I’ve been excited to go to Colombia since opening Black Coffee. Colombia is by all standards this hemisphere’s epicenter for coffee. And while Ethiopia holds the origination and title as the birthplace for coffee, Colombia has also taken coffee by the reins and become known as a deeply rooted coffee culture. We have had several really great coffees over the years from Colombia, and in the past have sold them as “Colombian, Single Origin” a general reference to not only geographic location, but also inherently a nod to quality standard. But I have wanted to know and see first hand what makes these coffees so good, and how coffees coming from the same place can have such vibrant differences.
First off, a lesson in geography. A geographer by training with a background in wine, I really should have been able to answer the question as to the dynamic range of coffees from Colombia on my own. But sometimes it takes seeing a place to realize its scale and reality. Like Peru. You can have no sense of the size of the place until you have been there to realize not only is it much bigger than you expect, but much different in terms of geography and topography. And sometimes that geography and topography add an element to scale and size that mere measurements on a map can not. Colombia, like Peru, is much larger than a map would lead you to believe. We think we have mountains in Montana… But in Colombia… There just is no comparison.
We first headed up north to visit an organic cooperative we’ve purchased from in the past in the Santa Marta area. The Anei have a twenty year history of selling coffee commercially, but a much longer history with the bean itself. Coffee grows wild in this part of Colombia. Thought to have been brought over by Jesuit priests in the 17th century, coffee was being traded commercially by the mid 1800’s. Colombia, which is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet is a natural place for coffee to grow, and suits the landscape well.
Located in the northern part of Colombia in the world’s highest coastal range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range is isolated from the rest of the Andes that run lengthwise through Colombia. It contains an incredible mix of landscapes from tropical rain forests to high alpine peaks and cloud forests. It is rich in biodiversity and has mix of indigenous tribes that inhabit the region, who along with more recently settled farmers have coexisted with coffee for hundreds of years. And while this region grows relatively little coffee commercially by comparison to other regions in Colombia, the quality here is amazing starting with the rich volcanic soils, but then added to by the incredible care of the people to whom growing coffee is as much a spiritual connection to the earth as it is a commercially viable product.
We visited the town of Jewrwa where the Arhuaco people have been living off the land since pre-colonization. In the mid and late 1900’s the Colombian government made at times a violent push into the region trying to pursue the agenda of forcing locals into taking on the more modern and commercially taxable livelihoods common throughout central Colombia. The tribes of the region have fought hard, both physically and spiritually to maintain their traditional background and ways of life, and when you visit you can see quickly the difference it makes in their day to day. All the coffees produced by the Anei coop, grown by indigenous and farmer members are grown by a set of bylaws that go far beyond what we think of as “organic,” and they hold several certifications as such. Walking through the village we not only got to witness how the coffee crop grows interspersed with their food in a healthy diverse ecosystem, (they grown 98% of locally) but also the way that coffee brings in money and is spread throughout the community with genuine impact. Coffee is their only sold commodity in this area. It is their only source of outside revenue. And their leadership operates in a community centric manner that seeks equality and stability for all members of the region. It is a genuinely unique and amazing place, which I’ll write about further down the road.
Second we travelled south of Medellin, in the region of Antioquia. Here we were shown coffee by one of the up and coming leaders in the specialty coffee movement that is making a huge impact on the Colombian export scene. While commodity arabica coffee has been dominant in recent decades several younger farmers are making headway with high-end quality coffees by taking the traditions taught to them by several generations of family, and applying new techniques and attention to detail as well as the ability to find specific market outlets that allow for more easily selling higher quality product for higher pricing. The region we visited in Antioquia was rich in coffee. Coffee as far as the eye could see, literally. Hoop houses along the highway grow seedlings give way to every hillside climbing up to the distant slopes. Farmer families can be seen every morning getting ready to work either their own small plots of coffee or begin work on the larger owned coffee plantations. Everyone knows someone working in coffee if they themselves do not personally do so. Coffee in this region is the culture. Coffee extending from the river bottom highway all the way up the mountains sides in all directions.
But in this more commercial sector of coffee we also were able to see the downside of what a large scale commodity like this can do to the ecosystem when not produced by organic methods. The first thing we were told on the farm we visited was to not drink the water. While this farm did not spray their property, all the surrounding farms did and have for over half a century, and the groundwater has become polluted with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The scale of chemical pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use is oddly juxtaposed by pristine looking mountains, but on scale with what we see in the grain belt of the US where corn and soy are sprayed and fertilized with poisonous chemicals to a degree of toxicity. And similar to the effects of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in the U.S., the runoff wreaks havoc on the water table. Unlike the U.S. there is no method of even attempting to remove it from water systems, making for incredibly unsafe levels of chemicals in the only source of water that is available to almost all of the people here. This all in sight only further reaffirmed our commitment to organically grown coffees and we are eager to support farms that are committed to improving coffee quality with age-old, proven methods that do no harm to the environment or the people living there.
Delivering high quality coffee is built into all systems in Colombia. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (or FNC) is at the baseline for helping implement systems across the line that result in a quality export. As the single largest export from Colombia, they take quality very seriously, and while they certainly export large quantities of lower grade, commodity market coffee, that is only after they have ensured that all high quality crops have been tested, evaluated, and repeatedly re-inspected, so when you are buying a high quality coffee from Colombia, they are completely ensured the customer will receive what they expect. We saw these systems in place at the local small farm level, at the regional wet mill level, and the regional dry mills, the final point before export. Systems of evaluation, redundant and repeated, making sure that all lower grade coffee is removed from higher grade crops. It was honestly incredibly to witness the amount of effort in ensuring that all speciality coffee being exported was to the standard of expectation.
And in one final note, the diversity of coffees in Colombia came as a bit of a shock. While we have thought of Colombian coffees in the past as a single entity with common characteristics, we left with the knowledge that there is in fact a widely diverse scope of coffees that are coming out of Colombia, and we are excited more than ever to discover those and offer them in the U.S. This small mountainous country has an incredibly diverse landscape capable of growing coffees with widely different characteristics, and not only do different regions have their own signatures, but even within those regions the methods being implemented and the various sub-regions create a diverse array of personality in coffee.
Colombia is synonymous with coffee for a reason. It truly is ingrained in the livelihood of the country and in the people. The diverse landscape is home to some of the richest coffee crops on earth, and the people tending those crops are committed in large scale way that is truly impressive. Organics are very important to support coming out of Colombia (and in all areas for that matter), not only for the crops themselves, but for the people growing those crops, and as more people on the consumer end put their money towards organics, the more environmental stability will be created for the people at the beginning of the chain. Coffee, once again proves to be an amazing link between cultures, between people with other people, and between people and the earth.