Exploring Colombia’s Coffee Culture

“You’re lucky. Normally I don’t answer the phone if I don’t recognize the phone number,” Luis Jaime said.

We were lucky indeed.

Meeting Luis Jaime

It was one of those casual encounters. We got in touch with Luis Jaime via a friend when looking for information about driving to Quibdó in the Chocó, also called Colombia’s Africa. As a result we ended up in Ciudad de Bolívar, southwest of Medellín and were in for two fantastic days.

We only had a phone number but don’t travel with a cell phone ourselves. So, on our arrival in Ciudad de Bolívar, we had asked a stranger to call this number so we could ask Luis Jaime where we would meet.

Not answering the phone when not recognizing the number says enough. Colombia does have its problems. Kidnapping and extortion do happen. Fortunately, travelers are not targeted as such.

And while stories about problems with the FARC and paramilitaries have been part of many of our conversations with Colombians during our four-month stay here, Colombia’s troubles haven’t affected us personally other than having to ask around in rural areas whether a particular road or area is safe to travel. I’d like to add that we have felt completely safe during our entire stay and have received nothing but kindness and hospitality from Colombians.

Back to the Story

So here we were, at four pm, arriving in the center of Ciudad de Bolívar. We had been directed to el parque, which confused us until we finally understood that the plaza is called El Parque: an area shaded by beautiful trees called árbol de samán (Samanea saman), also called árbol de la lluvia (rain tree). El Parque turned out to be one major outdoor café with brightly colored chairs and tables.

Luis Jaime walked up to the Land Cruiser and immediately inviting us for a cup of coffee. Many more followed. We clicked, got talking and never stopped. Sometimes it happens like that.

Colombian Coffee (©photocoen)

From coffee we went to a beer and that evening, at his finca (farm) the three of us shared half a bottle of whiskey, talking until after midnight about our lives, the world and – as it goes in these kind of conversations – how to make it a better place.

The Secrets of Growing and Processing Coffee

Even before breakfast we were introduced to the world of coffee that characterizes this area. Luis Jaime’s manager, Julio, taught us how to roast coffee beans. Not with a fancy machine, but simply in an old popcorn pan adjusted a bit to roast coffee beans. We appreciate simple solutions.

Roasted and ground coffee, Colombia (©photocoen)

“In fact, it can be simpler,” Luis Jaime said. “Just use any pan and keep on stirring until the coffee beans start popping (similar to popcorn). That’s how the local people (used to) do it all the time.”

During our stay in El Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s ‘official’ coffee region south from here, we had visited a number of coffee farms. We thought we knew what there was to know about the process of growing coffee.

Not so. We saw and learned many new things from Luis Jaime. Which only shows that having seen something once, or twice, doesn’t mean there is nothing more to it. The differences in growing and processing coffee may have to do with climate, the type of coffee beans, and culture, to name just a few of the aspects.

Coffee Farm in Colombia (©photocoen)
Sitting next to the three basins in which the three qualities of coffee beans are separated.

One aspect is the season. Here they process coffee beans differently in high season than in low season. This finca has a machine to select the coffee beans into three categories: passilla, corriente and type federacion. However, the machine works well only with large quantities of coffee beans. Now, in low season, the selection is a manually done job, as we could see today.

Another thing we hadn’t seen in El Eje Cafetero (part of Colombia’s Coffee Cultural Landscape recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site) were tubes running across plantations, as we saw here. Instead of bringing the harvested beans to the farm by mule, the coffee beans are led through tubes filled water that run everywhere across the plantations, which especially in very steep areas is much more efficient.

After our breakfast, with of course a cup of coffee made of freshly roasted beans, we explored the valleys around the farm. We bounced up and down to a mountain top in a four-wheel drive to get a view of the region, stopped to admire red, orange and green coffee beans, and learned about the challenges of growing coffee.

For example, Luis Jaime, had tried growing his coffee organically but hadn’t succeeded. It is too much of a monoculture. He is a member of the Rainforest Alliance though, an international nonprofit organization that works to conserve biodiversity and ensures sustainable livelihoods.

See the tube running above the coffee plants?
See the tube running above the coffee plants?
Coffee Beans (©photocoen)
Luis Jaime: a passionate coffee grower as well as story teller.
Luis Jaime: a passionate coffee grower as well as a story teller.
Exploring Colombia's Coffee Culture
Fun fact: why plant eucalyptus trees along the trails, most noticeably in curves? In case the 4×4’s brakes stop working: better run into a tree than crashing down the plantation.

Tasting Coffee

One of the fun, and also new, things today was tasting coffee. No, not just in a regular café with a bunch of friends, but the official way. Like it’s done by a taster, pretty much like you have people tasting wine for their profession. This was done at the coöperation where Luis Jaime sells his coffee beans.

Here we met León, who checks the incoming beans for quality and quantity before setting the price (there is a day price for coffee, but this can go up or down depending on the quality of the specific coffee beans).

On arrival the beans are first undone of their shell.
On arrival the beans are first undone of their shell.
Separating the coffee beans in different sizes.
Separating the coffee beans in different sizes.
Separating the perfect beans from the damaged beans.
Separating the perfect beans from the damaged beans.

The coöperation had recently set up a lab, a separate office with a coffee roasting machine and a coffee maker. Tasting is done like wine: not by consuming huge amounts of the beverage, but by looking at it, smelling it, sucking it up in your mouth with a lot of noise and swirling the coffee in your mouth before spitting it out.León made six cups of the same coffee beans, and one of the elements to check the coffee’s quality is that the taste/color/smell should be the same of all six cups.

León made six cups of the same coffee beans, and one of the elements to check the coffee’s quality is that the taste/color/smell should be the same of all six cups.

Tasting Coffee, Colombia (©photocoen)
Tasting Coffee, Colombia (©photocoen)

When saying goodbye, León handed us the bag of the coffee he had just roasted and ground up. For two days the Land Cruiser’s interior pleasantly smelled of fresh coffee. Coen is now considering to change our coffee making systems (about which you can read here and here): to roast and grind the coffee beans ourselves.

So here it is: one of those beautiful days in traveling. Totally unexpected, ending up at a place that was not on our itinerary, meeting a wonderful stranger who quickly turned into a friend. Thank you, Luis Jaime!

Travel Guides for Colombia

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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on Landcruisingadventure.com or on Instagram.

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