Coffee in Colombia is more than just a crop; coffee growing has become a part of Colombia’s national identity. The “Coffee Cultural Landscape” of Colombia was even designated a 2011 UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the country’s unique history of sustainable coffee farming traditions on small plots.
Colombia, with its perfect terrain and climate, is one of the only countries that produce 100% arabica beans. Enjoying a cup of Colombian coffee means indulging floral hints, traces of tropical fruits, red berries or apples and a sweetness akin to chocolate, sugar cane or caramel. Acidity levels are medium to high, yielding a bright and lively brew.
Aromas tend towards citrus, fruits and hints of spice. The easy to drink nature makes Colombian coffee beans popular in blends for mellowing out the more intense flavors of coffee beans from other countries.
The richness of flavor for which Colombian coffee is celebrated is mainly due to it’s greatest blessing; an excellent climate, perfect soil and the right amount of rainfall. This ideal combination of climate and geography creates perfect growing conditions for some of the world’s best coffee.
Colombia basically has a coffee bean to suit every taste.
The coffee beans are grown in the warmer, more northerly, lower altitude zones – such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Perija mountains, Casanare, Santander and the North of Santander – has a lower acidity and a fuller body.
Whereas the coffee beans from the more southerly Narino, Cauca, Huila and the south of Tolima grow at higher altitudes, closer to the equator, giving them a higher acidity and much sought-after sweetness.
The larger central region around Medellin comprises nearly 14,000 square kilometers and is known as the Colombian coffee-growing axis. The coffee beans of the central region are known for their heavy body, rich flavor, and higher acidity.
Coffee was first introduced to Colombia around the same time Jesuit priests first began arriving from Europe in the mid 16th century. The leaders of Colombia tried to encouraged people to grow coffee, but they met with resistance. Worried that a coffee tree takes five years to provide its first crop, they wondered how they were going to survive during this period?
A priest in a small village named Francisco Romero had an idea, instead of the usual penance at confession, he told them to plant 3 or 4 coffee trees. The Archbishop of Colombia ordered everyone to use this penance thinking it was an excellent idea and it became the general practice. This started Colombia as the worlds second largest coffee producing country built on the penance of its forefathers.
Colombia's coffee still remains some of the best and most well known throughout the world. This is largely due to the very successful marketing campaign created by the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers in 1959. They introduced the world to the fictitious character Juan Valdez. 85% of Americans still associate Juan Valdez with Colombian Coffee.
Colombia’s government has long recognized the economic potential of their coffee industry, and has solidified it as part of the national identity. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) was created in 1927 to represent coffee growers interests and is now the largest rural non-profit organization in the world.
In 1959, the FNC created the character of Juan Valdez, an incredibly successful and long-running marketing campaign that no other coffee-growing nation has matched. This popular character appealed to consumers who for the first time began to seek out beans from a particular country.
Today, the FNC continues to strive not just toward profit generation, but to creating a positive social impact. Research projects, training, environmental protection and community development all contribute positively to Colombia’s half million coffee growers.
Colombian arabica coffee beans are exclusively wet-processed, with water being used to separate the precious cherries from the surrounding pulp. Wet-processing is a relatively new technique which results in a cleaner, brighter and fruitier product. This makes it well-suited for the brightly acidic Colombian product.
Because the coffee industry in Colombia is largely made up of very small farms dispersed on steep hillsides, significant mechanization of the harvesting process is impossible.
Coffee beans are carefully picked, each one of the nearly 600,000 coffee producers in Colombia picks every bit of their harvest by hand, and with this selection process that means only the very best coffee beans make it to your cup.
Though the process is inefficient, it results in overall higher quality product and is one of the features on which the nation has built its reputation.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE FUTURE OF COFFEE
Coffee growing is a big business in Colombia. They are the world’s third largest coffee producer with 12% of the world’s production. This puts them behind only Brazil and Vietnam, but in contrast with these two, Colombia grows almost exclusively high-end arabica beans.
For Colombians, coffee is not merely a plant, but a part of their national identity. Coffee growing directly employs a half million farmers, making it the country’s largest source of rural employment.
One of the greatest risks to the industry at present is the shifting weather patterns wrought by climate change. Rising temperatures and intense, unpredictable rainfall have both negatively impacted bean production. Arabica beans, which make up the vast majority of Colombia’s crop, are particularly vulnerable to climatic variability.
Climate change has also hastened the spread of the coffee industry’s other major scourges -- the coffee rust fungus and the coffee berry borer insect. Both dangers have now spread to higher elevations where they are able to infect more farms and further decrease coffee yields.
To adapt to Colombia’s changing climate, some farmers have begun experimenting with new farming techniques they think might help offset its impacts. Your coffee won't disappear tomorrow, but keep an eye on places like Colombia for what the future holds. As one of the world's three biggest coffee producers, what happens here will affect the entire coffee market.