ends with a small black tinto, to “help you sleep.” I have never heard a single Colombian claim that drinking coffee will stunt growth. Kids drink coffee, mixed with milk and sugar, all the time.
I frequent the upscale shops on the Parkway and in Cartagena, where I can choose how I would like my single origin beans brewed. Would the seño like espresso, french press, syphon, pour-over or areo-press? Yet for the majority of Colombians, coffee-house traditions are not part of their daily routine and do not fit into a household budget. It is telling that coffee tours and tastings are given in English and that crowds of us, with our fancy cameras and backpacks, rush to take pictures of every step in the process, while Colombian grandmothers sip on weak Nescafe.
Colombian ranks 2nd worldwide for coffee production. Most is for export. Nationals generally drink Sello Rojo, produced out of the leftover beans that were not good enough for fancy northern coffee shops. Some claim that the quality of the beans is so bad, the grounds are mixed with dried cow blood to provide at least some colour, even if there is no flavour.
The more I travel, the more I encounter people who are trying to change that. For example, Café Mujer in Córdoba, Quindío is a women’s cooperative that is trying to empower women coffee producers and also form a coffee culture were Colombians learn to distinguish between good and bad coffee. The organization wants high quality, export level coffee to be available at a reasonable price for the Colombians who produce it.
It seems only fair. After all, I have gained a new appreciation for my daily joe by learning about the journey from producer to consumer . Now, when I sip my coffee, however it is served, I remember the entire process contained in my cup.