Young coffee grower José Alexander Salazar from Calarcá, Quindío, remarks, "Coffee becomes part of one's culture. It is what we have known growing up, and what we have lived with. It is what has fed us and dressed us. What I am, I owe partly to coffee—in particular, to my father, a coffee farmer: that is also part of me."
Coffee is an essential element of our Colombian culture, not just as a principal export crop, but also because its production process gave rise to a broad range of cultural practices and occupations in and around steep hillside plots where it was advantageous to build structures based on locally-available guadua; and where innovative forms of transport had to be developed to move the bean through the production process and ultimately to market. Taken as a whole, these customs and practices have created a strong sense of regional identity. However, many Colombians have only a passing notion of the process through which that single cup of black coffee—or tinto,as we call it—becomes our habitual companion during the day. We just enjoy it without giving a moment’s thought to what it took to produce coffee that is internationally recognized as “the best in the world”.
Coffee cultivation began in northeastern Colombia in the late 1700s when the first seeds were imported from Venezuela. Soon after commercial cultivation was established in 1835, coffee became an important export crop. By the end of the nineteenth century, 80 percent of Colombian coffee was being grown on large plantations.
In the 1850s, coffee cultivation expanded west and south, along the slopes of the central mountain range of the Andes to what today constitutes the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Triangle . The fertile volcanic soils of the region yield abundant, high-quality beans that produce coffee known for its subtle taste and aroma.
The production process starts with sowing the seeds. Two months after the seeds are planted, a small shoot appears, the fósforo. As this grows, it forms two leaves in a configuration known as chapola. This small seedling is transferred to a plastic bag where it is watered and kept weed-free. This stage is called “colino de café.” At six months, the colino becomes a young cafeto that is ready to be transplanted in the ground. In two to four years, it develops into an adult plant and flowers. Eight months after the flower appears, the fruit is red, ripe, and ready to be harvested. Colombia exclusively produces Arabica coffee, which yields a smooth drink.
Only the red and yellow-colored fruits are harvested because they yield the best tasting drink. Men and women, wearing baskets or plastic pails on their waists, pick the ripe fruit by hand, one at a time, row by row, and plant by plant.
There are two harvest seasons. The principal harvest occurs in October and November. A smaller harvest, known as traviesa or mitaca, which yields about a third as much as the principal harvest, takes place in April and May.
Harvested coffee is collected in baskets made of vine fiber. Basket weaving has evolved alongside the stages of coffee production–sowing, harvesting, transport, and final processing. However, the use of baskets has diminished over time as plastic buckets have become commonplace for collecting coffee fruit and seeds.
The harvested fruit is taken to the processing plant or beneficiadero, where the coffee bean is processed. The bean is fed into the pulping machine, where it is separated from the hull. This procedure must take place within six hours of harvesting in order to avoid deterioration. The discarded pulp or cherry is used as fertilizer. Next, the bean is stripped of its cover of mucilage, a mucus-like, sugary film. This is done by fermentingthe pulped bean in a tank for twenty-four hours, which allows the mucous to separate.
Clean water is used to rinse off the remainder of the sugary mucilage or “coffee slime” until the bean is totally clean. To reduce the negative ecological impact of discarding the large amounts of water needed for this process, special machinery has been developed that uses less water without compromising the quality of the bean. Now, the beans are ready for drying.
For this last step of the beneficio, the beans are put out to dry in the sun. The coffee is spread across large drawers on wheels, called heldas, and stirred continuously until they are thoroughly air dried and the beans take on a light green color. Depending on the weather, this process can take two or three days.
The dried bean is called parchment coffee (café pergamino). It is stored in fique sacks that are transported by mule or Willys jeep to the threshing mills. This process concludes the involvement of the coffee grower.
The other important means of transport in the region is the yipao. The term, coined by country dwellers for the old, North American Willys Jeep, represents a mode of transport and a symbol that identifies the popular culture of the coffee-growing region, an essential element in the economy and development of the area. The yipao travels the rural roads laden with crops—especially coffee—appliances, or people, providing greater efficiency of transport than the muleskinners and their animals were able to achieve. The term yipao is also used by farmers as a measure of quantity for their products, as in a yipao of coffee or a yipao of plantains.
After the beans are delivered in bulk, they undergo further specialized processing including threshing and roasting. Threshing removes the parchment and any remaining impurities from the bean. Afterwards, the beans are sorted according to quality, shape, and size for storage and eventual export. At this stage the coffee bean is still light green in color. The beans are then roasted by exposing them to temperatures between 390 and 420º F for three to twenty minutes depending on the desired roast. The quality of dark roasts is generally more consistent. It is thinner in body with less fiber and a caramel-like flavor. The lighter roasts have more caffeine, which makes them slightly bitter with a stronger aroma.
Finally, the beans are ground, a key step in producing high quality coffee. Ground coffee releases the flavor and aroma of the bean during the brewing process. Freshly brewed coffee tastes best and should never be reheated or boiled to achieve a good cup of Colombian coffee, recognized for its delicate aroma, full body, and subtle flavor.
The development of coffee cultivation and production in Colombia has created a vibrant community with its own robust culture and a vigorous sense of identity.