Arabica coffee, the good stuff, grows well under certain conditions: it needs to be in the tropics, at a particular altitude range, in volcanic soil, and in a place that has quite a bit of rain. One of the world’s more perfect confluences of these factors can be found in Colombia’s zona cafetera, or coffee zone. This is the birthplace of Juan Valdez (his parents, though, are a marketing association), where the majority of the country’s most important legal cash crop is grown, and quickly exported to other countries.
Coffee country is a green place. It rains a lot here, and that combined with the fertile soil and equatorial sun makes plant life go a little bit nuts. Coffee is far from the only thing that thrives, and the brilliant, almost fluorescent shades of green in the countryside are astounding. Sprinkle in some enthusiastically colored flowers, rivers flowing through lush valleys, and mountains rising up into the clouds, and you’ll have a rough idea of what this place is like.
The term “coffee zone” refers to a big area of the country, so we decided to focus our explorations around the small country town of Salento. It’s popular with both foreign and Colombian tourists, and on the weekend the place was buzzing. The main street especially felt quite touristy and was filled with expensive boutique shops, and we saw lots of cosmopolitan-looking Colombians wearing recently purchased wool serapes and cowboy hats over their designer jeans; we decided it was this country’s equivalent of an “I Heart NY” tee shirt. On weekdays though Salento reverted back to the sleepy little town that we’d been expecting, and we had fun walking around the town square and the back streets, buying empanadas and various sweet treats and saying hi (buenas!) to everybody.
Most of the Colombian food we’ve seen so far is relatively bland. It’s not at all spicy like Mexican food, and really not that varied either: for those of us on a budget the defining meal is something called a “comida corriente,” which is a set meal consisting of soup, then a plate filled with rice, beans, a veggie mixture, fried plantains, fried bready things, and some kind of meat or fish, which is also often fried. The deep fryer is a very important culinary tool here. Anyway there are lots of variations on this meal, but it’s usually basically the same thing. Most people eat it for lunch and it’s a big plate of food, designed to be the main meal of the day. In Salento we were very happy to find a little place called Rincon de Lucy, where they did an especially good comida corriente for just over $3, with local trout an option for the meat dish. It was really good food, still a comida corriente but done extremely well. We ate there every day.
We stayed at a popular hostel called the Plantation House, owned by a British expat named Tim. It was a pretty place with a very basic room for an OK price, but what we really enjoyed was Tim’s tour of his newly purchased working coffee farm just down the street. He calls it Don Eduardos, and he leads people on really fascinating tours of the place, giving us a nice overview of how coffee is grown. Here’s a condensed version of what he told us:
There are two main kinds of coffee plants, Robusta and Arabica. Robusta has more caffeine, can be grown more places more easily, and doesn’t taste as good. Arabica beans make a much better cup of coffee, and is the only kind of coffee grown in Colombia. There are many different species of Arabica coffee, originating from all over the world, and most of them traditionally need shade to thrive. Unsurprisingly, in the last couple decades people have been messing around with coffee plants in laboratories, making hybrid varieties that are in some ways better. These so-called “modern varieties” produce more coffee, can be grown closer together (also producing more coffee for a given area), and don’t require shade. They also need much more fertilizer, and it is generally agreed that they don’t taste as good. Apparently the general quality of Colombian coffee has declined over the years coinciding with the large scale switch to these modern varieties.
In Colombia coffee beans are graded by size alone; big beans sell for more money. The majority of the coffee picked is sold to distributors where it is mixed together and graded solely by bean size, with no regard given to whether it is a traditional or modern variety, or an unusually good tasting or average species. It’s a strange system, especially since no one claims that bigger beans taste any better. It also obviously encourages the cultivation of the prolific but sub-par modern varieties of coffee.
Coffee plants will grow to be trees if they’re allowed, but it makes the coffee difficult to pick so they’re generally kept to the size of a large shrub. The plants produce red or yellow berries, each of which contains two seeds- coffee beans. We chewed on some berries and they tasted vaguely sweet, due to a sugar content that is removed by a process called washing. The coffee beans are removed from the berries by running them through a separator machine, and then the beans are soaked in water until it starts to ferment, removing the sugar content which can otherwise leave undesirable flavors. The water is drained and the beans are sun dried.
When the coffee is washed some of the beans will float to the surface; these are inferior beans and are marked for domestic consumption. Traveling in Colombia we’ve been surprised to find that the coffee isn’t usually that great; that’s because most of the good stuff is set aside for export- it’s an important cash crop.
We chewed on some of Tim’s dried beans, and they had no taste; just hard plant matter. They were light green in color, and most coffee is exported in that state because it will last almost a year before degrading. From there two thin husks still need to be removed, and then the beans are roasted. Its a surprisingly basic but apparently easy to screw up process: just keep the beans moving while they’re being heated. You can do it on a stovetop, but large scale operations use rotating drums inside ovens. The longer you roast the beans, the darker they get. Dark roasts are stronger tasting and more bitter, and also have less caffeine. Colombian coffee is traditionally roasted lightly. Those roasted beans are what you buy at the grocery store.
Sorry if all that put you to sleep, but we found it fascinating to see and learn about it in person. Don Eduardo’s coffee farm was 7 hectares of steeply sloped hills filled with coffee, pineapple, banana, berries, giant bamboo, and flowers. It was absolutely gorgeous and had fantastic views of the valley below, and a stream with several waterfalls running through it. Tim bought the place two years ago for $50,000 usd. He’s got some interesting business ideas involving selling boutique strains of coffee direct to people overseas. We spent a couple hours walking around the place in a drenching rain, eating bananas off the trees and looking around, trying not to go sliding down the hillsides.
Another morning we piled into an old Willy’s Jeep with seven other people to drive about half an hour to the Valle de Cocora, a famous valley filled with Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm. It’s an unusual palm tree, very slender and much taller than normal palms, and they’re all over the place in this area. The brilliant greens of the grasses and other plants, combined with the wispy wax palms, and soft artist’s light filtering through mist, make for a very otherworldly feeling to the place, and it’s indescribably beautiful. We took some decent photos, but they don’t come close to doing it justice. From the valley floor we followed a well worn path up and up into the cloud forest, eventually reaching a nature preserve headquarters where an older couple who live here as caretakers fed us hot chocolate and cheese.
Our last night in town we wandered over to the local tejo court. Tejo is a game along the same lines as horseshoes, but approximately 100 times as fun. You throw a conical metal weight at a target area of about four by four feet, propped up at a 45 degree angle and filled with clay. In the center of the clay are little paper triangles filled with gunpowder, and if you hit them they explode. Loudly and with a big flash. Even when we expected the explosions, they were loud enough that we still jumped about a foot in the air. Points are earned in a variety of ways and you play to thirty, but really it’s about the explosions. And did I mention that tejo court time is free? You just pay for the beers that you’re required to drink while you play. Open a tejo court in any college town in the US, and avoid getting sued, and you will shortly be rich. It’s truly the finest game we know of.