If you’re like me, you enjoy a good cup of coffee. And you like it for free or cheap. At the office is great or even a cup from McDonalds for $.99 works perfect. Starbucks every once in a while, but I am more likely to grab it from a gas station than an expensive boutique coffee shop. I have never thought about what goes into getting a bean from the plant to the cup. Let alone for less than a dollar.
While in Colombia we made it a point to spend some time on a coffee plantation. The Zona Cafetera, or coffee zone, is a region where the majority of Colombian coffee is grown roughly 4 hours east of Bogotá and 4 hours south of Medellin.
It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park to get there, but we managed. We took a quick 40 minute flight from Bogatá to Medellin. As soon as we landed we grabbed a taxi to the other side of town, 45 minutes, to the south bus station. We walked right up to the ticket booth and got on a bus that was leaving in 5 minutes. The bus was a small passenger van with 8 people in it. No A/C and 4 hours later we arrived, sweaty, in Manizales which is sort of the capital city of the coffee zone. We had dinner and the next morning we were picked up and taken to Hacienda Venecia where we’d have our half day plantation tour and tasting. We were in for a treat.
The guide did a great job making sure that we understood the history and current layout of where coffee comes from. Colombia is the 3rd largest exporter in the world for coffee beans, making up 8% of the market. Brazil is the largest with almost 30% of the worlds production and Vietnam comes in at #2 with almost 20%. The top two countries produce half of the world’s coffee beans. Insane.
The plantation is a 30 minute drive from Manizales. Before we headed out into the fields we met the rest of the group (England, California, Colombia & New Zealand) and we’re served either an Americano or expresso to get us rock n and roll n.
We were taken through a quick and dirty version of how the beans are processed in order to make a cup of coffee. The machine in the background is a small roaster, the brown piece of equipment is a grinder and the beans in the center are the same arabica bean at different stages of the drying, fermentation and roasting process. It was a lot of fun to smell the different scents at the different stages. They passed around little vials of different scents such as “earth”, “pepper” and “rubber” to help steer us in the right directions. An expert coffee taster can tell from the scent the quality of the bean.
Growing the Plants
When we were all jacked up on caffeine we were taken to fields. The first stop was near a hillside that looked like a forest floor, but there was much, much more going on here than what met the eye. Our guide is explaining to group how the fields are picked and the life cycle of the plants. I was shocked to learn that at this 200 hectare farm (500 acres) the “cherries” (where the coffee is located) are picked 365 days a year — by hand!
These stumps littered the hillside we were on. Which look like nothing until it was explained that each coffee plant takes 18 months before it can produce fruit. It will produce, virtually non-stop here in Colombia due do the geographic location and weather patterns, for 5 years. After five years the plants (trees) are cut about a foot from the ground. The plants you see growing off this trunk will be cut and transplanted to a different part of the farm until they are ready to produce fruit (18 months) and then transplanted back in the hills in perfect rows. A typical plant will last 20 years or about 3 cycles. Then the ground is given a break.
The fact that the plants produce fruit non-stop for 5 years and all the fruit is hand-picked blew my mind. Turns out there really is no alternative here. There are two main reasons why it must be picked by hand. The first is the location – on steep hillsides that machines couldn’t operate on. The second is that each plant has fruits at varying stages of ripeness, as you can see in this picture. It requires the expertise of a human to differentiate what is ready, what isn’t and what could possible be over-riped and needing to be pruned. 365 days a year these plants are hand-picked. Amazing.
The landscape was impressive. Mountains, green hills, creeks running through the valleys. We walked up and down the hills and we’re a bit tired. I couldn’t imagine doing that for a living. And apparently neither can the workers. It’s becoming harder and harder to find consistent workers to pick the fields and their trying to unionize in Colombia as well that will likely result in the cost of labor (and production) increasing.
Processing the Coffee Plant
There are a few main varieties of coffee plants grown throughout the world. The most common “premium” bean is the arabica which is the only bean grown in Colombia. There are different species of arabica throughout the world. What really makes Colombian coffee special is the methods in which they process their beans.
Back in the 1920’s the Colombian coffee growers got together and agreed to put some standards in place to help with the consistency of their delivered product. Which, by the way, is a picked, fermented and dried coffee bean – unroasted. That is what the commodity market is purchasing, ready-to-be-roasted coffee beans. The co-operative setup by the growers is responsible for a few specific pieces of the complex coffee puzzle.
First, they helped establish consistency in the washing and drying process of the bean. Due to to very high humidity in the region the cherries cannot be dried in the sun like most other countries’ beans. The fruits would almost certainly rot. So the entire production of post-harvest processing of coffee beans in Colombia goes through what is referred to as “wet processing” where the cherry is quickly processed after picking and the beans themselves are then dried using a combination of machines and sun. The beans, when extracted from the fruits, are covered in a layer of pulp, think of a jelly, and that is what is being referred to as the “drying” process. When the beans are drying, because the pulp contains a lot of sugar, there is a fermentation that is taking place. This will give the bean certain scent and flavor characteristics that will determine it’s quality before being sold on the commodity market. The quality and consistency of the Colombian coffee bean gives purchasers the confidence that they can replicate the same cup of coffee over and over again provided they have built a process for replicating their roasting process over and over again.
Secondly the co-operative guarantees they will purchase the beans from all-farmers. They will determine the quality of the bean and purchase the bean for the market price which fluctuates constantly – many times throughout the day. This gives the farmers the assurance that they will always be able to sell their beans. The majority of the farms (perhaps not the acreage) are tiny operations owned by the same family for many years. A lot are 5 acres or less. This guarantee that they can sell their product (they might not like the market price) gives them a peace of mind, doesn’t require them to think through how to store the plants for extended periods of time and gives them the opportunity to turn beans into cash quickly.
Another part the co-operate plays is in post-harvest production. Each bean that is sold to them still contains an outer layer called the husk. The beans must be de-husked prior to being sold. The co-operative collects all the beans, organizes the beans by quality, de-husks them and then coordinates the sale on the commodity markets. Their are three large commodity markets in the world. The largest is the New York exchange. Coffee is the #1 food import in the United States and the second largest commodity market behind only oil.
Once the cherries are picked, and separated to the best of a humans ability, they are fed into a machine that uses air to separate the heavy stuff (the cherries) and the light stuff (dirt, gravel, sticks, leaves, etc..) Once the cherries are separated from everything else they are moved onto a machine called the “De-pulper”
This is the at-home de-pulper. Once calibrated correctly you simply put the cherries in the hop, crank the wheel and out one end will come the bean covered in jelly and the pulp and skin out the other side. The calibration is important because it will not process under or over-riped fruit which is important for consistency.
The industrial versions of the de-pulper serves a few more purposes. Not only does the machine separate the fruits, skins and seeds – but it also organizes the seeds by weight and size which is a very good indication of the quality. The beans are fed into holding tanks where they will ferment for a certain amount of time. This fermentation gives the bean it’s unique characteristics such as color, aroma and flavor.
Once fermented the beans are placed out in the sun to dry. Remember, the difference in processing the coffee fruits is wet and dry washing – not wet and dry drying. Dry washing refers to leaving the entire cherry out in the sun to dry and begin the fermentation process. Here you can see the different quality of the beans – the yellow beans are a higher quality bean setting up for export and the darker batch has a lot of defects which will be held back and used for Colombian consumption. Only the best beans are sold on the international markets. In fact, Colombians don’t really drink coffee and it’s difficult to find a good cup here.
Once the beans are dried they are put into this gigantic sacks and ready for sale to the co-op. The co-op will determine the quality, purchase the beans at the set market price, de-husk and sell on the world market. There are certain taxes paid by certain entities along the way (think importers, exporters, brokers, etc..) that is collected by the co-operative and then re-distributed into the Zona Cafetera. This tax revenue is a reason why the region is considered “rich” and has modern infrastructure such as paved roads, street lights and maintained parks that many regions outside of the major cities do not have.
The farm has a few houses and other accommodations that guests can stay at. The houses matched exactly what I was expecting. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to spend another night in the area but if you can I would highly recommend spending an entire day and evening here. The setting is great with a pool to help you cool off.
Unlike the streets, the dogs here are well kept and awesome.
They even had a resident peacock here.
After a few hours the tour came to an end and we had to catch a bus back to Medellin. It was a quick, break-neck paced couple of days but we were really happy that we made the trip out to this part of Colombia. We bought a few bags of their single origin coffee and as a matter of fact I am enjoying a cup as I write this. And it’s delicious.