A few months ago, a friend of mine invited me to travel to Colombia, and I jumped at the chance to spend some time on the beach and see how much Spanish I remembered from high school.
Given that drinking and knowing things about coffee is literally my job, I decided that I if I was going to a major coffee exporting country, I would have to pay a visit to one of their famous coffee farms.
After weeks of anticipation and planning, the day finally came, and there I was, in the back of a van driving through the mountains of Colombia’s Antioquia region, on the way to coffee country.
Settling in for the two hour drive from Medellin out to the small town of Concordia, I glued my face to the window and tried to imprint the breath-taking landscapes onto my memory.
When we arrived at the farm, we were immediately greeted by a friendly German Shepherd and like ten Jack Russells, several of which were puppies. We drank a much-needed cup of super fresh french-pressed java, and then we were off.
As our guide walked my tour group through the entire process from picking coffee off the trees to drying it and preparing it for roasting, I picked up a bunch of interesting factoids, some of which really surprised me.
1. The best coffee is grown on a slope
There’s a reason that the crops pictured below are planted on the sides of a mountain: it’s to allow runoff. Coffee grows best in extremely fertile soil, and the heavy rains found in tropical regions can wash the needed nutrients away.
However, when a coffee tree is planted on a slope, the water doesn’t pool, meaning the nutrients stay put.
2. Volcanoes are crucial
As mentioned above, coffee grows best in nutrient-heavy soil. Volcanic eruptions leave behind an ash known as andisol, which eventually mixes into the soil, creating some of the most fertile land on earth.
This is the reason places like Colombia and Hawaii, both of which have a long history of volcanic eruptions, produce some of the best coffee in the world.
3. The perfect climate for coffee growing is a mix of tropical and mountainous
There is a perfect storm of different environmental factors that are needed to create an optimal place for coffee growing, many of which derive from the combination of tropical and mountainous terrain.
The tropics provide warm humidity, and the mountains provide elevation that causes the temperature to drop significantly at night, affecting the natural chemicals that make coffee beans taste great.
4. Picking coffee is a HARD job
This sounds obvious, but when you’re standing out in the fields learning about their way of life, it really hits home that the migrant workers who pick coffee lead an extremely tough life. It’s physically taxing, and they have to pick an almost unfathomable volume of beans every day during the harvest time.
On top of that, they have to be selective, picking only those that are ripe and undamaged. For a whole host of reasons that we’ll explore further down, the farm owners are under a lot of pressure to produce quality beans.
When the pickers bring in their haul at the end of the day, the farmer examines the beans carefully. If they aren’t good enough, the pickers are in very real danger of being fired and replaced.
5. Coffee beans are vetted for quality, every step of the way
When a coffee farmer delivers his harvest to the co-op building where it is sold for export, it’s put under a lot of scrutiny. The farmer hauls in a big pile of 150-pound sacks, and the co-op takes a small sample from each. After mixing these in a big bowl, they take about 200 beans from the larger sample and inspect them, one by one.
Each bean is rated for its quality, and the sample is given a score, considered representative of the farmer’s full yield. This is a high pressure moment, as the price the co-op pays is very dependent on this examination – if the beans aren’t up to snuff, the pricepoint plummets.
Leading up to this final moment of truth, a lot goes on back at the farm to weed out low quality beans from the pickers’ haul. Size is a pretty good indicator, so they’re put through tubes of different sizes and separated. If a bean has been ruined by insects, it’s filled with air, so they also go through a long trough filled with water, to weed out any that float.
In the end, the lower-quality beans are still sold, but they’re split into groups by projected price – the best are exported to high quality roasters, the worst to the factories that make instant coffee. In the middle are a whole range of other buyers.
In short, coffee beans are segregated every step of the way – while being picked, before being dried and pulped, and while being sold for export. The result is that only the absolute best go into the coffee bought by high-quality coffee shops like the ones we work with, and it definitely shows in the flavor.
6. Coffee farmers are very resourceful
On the farm I visited, they made use of everything they could, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, the pulp that is removed from the outside of each coffee bean is used as fertilizer for the next year’s harvest.
At the farm we went to, they even had a small roasting setup, and sold their own brand of coffee to visitors (obviously I bought a big bag of it).
7. Most people in Colombia drink instant coffee
This one really surprised me. Although higher-end coffee has been catching hold in recent years, especially in the cities, most people in Colombia prefer cheap instant coffee. This is definitely due in part to its affordability, but there also seems to be a cultural preference for the milder blends, especially in rural areas.
My whole tour group was pretty surprised to find that in the kitchen at the farmhouse, there was a little bag of the local equivalent to Nescafe, despite incredibly fresh high-quality coffee being roasted in literally the next room.
8. Coffee trees flower
Most pictures you see of coffee growing show a green tree with red fruit, but at certain times of year, the coffee trees bloom with beautiful white flowers. I was lucky enough to visit during this time, and it was gorgeous.