Coffee is by far the most important liquid in the entire universe, and we met some of the farmers who dedicate their lives to the backbreaking work of producing it by hand.
My wife and I were traveling in Colombia recently and took this very memorable and unique day-trip from the capital Bogotá with Andes EcoTours. It was low season and we booked last minute, so we ended up alone with our driver Hector and Chantelle, our expert guide.
The tour is a result of years of collaboration between Andes EcoTours and a community of coffee farmers living in the hills near Silvania, a coffee distribution town south-east of the capital. There is no way we would have been able to arrange such a trip ourselves, or even get there, since the Colombian roads are mountainous, rough, and hard to navigate. The 90-km route also took over two hours each way, mostly because Bogotá is a traffic nightmare.
So it was best to lean back and let the professionals handle things!
The Artisanal Coffee Making Process
There are two types of coffee bean: Robusto and Arabica. Colombian coffee is almost exclusively Arabica, which most people prefer because it’s a smoother taste. That type of coffee bush prefers partial shade, lots of humidity, warmth, and tons of nutrients, and elevations of between 1200 and 1800 meters above sea level. The conditions on the jungle-covered volcanic mountain slopes are perfect for them.
We visited two different farms which had slightly different techniques and equipment. I have no idea how a factory would produce coffee, but what we saw instead was the whole manual process from picking beans to roasting them. The steps are:
- Harvest the beans
- Peel them
- Dry them
- Roast them and grind them
- Make amazingly smooth Colombian coffee!
Harvest the Beans
First you need to pick the coffee beans from the bushes and then sort the good beans from the bad (containing insects or disease).
Picking the beans is easy enough – simply walk around in the jungle from bush to bush, try not to slip down the slopes and don’t get tangled up in vines and branches. Find a coffee bush with red berries on it – those are ready for picking. Pull the berries off and put them in the little basket hanging at the front of your waist. Job done!
Once the basket is full, the farmers go home and start sorting them. The farmers have to discard berries that look diseased or with little holes in them – when peeled back there might be little grubs inside.
Peel the Beans
Next step is peeling. This involves a grinder of some kind. There are machines that are built for peeling but might cost more money than the family normally has, so if these are available it is usually because of a government grant or some kind of loan.
But either way the principle is to put the berries through a grinder which peels them and deposits the two halves of the coffee bean in a container. The peeled coffee bean halves look like little peanuts and taste sweet when you eat them.
Dry the Beans
The farmer then sets the beans aside to fully dry out. This step can take up to 15 days, varying based on the weather – the damper it is, the longer it takes.
On the two farms there were a couple of ways to dry the beans. One involves a set of “drying nets” which dries them out more quickly. Every day the farmer, Miguel Ubaque, rakes the beans to ensure uniform drying. He also hand-sorts them to remove any bad beans and separate the highest quality (which is exported internationally) from the lower quality (which is consumed domestically).
Another farmer just leaves the beans unattended in his hot attic for a couple of weeks. This is a simpler and less labour-intensive approach (but also with less quality control).
If the farmer doesn’t have fancy equipment to float the seed husks and fragments away, there is another step – put the peeled seeds in a bowl, swirl them around and blog on the side of the bowl. The light husks and fragments blow away leaving only the seeds themselves.
Roast Them and Grind Them
Now the beans need to be roasted (that’s where they get their dark black or brown colour and enhanced flavour. All that is needed is an open flame, and some patience!
And…now grind the beans, boil the coffee grinds, and drink the most deliciously smooth coffee in the world! The Colombians like to add a slice of citrus.
Coffee Distribution and Export
As mentioned before, there are two markets for the coffee. Depending on what kind of equipment the farmers have, and what kind of trouble they want to go to, they can take the dry but unroasted beans to a coffee distribution warehouse.
There beans are indiscriminately combined with those from other farms in the region, and left in a pile until ready to bag and ship to their processing destinations (usually domestic markets).
We visited such a warehouse in Silvania, the nearby coffee town. While there we watched as a farmer came in, dropped off his beans, and got his money in just a couple of minutes.
There is also the option to export the beans. This brings more money but also requires much more work and quality control. The beans are graded and marked by government experts and cannot be exported unless they achieve at least 80 out of 100 points.
One of the farmers we visited, Miguel, exports his beans. He is justifiably proud of his 85 score (which makes truly delicious coffee)!
Overall this was an amazingly informative tour, and one we could not have enjoyed without the arrangements by Andes EcoTours and their long collaboration with the coffee farming families of Tibacuy. It was a high point of our trip to Colombia and gave me a real appreciation for the hard work that goes into every cup of coffee I drink.