Colombia might have a something of a sullied reputation as the world’s leading producer of ‘cocaína’ but it also produces some of the world’s best Arabica coffee and Colombians themselves are far more likely to shun the white stuff for a more innocuous ‘cafecito’ – Spanish for a little cup of coffee. No Colombian home is complete without a bit of fresh ground coffee – no stash of teabags here – and on the street corners of every Colombian city you’ll find a old guy with a collection of thermos flasks selling cups of coffee or, more precisely, ‘tinto’ – a teeny cup of black filter coffee that’s usually served super sweet.
Coffee here is cultivated by over half a million small-scale growers, typically with farms of less than a couple of hectares each. The bright red fruits, or ‘cherries’, of the coffee bush are picked by hand and, at the end of a hard day’s picking, they’re collected into hessian sacks and loaded onto a mule to be brought down to the farm for processing. The hand-picking means only the ripe cherries are harvested, rather than using machines that ‘strip pick’ the bushes of all their coffee beans, whether ripe or not. Machinery is impossible on the mountain slopes of Colombia and it’s one reason Colombian coffee is thought to be among the best.
During my first trip to Colombia, I visited a few coffee farmhouses, or fincas, and soon developed a taste for a strong black coffee so it was great news to discover there was coffee growing in the garden of our new home. Here in Minca, the coffee harvest is in October so I’d missed it by a few weeks. But, taking a wander between the deep-green leaved coffee bushes in my first week here, I found a few still had some bright red cherries left to pick. On a quiet afternoon, I covered up to avoid the mozzies and headed up the hillside next to the house. Moving from one coffee bush to the next, squelching in the mud, I began picking. The steep gradient and thick mud after weeks of heavy rain conspired to make it tough work but a couple of hours of quiet picking later, listening to the birds, and I returned to the house with a salad bowl now full of coffee cherries.
Luis, the gardener for our house and two neighbouring fincas, had already done most of this year’s picking. He shows me how to pop out the cream-coloured coffee beans – two in each cherry – and I steep them in water overnight to remove the slimy pulp of the fruit.
Luis finds me an old aluminium sheet to lay out my modest harvest of coffee beans to dry,
the metal heating up quickly in the morning sunshine and helping the beans dry out faster. Yet it’s still over a week of sunshine before the beans are dry enough to peel. There’s a brittle, paper-like shell to be removed before roasting and I sit down in the afternoon sunshine with a few backpackers who are staying with us to begin the peel. With many hands it’s light work and we get
all the beans peeled and ready for a little more time in the sunshine in an easy hour of chatting and peeling.
Without their shells, the beans are a pale green and I’m looking forward to roasting them a deep black-brown. The first batch, roasted over a gas hob in a frying pan in our kitchen, is a bit of a gamble. I’m not sure how long the process takes, nor whether the beans are suddenly going to suddenly ‘turn’ - and burn. They gradually change from green to light golden to pale brown and, after nearly half an hour of heat and constant stirring, they take on a shiny black-brown gleam. I take the executive decision: they’re ready.
Of the two types of coffee grown commercially in the world, Arabica coffee – the type grown in Colombia - is considered superior in taste to its rival, Robusta. As the name suggests, Robusta is a hardier plant, less susceptible to diseases such as coffee rust but it tends to produce a bitter tasting coffee. It also contains about 50 per cent more caffeine than the smoother Arabica.
Upon close examination, my coffee beans are each rather mottled, their uneven ‘artisanal’ roasting by frying pan leaving some parts mid-brown and others nearly black. Still, Luis assures me I’ve not burned them and he lends me an old-fashioned ‘molino’ – a hand-cranked metal grinder – for the final stage. Grinding up the beans reassuringly
releases that inimitable aroma of coffee. Phew.
Boiling up some water on the stove, we make some filter coffee the old-fashioned way, passing the water through a thin linen filter filled with a couple of tablespoons of coffee. Sitting on the terrace with friends in the late afternoon sun, we finally get to taste the coffee, more than two weeks after picking the beans. Strong but smooth, I’m pretty pleased with my first ever coffee and it gets a thumbs up all round. After roasting the first lot, I´ve since picked another few batches. There are now beans drying in the sun, with another lot peeled and ready to roast.
After producing my own, albeit meagre, batch; it’ll be hard to drink coffee without thinking about the growers. Buying fair-trade is the only real way to know that those at the bottom of the coffee chain - the ‘cafeteros’ or coffee farmers – are getting a fair price for their coffee beans. A quick check in the larder at manna before I left revealed that manna’s coffee beans are from ‘Equal Exchange’ – a fair-trade tea and coffee co-operative based in Edinburgh. A nosy on their website reveals plenty of fair-trade coffee from the likes of Ethiopia, Sumatra, Peru and ...Colombia. Wrap up warm and enjoy.