Most people grab their coffee to-go, fill it with sugar, then repeat the next day, but do you know where your coffee comes from? I mean the good, real kind. Not the vente latte or McCafé you line up for at the drive-thru.
On my recent trip to Colombia, I went on a Medellin coffee farm tour where I got to see the process of producing coffee, meet the farmers, pick coffee cherries, plant new coffee trees, and see the daily life of a Colombian coffee cooperative. Being coffee-obsessed, this forever changed my coffee-drinking experience.
The coffee finca is a sustainable working farm run by a sixth generation family in Fredonia. Fredonia is an important region because it was the first coffee village to export coffee from Colombia.
The main harvest season is from October-December with a smaller harvest April-May. When it’s not harvest season, the farmers plant, maintain the land, and offer tours to supplement their income.
From Seed to Cup
Fruit trees. Coffee is actually a fruit! They start from seeds, turn into white flowers on a coffee tree, then grow into fruits that look like small cherries. The fruits change colour from green to yellow, then bright or dark red when they are finally ripe, usually every six months.
Each cherry holds two beans inside which are called green beans (the brown coffee beans you are used to seeing happen during the roasting stage).
Picking the cherries. We got to roam through the coffee fields and actually help pick some of the cherries. Coffee cherries are picked twice a year, usually spring and fall. You have to be very careful to take only the ripe red ones; pick from the bud and not the stem of the plant, otherwise you can harm the next harvest.
Separating the Beans. This is where the beans are separated from the cherries and go through a processing method, dry or wet. Essentially both processes will separate each skin layers from the cherry, and the good beans from the bad ones to make them ready for export.
Check out my video from my coffee farm experience in Colombia
Why Coffee is Important in Colombia
During the war, farmers were forced by rebels to stop growing coffee on their own land, in favour of cocaine production instead. Even after Pablo Escobar was killed and the war ended, many farmers are still struggling to transition back and make enough money to survive. There is progress. About two years ago the government started providing farmers a subsidy of about $300 per month to not grow coca plants, as well as training to learn new agricultural systems on their land.
More farmers are also producing higher specialty grade beans which they can sell to independent cafés willing to pay them a more fair price (unlike commercial places like Starbucks or McCafés – more on this in a future post).
So, when you buy fair trade coffee or take a tour at an independent coffee farm in Colombia you are directly helping that farmer and his family earn an honest living.
What You Didn’t Know About Colombian Coffee
Coffee is to Colombia what apple pie is to America. After all, the country is the third largest producer of coffee in the world (after Brazil and Vietnam) and farmers produce about 11 million bags of coffee each year, but did you know that, most people who live in Colombia actually drink bad coffee?
That’s because the best coffee in Colombia has always been exported to other countries. This is not always the choice of producers but the Colombia Coffee Federation. Unfortunately there is more money to be made by selling it to richer countries so locals drink whatever is leftover for domestic consumption, which is low quality and defective beans that taste sour and bitter. That’s why you will likely find the best Colombian coffee in your own city than if you travelled to Colombia. The day-to-day coffee that Colombians drink, called tinto, is actually terrible (think instant store bought coffee).
Things are beginning to change though. Tons of coffee places are popping up in the El Poblado and Laureles neighbourhoods of Medellin where café owners work closely with local farmers to support their labour and help keep some of the good coffee from getting shipped away. Coffee consumption may be low but the coffee culture here is taking off.
Why Colombian Coffee is so Damn Good
Climate. The spring-like temps mean Colombia sees little change in its climate throughout the year, especially in Medellin where it is the City of Eternal Spring. It makes for perfect conditions for harvesting tasty coffee.
Elevation. Coffee in Colombia grows at some of the highest elevation, as much as 2,000 metres above sea level. The high altitude and steep slopes mean the beans become more complex in flavour and aroma than the cheaper, Robusta kind produced on flat, low level land. The Luna Llena coffee farm I visited is situated 1,450 metres high.
Hand-picked. Colombian coffee is a completely manual process. Because of the high elevation, Colombian farmers cannot use big, heavy, high-tech machinery or equipment on the hills so everywhere in Colombia the coffee must be hand-picked – each and every single bean! It means more attention is given to each bean making it harder for a bad, defective bean to make its way into a good quality batch.
Coffee pickers or chapoleras pick about 150kg of beans, up to 8 hours a day during the peak harvest season. At this farm it is only 60kg because they take extra attention.
Arabica. Colombia is one of the few countries that grows only Arabica beans which means you won’t find any lower quality Robusta here (only the good stuff).
How to Drink Coffee in Colombia
- Don’t get coffee to-go. Colombians are very chill people who like to meet friends and relax in coffee shops rather than walk around with a take-out cup. Plus, why would you want to drink coffee out of a paper cup?
- Starbucks are few and far between here (thankfully). The American company hasn’t taken over the country, so most of the cafés you will find are independent micro roasters with 0km (real) beans.
- Gathering in cafés and on patios is still a relatively new practise for Colombians. Only about a decade ago, Colombians feared leaving their homes because of all the drugs, violence, and war especially in Comuna 13. In many ways, the people endured a lot for this kind of new freedom and they don’t take anything for granted.
It’s really important to know about the coffee we’re buying, where it comes from and who it impacts. I highly recommend taking a coffee tour because it will change your perspective on how you buy and drink coffee. Now, when I buy coffee, I can see the journey it took to get to my cup. I remember the farmer I met, who planted the coffee tree, whose hand personally picked the bean, washed and dried each one. I appreciate coffee more because I understand the hard work that was put into producing my cup 4,300 kilometres away.
Need to Know
If you’re into coffee as much as I am and the culture that comes with it, a Colombian coffee tour is must-do. I highly recommend doing the Medellin coffee farm tour by Toucan. The tour is a full day trip that takes you through the process of producing coffee in a fair, sustainable way. The company supports small cooperatives and independent growers so part of your money will go toward supporting them.
- Tour starts at the café in El Poblado at 8am where you start with a tour of the coffee museum
- It is a full day tour from Medellin, about 1.5 to 2 hours drive each way
- Wear comfortable hiking or walking shoes since you’ll be in the coffee fields
- Bring sunscreen and insect repellent
- The road gets a bit rough as you get closer to the farm and you’ll change into a 4X4 Jeep for about the final half hour – something to consider in case you get motion sickness
- This is one of the few tours I found where you get a traditional breakfast and lunch prepared for you. The tour also includes a coffee tasting at the end
- Don’t forget your pesos so you can take home some fresh Colombian coffee
- Coffee farms may differ depending on the season, but they are always real working farms run by a family
If you want to know everything there is about coffee from seed right to cup, I highly recommend the Medellin coffee farm tour. I was proud to be a guest of Toucan, which supports local and sustainable community cooperatives like this one.