Colombian Coffee: From Crop to Cup

Colombia is the third largest coffee exporter in the world, behind Brazil and Vietnam.
Manizales (where I live & work) is part of Colombia’s Zona Cafeteria (Coffee Triangle), an area of 150 square kilometres, which produces 10% of the world’s coffee.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. On average, I visit a café at least once per day, and usually do the tour of my local faves on weekends. This means, I likely spend $30-40 CAD per week on coffee, which is more than I budget for my phone, transportation, and sometimes entertainment (and I wonder why my only assets are my MacBook Pro, my Canon Rebel, and a couple of cute Anthropologie dresses).

For me, coffee is more than a daily dose of caffeine. It’s a reunion with friends I haven’t seen in years, or a regular catch-up with the people I see every day. It’s the motivation to teach a 6am spin class or go for a morning run when all I want to do is hit snooze and roll over. It’s a source of inspiration for grad school papers, blog posts, and writing my first novel.

Coffee has also been an integral part of the conversations that have changed my life: first dates, painful breakups, job interviews, and crucial advice from friends or family.

tio conjeo
Tio Conejo is a family-farm that produces specialty coffee and promotes a philosophy of sustainability, community-building, equality and hope.

While coffee is a regular part of my daily life, I never really considered the complex story behind the coffee I consume.

However, after visiting the Tio Conejo coffee farm this past weekend, I learned that behind every cup of coffee there’s a struggle to build stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities. There’s an effort to be part of the full circle of life by giving back to the land and being able to pass on history, traditions and culture to the next generation.

At every step in the production process, there’s labour, sweat, and pain, as well as hope, innovation, and social change. After a day at the coffee farm, it was clear to me that producing a high-quality cup of coffee means a lot more than profiting from a commodity crop on the world market.

The Zona Cafeteria was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means efforts will be made to protect the landscape and preserve the paisa culture reflected in the historic farms
The Zona Cafeteria was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means efforts will be made to protect the landscape and preserve the paisa culture reflected in the historic buildings. The farm houses built by the first settlers of the region were made by cutting down guadua (bamboo-like trees) with machetes.
Arabica (the coffee beans typically grown in Colombia) is not native to Colombia. It originated in Ethiopia and was brought to Colombia by Jesuit priests in the 16th century. Coffee trees were planted after Colombians were ordered to plant 3-4 trees as penance for confession.
Arabica (the coffee beans typically grown in Colombia) is not native to Colombia. It originated in Ethiopia and was brought to Colombia by Jesuit priests in the 16th century. Coffee trees were planted after Colombians were ordered to plant 3-4 trees as penance for confession.

Stages in Coffee Production

Cultivating Nutrient-Dense Soil

Banana trees provide shade and species diversity while nitrogen-fixers are strategically planted to improve the quality of the soil.
Banana trees provide shade and species diversity while nitrogen-fixers are strategically planted to improve the quality of the soil.
Pulp is decomposed by Californian worms to be used as fertilizer.
Pulp is decomposed by Californian worms to be used as fertilizer.

Planting

baby coffee
The highest quality seeds are carefully selected for planting.
It takes more than two years until a newly planted coffee plant is able to produce berries that are ripe enough for picking!
It takes more than two years until a newly planted coffee plant is able to produce berries that are ripe enough for picking!

Harvesting

Coffee berries
Coffee beans are hand-picked which is an extremely laborious process.  In order to meet the flavour and quality requirements to be graded specialty coffee, beans need to be carefully selected during the harvest.
Only red beans are ready to be picked. Green beans need more time to ripen.
Only red beans are ready to be picked. Green beans need more time to ripen.

Bean selection

separate seeds
At Tio Conejo, farmers place berries in a giant tub of water to separate the “floaters” from the “sinkers.” Ripe coffee beans are dense and sink to the bottom. These are processed for specialty coffee which is usually exported. If the beans float, it means that they are missing a bean, or are damaged in some way. These are separated to be processed and sold to the local markets (which buy lower grade coffee).

Processing

The pulp and coffee beans are mechanically separated by centrifugal force and a barrel screen system.  
The pulp and coffee beans are mechanically separated by centrifugal force and a barrel screen system.

Fermentation

Coffee beans are covered in a layer of slippery mucilage. At Tio Conejo, beans are placed in fermentation tanks for 18 hours and then undergo three washing cycles to remove the mucilage before drying. The reactions of yeast and bacteria in the fermentation process breaks down the sugars in mucilage to produce acids which add more flavour and complexity to the coffee. Many producers, especially large-scale farms skip this step and use different technologies to immediately begin drying the beans in order to increase production (likely at the expense of flavour). 
Coffee beans are covered in a layer of slippery mucilage. The reactions of yeast and bacteria in the fermentation process breaks down the sugars in mucilage to produce acids which add more flavour and complexity to the coffee. The beans then undergo three washing cycles.

Drying

Originally, beans produced in mountainous areas were dried on roof tops under an ingenious roof that rolled to cover the beans.
Originally, beans produced in mountainous areas were dried on roof tops under an ingenious roof that rolled to cover the beans.
The pulped and fermented beans are spread out on drying tables or floors to 11% moisture. The dried beans are known as "parchment coffee" as they still contain a parchment layer. After drying, beans are sent to a mill where hulling machinery removes this shell. 
The pulped and fermented beans are spread out on drying tables or floors to 11% moisture (this one is empty). The dried beans are known as “parchment coffee” as they still contain a parchment layer. After drying, beans are sent to a mill where hulling machinery removes this shell.

Exporting

Bags
The milled beans, now referred to as green coffee, are put in special plastic bags which preserve the moisture levels, inside jute or sisal bags. They are shipped to North America or overseas to roasters who transform the green coffee into the aromatic, flavourful brown beans that we purchase at our local cafés.

Consumption

Bagged

Here’s where I come in! I’d be a completely different person without my morning brew. Thank you, coffee farmers, for all of the work that you to do to improve my quality of life…by helping me wake up in the morning, inspiring my writing, supporting engaging conversations with friends and families, and warming my insides on a cold winter day.

If you are in the Manizales area, or if you are a coffee roaster, café owner, barista, or curious consumer, I’d recommend taking a trip to Tio Conejo to learn about the origins of coffee and the story of where your coffee comes from. (When I was there, I met a couple from Black Dog Coffee in West Virginia who made the trip to Colombia to learn about the farm that produces the beans they roast for their customers!!)

For more info about Tio Conejo, check out this awesome video:

 

8 thoughts on “Colombian Coffee: From Crop to Cup

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