Speciality Coffee - From Bean to Cup in Colombia

Imagine David Bowie would have written songs and only his family were allowed to hear them. That would have been absurd. Why am I saying this? Easy. Over the years I grew accustomed to drinking extraordinary excellent coffee in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria in Australia. My love affair with speciality coffee started in 2006 and ever since I have been a coffee snob. There is (sort of) no such thing as bad coffee in Melbourne and I always search for that same high quality. The moment I find good coffee is as if the sun comes through on a rainy day.

At first, I didn’t get what the fuss with speciality (aka third-wave) coffee was all about, but the passion and dedication of Melbourne's baristas and coffee roasters at independent coffee shops had a huge impact on me as a customer and coffee drinker. The coffee scene in Australia started to develop as soon as Italian and Greek immigrants arrived and brought with them their coffee culture. Slowly, over the years I learned more and more about speciality coffee and started to understand where and under what conditions farmers grow the beans we drink daily in form of coffee.

The Speciality Coffee Scene

If you have been to speciality coffee shops you will have noticed that some shops have a little bit of an attitude. It can feel very elitist. I’m not saying this is the case everywhere but I can think of quite a few coffee shops who could work on their hospitality skills to make the experience nicer for everybody. Not sure why that is, I only know that it is certainly wrong to make others feel inadequate or not good enough to drink coffee. In Melbourne, for example, great quality coffee is enjoyed by everybody, no matter where you are from or whether you are 21 or 90. The majority of Melburnians expect great quality coffee and it gets delivered without an attitude. It is telling that the coffee chain Starbucks accumulated losses in Australia and closed shops. In Melbourne people preferably buy their coffee from independent shops who offer decent customer service and great quality coffee. And to be honest, no one needs weak coffee with artificial spices or colouration added.

Speciality Coffee - From Bean to Cup in Colombia

More baristas need to get off their high horses and understand what advantages all humans and the planet have when they start to explain the concept of speciality coffee. Dream big, why not? In Melbourne, great coffee is part of my daily life whereas, in Europe, coffee shops make me feel that I need to join a secret cult first before I will get offered a decent brew. It often makes me smile, inwardly, if only they knew. It is as absurd as if David Bowie would have written songs and only his family were allowed to hear them. The philosophy of speciality coffee is that farmers work under better conditions, that consumers can trace the origins of beans and that the roasting and preparation of drinks is done to perfection. It is all very passionate, sadly the passion too often stops right at the counter and as soon as customers are involved.

There is so much to learn and recently I even went so far to visit Colombia to learn more about coffee and to see first-hand how it gets cultivated, harvested and processed. I wanted to see where beans grow and better understand how the coffee journeys through the world until it eventually ends in the cups in coffee shops.

The two important questions we can ask ourselves before we sit down to drink a cuppa are, whether we are acting ethically and environmentally considerate. Who in their right mind wants to support that forests get cleared to grow coffee on sun-grown coffee plantations? Who wants to be responsible for the negative impact which chemical fertilizers have on the farmer’s health and the environment? It remains a mystery, why so many people still drink coffee from mass production.

It would be easy to say that the growing and trading of coffee should be better regulated by governments. Creating a label that tells consumers that the coffee is traded fair is probably one way to do things. There are already initiatives like this in place, but we can never know 100% who exactly established these labels and under what conditions.

What we can do at coffee shops is to ask where the coffee comes from, who the farmer is and why the coffee shop sells this product. With that information, we are perfectly equipped for conscious decision-making. You will sense whether you are at a good coffee shop when you see that the baristas are answering all your questions proudly.

Coffee beans grow inside cherries

I only spent three weeks in Colombia, one week in Bogota, one week in Cartagena and one week in Salento. I found several speciality coffee shops and also coffee Academies in Bogota and Cartagena. On a poster at a coffee roaster/shop/academy in Bogota, I read about the health benefits of coffee: It lowers the risk of some types of cancer. Coffee is the biggest source of antioxidants. It drastically improves physical performance. Coffee protects you from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. That sounds promising, but we better start at the beginning. Where does coffee come from?

You have to go coffee cherry picking on a farm while you are in Salento. Salento is a small colonial town in Colombia’s coffee-growing region surrounded by the green mountains of the Andes. I ask at the town square how to best to get to an organic coffee farm. They recommend taking a Willy, the mode of public transport is a Willy MB, a remodelled ex-US Army special purpose vehicle. Just moments before the Willy leaves, I hop into the vehicle.

It is a fairly short but bumpy ride. Twenty minutes later the vehicle comes to a standstill on the slightly wet and muddy track near the veranda of the coffee farm. The farmer, his workers, several free-running chickens and roosters, cats and dogs grant us a cordial welcome. Clouds hang low, it is humid, and the sky is grey. We start our walk. And then, there it is. My first coffee tree.

The earthy ground in the mountainous area is as muddy as the piste we drove from Salento. There are many mosquitoes. The farmer, whose character and skin can be equally optimally described as weather-beaten and audacious, asks us to pick a lemon from the trees, which are planted throughout the area. My confusion makes him smile, and he says knowingly: Use it as an insect repellent. It works. I get away unscathed.

I get scratches from reaching through the shrub-like trees while I have to make sure to only pick the ripe red cherries. The green ones are meant to be left on the tree for future harvesting. This method is called selective harvesting. Coffee cherry-picking is hard labour and workers get only COP 500 for every full small basket, which equals USD 0.17. The farmer tells me it is hardly possible to find young people who want to do this work under these conditions. Understandably.

Buying the cheapest products is lovely for many, but farmers and their families have to pay for it. Treating others fairly is one big advantage, the other one is that we get so much better quality for our money. There are not only miles but worlds between the taste and quality of mass-produced coffees and third wave products. The farm I visit is small and they do everything by hand. They source natural ingredients, to protect their coffee plants from bugs and diseases.

Arabica and Robusta are the two kinds of beans. Arabica is much better in quality and has a finer taste. The shrubs need more work to plant, grow and harvest since their trees grow higher than the Robusta ones. The farm plants mostly Robusta, since it is easier for them to handle. The farmer must have noticed I'm somewhat disappointed, he tells me that the process of planting and harvesting would be the same for both varieties.

Planting and growing coffee

Each coffee bean is also a seed and can be planted to become a coffee tree. Here they plant the coffee bean into a solitary bag before it gets planted in due course.

Harvesting and processing coffee

On the farm that I visit, the coffee is processed with using the wet method. It starts with de-pulping the cherries as soon as they were harvested. That procedure is done with a pulping machine that is employed by hand. Drums push the pulp through and it gets composted and used as fertilizer (see, there is no use of chemicals on an organic farm). The beans land in water whereas the light beans float to the top and the heavier ones sink to the bottom.

I'm astounded when the farmer explains that generally, the light beans will remain in Colombia for consumption and that the heavy, good quality ones will be exported to generate income. What? Colombians keep the second rate beans for their consumption and sell the good quality overseas. This is only slowly changing with the ever-evolving speciality coffee scene.

As a next step, the beans will be fermented to remove a layer of secretion. Afterwards, the drying process starts. When they are dry they will be packed in jute sacks for export. At this stage, the product is called parchment coffee. Before one has coffee, the beans must now be peeled, polished and cleaned. There are strict regulations in Colombia when it comes to coffee and only the high-quality beans are allowed to be exported.

After the tour of the farm, I find myself roasting green coffee beans on a stove. This is probably not really how they roast vast amounts of beans but the farmer smiles at me brightly and I enjoy the procedure. It smells heavenly. I like the smell of this coffee perfume. 

Resident cat at a coffee farm in Salento, Colombia

Final tips on how to learn about speciality coffee on your travels and at home

Again, it would have been bizarre if David Bowie would have written songs and only his family were allowed to hear them. It is the same with speciality coffee, it would be bizarre if farmers would put all their time into the coffee growing process, if roasters would work hard on roasting techniques and if baristas would put all their knowledge and skills into preparing coffee and only a few chosen ones would drink the end product.

Ask your barista where the beans come from; probably even let them show you that place on a map. Inquire about the farmers and roasters they partner with.

Think about and ask what education has your barista, how much skill goes into a cup of coffee?

Search for speciality coffee academies, where consumers can learn about coffee, join a course.

Search for speciality coffee tours on your travels and in your hometown, join one of these tours.

Buy a coffee from a chain (Mc Donald’s or Starbucks or similar), one from any local café and one from a speciality coffee shop. Drink these blindfolded. See what happens. Can you taste the difference in quality? 

Read Standart Magazine to learn all there is about coffee. You will find it at many speciality coffee shops.

From Berlin with love