Colombian coffee is famous. In cafés around the globe, you will usually find a coffee from Colombia on offer. From the United States to Japan, people recognize the face of that well-known Colombian coffee farmer, the fictitious but endearing Juan Valdez.
Why is Colombian coffee so celebrated, and why has Colombia been able to produce large amounts of good quality coffee? Find out what’s behind the fame and how to get the most out of your next cup of 100% Colombian coffee in this article.
The Colombian Coffee Production Backstory
I’ll confess something that’s rather embarrassing to me. When I was a teenager, I thought that all coffee came from Colombia. In my defense, there was a reason for that. At that time in the United States, way back in the 1980s, Colombia was the only coffee-producing country that we ever heard of.
Fast forward to the present day, and I’m a coffee professor. I now know that coffee is grown in more than just one country. But the fact sticks: Colombian coffee is more famous than most other producing countries. Even countries with longer producing histories or higher production enjoy less renown. Why?
Let’s take a quick look at the history of coffee in Colombia. Then we’ll get into what makes it famous.
History hints at coffee arriving by the early 1700s, cultivated first by Jesuit priests in the east.
Coffee was first exported from the city of Cúcuta in the east.
Coffee spread from the east toward the center of the country.
Coffee exports increased to more than 600,000 bags (60-kilo coffee bags), making it Colombia’s main export product. Plantations were mostly in the hands of large landowners.
Prices plummeted in the early 1900s. The Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers) was created to promote the coffee industry. This NGO increased coffee production and small shareholders by buying large coffee plantations, dividing them, and selling them to individual workers.
The Center for Scientific Research on Coffee (CENICAFE) was formed. They researched and created disease-resistant varieties such as Colombia and Castillo.
Juan Valdez was born. He was part of a massive marketing campaign to promote this single-origin product and represent Colombian coffee around the world.
The National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC) created the 100% Colombian coffee seal, one of the first of its type in the world. Consumption boomed in the US, and prices increased.
Coffee prices plummeted after ICA negotiations were dissolved.
Juan Valdez coffee shop chain created, impelling internal consumption.
Coffee leaf rust damaged the coffee crop and reduced production by 31%. This prompted growers to plant disease-resistant varieties.
Colombia Coffee Production
Colombia has more than 500,000 coffee growers and a yearly coffee production of 14,300 metric tons.
That establishes the country’s coffee industry in 3rd place after Brazil and Vietnam, for which the annual exports are worth a mind-boggling $1.7 billion.
But why does Colombian produce so much coffee?
There’s a legend that Jesuit priests in Colombia gave their parishioners an unusual penance to pay – they had to plant a coffee plant.
Whether that coffee-as-redemption legend is true or not, coffee cultivation has been relatively high. Even more important, it’s good. It even gets a premium on the stock market because of its higher quality.
Why does coffee from Colombia have that reputation? There are many reasons, but here we’ll cover four main ones:
- Geography and climate
- Harvesting method
- Processing and grower education
Coffee species and varieties in Colombia
All coffee grown in Colombia for export is Arabica. Arabica coffee beans are well known for generally producing higher quality coffee.
What are the most common varieties of Arabica in Colombia? Older farms will often have Typica. Those coffee plants have mostly been replaced with disease-resistant Colombia, Castillo, and Caturra varieties created by CENICAFE.
You’ll also find exotic varieties like Bourbon, Geisha, Java, or even Sidra, but these hold a higher risk for coffee growers.
Geography and climate
Geography plays a huge role in coffee quality. Colombia is close to the equator, so the whole country is within what’s known as the Bean Belt. The Andes Mountains cross the country in three parallel mountain ranges, resulting in various altitude zones that provide plenty of terrain for coffee cultivation.
Many of those mountains are volcanoes that contribute to creating mineral-rich soil where coffee plants flourish. Additionally, Colombia’s biodiversity is outstanding, ranking it among the most biodiverse places in the world. All that plant diversity makes the soil ideal for growing coffee.
Since coffee is grown from far north to far south, there are many climates and microclimates. These conditions guarantee that there are harvests throughout the year, unlike other producing nations that have just one harvest season.
Additionally, some microclimates produce two harvests. Called mitaca or traviesa by growers, this halfway-through-the-year harvest gives them about 30% of the yearly totals.
Harvested by hand
As I mentioned, coffee in Colombia is cultivated in the mountains. Those mountain terrains are so steep – I’ve been on some that are literally vertical! – that you can’t get a machine on them to harvest the coffee.
That means that the crop has to be harvested by hand.
There’s no strip picking here, where literally everything is stripped off the tree. Strip picking is more common to harvest Robusta coffee. But you can imagine how stripping all the cherries off the plant. Both ripe and unripe ones could lead to unpleasant tastes in the cup.
In Colombia, harvesters pick each cherry off the plant by hand. That ensures that the ripest cherries are picked, and harvesters may go over the crop two or three times during the harvest season. It’s a labor-intensive process, but it results in superior quality.
How is coffee processed in Colombia?
Coffee in Colombia has traditionally been processed using the wet or washed method. This produces coffees that are sweet, mild, and full-bodied. That type of processing helped Colombia reach the status it now has of producing good quality beans.
As farmers try to go beyond good to get to exceptional, they have been experimenting with innovative processing methods. They are delving into the natural or dry process as well as the popular honey process. Some are going all-in with carbonic maceration.
However, it can be hard for farmers to find a market for superior quality coffees and a public that’s willing to pay for the additional labor and risks involved.
Another key to success is the way farmers manage their crops. Coffee growers can count on support and education from the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. This education helps them know what kind of varieties to plant, when to plant them, how to structure the plants, and how to harvest and process the beans.
To educate farmers in even the most remote mountain areas, the FNC created a fictional character, the colorful Profesor Yarumo. He’s the star of a TV series called The Adventures of Profesor Yarumo that teaches farmers best practices.
How much coffee do Colombians consume?
Like many other coffee-producing countries, Colombians don’t actually drink much of their product. 97% of the production in Colombia is for export. What is left in the country is known as pasilla or coffee with severe defects.
Colombia actually imports lower quality beans for internal consumption and sells off Colombian beans abroad for higher prices. Nearly half of the coffee consumed in the country is not grown on Colombian soil.
Colombians only drink an average of about 1.8 kg of coffee a year per person. They have a fond spot in their hearts for their ever-present tinto, which is a highly sweetened black coffee. Other drinks such as hot chocolate and agua panela or aromatica have a strong presence in Colombian culture.
In Colombia, coffee farms are small, averaging just 2 hectares, and account for 95% of all farms. They’re not big corporate ones, as is seen in Brazil. And unlike Vietnam, where coffee growing has only been important in the last few decades, these farms have been in families for generations. So Colombian coffee is all about Colombian families.
In fact, over time, a unique coffee culture has developed in many parts of Colombia. It’s so particular that an area in Antioquia, the Coffee Cultural Landscape, has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This Coffee Cultural Landscape celebrates how coffee has affected the architecture, building materials, vehicles, clothing, food, and events in this area.
The most famous Colombian coffee grower
Juan Valdez. Most people around the world have heard of this representative coffee grower. Sometimes people are disappointed to find out he’s fictitious. Juan Valdez was born in New York City in an advertising agency that the FNC hired to promote coffee in the United States.
I know that’s not a very romantic beginning. However, the iconic Juan Valdez and his mule Conchita have helped promote Colombian coffee abroad for decades. This marketing campaign had a huge impact on the country’s reputation and income.
Over the years, different actors played the iconic coffee grower until the FNC chose a real coffee grower, Carlos Castañeda, to take on the role.
Colombian Coffee Flavors & Typical Roasts
A lot of factors contribute to coffee flavors. One of the most important factors is the region it was grown in.
Colombian coffee growing regions
Coffee-growing regions in the country go by the names of the departments or states, that divide the country. Each coffee-growing region in Colombia produces beans that have slightly different taste profiles. Conditions such as altitude, climate, soil, and processing traditions change the tastes you get in the cup.
There are coffee regions that produce beans with more body, others with more acidity or sweetness, and others that are fruity. Colombia can be divided into three main regions.
This general area groups together the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the far north and Santander to the northeast. Lower altitudes and higher temperatures create full-bodied coffees. They’re not as bright as the coffees you’ll find further to the south.
In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta you find many indigenous groups producing shade-grown coffees with naturally organic processes. Expect chocolate or nutty beans. These beans have more body but are low in acidity. This region does well when roasted darker.
Antioquia, Caldas, Quindio and Tolima. Antioquia is the second-biggest producing region, and Tolima the third. Coffees in this general region tend to produce that typical Colombian taste – full-bodied, sweet Arabica beans with chocolate tastes and a hint of panela (raw sugar, or caramel) and medium-high body. They do well roasted medium or dark.
Nariño, Cauca and Huila are closer to the equator. Coffee is grown at higher altitudes to reach the cooler temperatures that Arabica needs to thrive. This region is particularly associated with quality and produces specialty Arabica beans that are known for complex flavors that create brighter brews with floral notes.
Cauca is known for fruity and sweet notes. Nariño beans have higher acidity and intense aromas. People look to Huila for exceptional specialty coffee beans, and many growers have won local and national competitions.
Huila received Denomination of Origin in 2013, a legal designation that guarantees product authenticity for customers. Beans from this region shine in lighter roasts that let the brightness and floral and fruity notes shine through.
More Than One Coffee Plantation for Social Impact
The price of coffee has been low for decades. Many coffee growers around the world don’t receive enough to cover the expenses of running a farm, much less support a family. That lack of economic sustainability threatens the livelihoods of coffee farmers as well as the brew we drink.
One way Colombia is trying to combat this tendency is by directing efforts to produce specialty coffee. Specialty coffee can break through the stock market price barrier and reach markets that are willing – even eager – to pay fair wages for exceptional coffee.
Those higher wages can be a step towards making coffee more sustainable and improving lives. It may also help ensure that in the next few decades, we will still have coffee growers interested in producing the coffee beans that we love.