Colombia

Click on photos to enlarge. Colombia, South America--1994


In the United states, when people think of quality coffee, they mention Colombia. This is no doubt due to the very effective and expensive advertising campaign waged by the Colombian Coffee bureau that placed Juan Valdez in every living room across the country. I desired to see the real Colombia. What were it's customs, culture, people really like .... and how did all this relate to coffee.


Monday, Lunes 21 of Feb.

So I was on my way to Bogota. I met a guy on the airplane who worked in the petroleum industry. He grew up 10 miles from Bolton, England. We talked about health care, Bosnia, Colombia, Venezuela and many other things. When we arrived at the airport it was late especially after checking through customs.A man took me downtown to the hotel but they were full, we went to the second one and I got checked in on the top, 12th floor with a beautiful outside balcony. That's when I got nervous and started figuring exchange rates. Well my room was 149,000 pesos which was about $220.00 a night, since I was leaving in the morning for Pasto, I didn't think I needed to spend that much. I was just going to sleep at the airport, but a bellman said it would be better at a cheaper hotel that he knew. Well it still cost 79,000 pesos, 'que lastima'! I did get two showers out of it.


Tuesday, Martes, 22 of Feb.

I woke at 4:45 a.m. and took a taxi to the airport (5,000 pesos). After much hassle, I managed to secure a ticket from Bogota to Pasto via Cali. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the Pasto airport by a squadron of soldiers, with the majority under 18 years old. They appeared to feel very important in their uniforms with rifles in their hands. Apparently they were having some problems at the Equador border. But the whole scene was a little alarming to an outsider.While at the airport, I met a doctor who lived in Pasto. His name is Recardo Gaman Mona. He was very hospitable and took me around to find a hotel, 1st 49,000 pesos, 2nd 24,000, finally Hotel San Diego for 12,000 pesos per day (about $15.). Pasto is situated right under a volcano that blew up two years ago and killed 12 researchers but it sure is beautiful. When you land, it is on a plateau (a short one) at about 6,200 ft., then you take a long winding road to Pasto at about 8,200ft., 30 kilometers (18 miles) away.


I'm writing while I am having lunch off the Parque Central. I had some rice with vegetables (con aji) and liquid yogurt (kefir), water, queso typico (cheese), and a plate of mango. What a beautiful town, surrounded by green mountains. It seems pretty low profile. I have been walking around during the lunch hour and everything was dead but now it is bustling. There is so much duplication and like Central America, no one is in a hurry. I finally found a decent cup of coffee, not good, but decent. Everyone here drinks it, 'con leche' .... with lots of milk. All the stores are really small, very simple set ups. There are lots of people waiting around for customers. I talked to Jorge who runs two of the local coffee mills and I am planning to meet him soon for dinner.


I had a good time at dinner. We drove 27 km South east of Pasto up into the mountains to 10,600 ft. and over a ridge into the drainage which holds the jewel 'Laguna de la Cocha', Colombia's largest lake. We talked about coffee in Narino. The shipping problems, shade trees, roasting styles, estate coffees, different types of trees planted and at what altitude, ect.


Wednesday, Miercoles, 23 of Feb.

A full coffee day ..... Everyone has been very generous with their time and hospitality. I awoke at 8am and visit the old mill right in town. In Colombia, coffee comes to mill with the cherries removed and the coffee dried in pergamino (outer parchment of coffee bean). The old mill takes very small shipments from producers in nearby locations, sometimes as little as two bags (300#). This mill tends to be a little higher quality because there is more attention to detail.Next, we (Jorge and I) went around the Volcano Galeras for six hours on dirt roads. The road leaves Pasto, in Narino and proceeds around the volcano between (2,500 and 3,100 meters) (8,000 and 10,500ft.) weaving in and out, up and down, above the clouds and below, everything lush green and seemingly impenetrable except where man has left a patchwork footprint on the mountains.


Picture being on a road that circumnavigates an active volcano, above you are slopes of 30 to 45 degrees, going up 2,000 to 3,000 ft and below, steep slopes with floating clouds dropping 2,000 to 4,000ft. to a thread of water which you know is actually a roaring river. The typical crops ..... corn, potatoes, wheat are at higher locations .... coffee, bananas growing together between 5,000 to 7,000ft. Sugarcane and cactus (used to make coffee bags - the plants name is fique or cabulla) are growing in between everything else. With the sugarcane they make panela, a molasses like candy which locals consume in massive quantities .... either straight or in coffee or tea.


Looking across vast valleys, you see farm land carved out of mountains way above, way below this life line of a road and wonder..... how do they get there let alone farm there!! Donkeys wander down the road loaded with sugarcane, no one directing them.... they know the way home..... the food is there! Everything out here is done by hand .... piles of gravel along the road .... people with shovels or by hand slowly move the rocks into position to arrest erosion. It appears an endless task.


We stopped at a small farm in a typical pueblo carved into the mountain named El Ingenio. A friendly man named Hector showed us his coffee, Catura and Colombia typical. His trees are overgrown in 8 years, then he cuts them back dramatically and loses a year of production but in 2 years, things are back to normal. Banana trees break up the coffee and provide them shade. The town is small, always centered around the Iglesia (church). We spent an hour lost in coffee, banana and avocado trees, hedges of flowers, and small, simple houses of workers.


Hector insisted on serving us lunch at his house ..... a typico almuerzo (lunch) soup of chicken broth with potatoes and beans (sancocho); a grilled chicken breast on a side plate (you know that this bird was probably walking around when you arrived; adding new meaning to the buzz words 'free range chicken'), then the next course, a fried rabbit like creature called curi served with rice, tomato, and a strawberry milk. Hector and his family were warm, hospitable and patient with my endless questions. The kids peeked shyly around the corner stealing glimpses of this weird americano at their table. We returned to Pasto through a deluge and temperatures which vacillated from 60 degrees to 90 degrees and back to 60 degrees again.


Next, we visit the new coffee mill built just five years ago. It is a very efficient set up designed to receive pergamino quickly and sort into 3 categories, supremo (18+ screen), europrep excelco (16-17screen) and excelso. The final sorting is done by hand by a group of women sitting around a conveyor belt to spot color defects and bean deformities. We 'cupped' coffee from five regions around Pasto:


Taminango** - bright, med. full & decent finish

LaUnion** - (Hector) good acidity, clean finish

Policarda - easy drinking, short finish

Sandona - okay, light finish

LaFlorida - soft short finish


The coffee was roasted, ground and then brewed in 400 m.l. beakers ..... a fairly formal tasting. No one coffee really stood out however all were drinkable. The Taminango & LaUnion had the most potential.

Jorge then took us to dinner at Salsolito Restaurante - I had a seafood dish with rice called 'Arroz con Pescado' and everyone drank aguardiente. This is an interesting anise liquor prepared all around the country but each region has it's own style. People buy a half bottle for the table and do mini shot glass shooters during the dinner. The pace of dinner or lunch is very slow with much conversation.


Thursday, Jueves, 24 of Feb.

Well after hitting the sack at 1a.m. the alarm had a very harsh sound at 5:30am. In a little while, I was on the road to Popayan with Niever, the foreman who accepts or rejects the coffee brought to the mill by the small growers.

How to describe the road to Popayan ..... a twisting, winding ribbon with no shoulders ....... rock slides everywhere ...... 40 degree slopes above the road and below .... the typical hillside ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 feet. After 2 hours of driving we stopped at a roadside cafe for a typical meal of chicken and potato soup (sopa) with chicken, rice, and tomato on the side; very hearty. Extremely lean, quick and skittish dogs watch your every bite. While eating chicken you watch the fortunate, still living chickens pecking at the roadside right next to you.


I had a juice called Mora that was like a tart strawberry. Back on the road we drive through hanging clouds hugging the mountainside creating a surreal scene. In two and a half more hours, we are in Popayan at the mill. My first impression was a big ugly city, but that changed with time. Alejandro (the mill foreman) took myself and two others out to a very nice place for lunch. I had Truchea (trout) and a civiche appetizer. The trout was overcooked but good as was the civiche (which apparently is a cooked dish in Colombia). After, he took me to my hotel in "el parte Viajo", the old part of Popayan preserved from colonial days. Very nice; quiet and bustling at the same time; narrow streets, a classic central parque and 'los pueblos blancos' (white stucco houses).


Later, Ale picked me up and we went to a finca that was huge and very sophisticated. The processing equipment was top notch and all the procedures flowed smoothly from cherry to pergamino. The manager of Finca Troje was very friendly and helpful..... obviously a shrewd, talented, resourceful, extremely organized hombre ..... and a good salesman.


Some figures: 2,000,000 trees all old Colombian type, 1 million planted in 1990 and 1 million in 1991; During the harvest, there are 370 pickers and processors. Coffee is divided into quadrants each containing 8,000 plants, but no bourbon type trees. Procedure is to let the trees grow for five years then cut off the plant and get five more years before removing. After the mill and the finca we returned to the hacienda for some 'tinta' (coffee) and more conversation.


By this time, I was approaching sensory overload. In Popayan it has been 100 percent spanish as opposed to Bogota and Narino at 80 percent spanish. My head hurt ..... It was hard to think anymore, I just wanted to go hide and be silent.


After this, we went to a factory which takes the cactus leaves, cabulla or fique, and makes coffee sacks using much machinery, people and organization. The bags each hold 152 pounds of coffee and this plant makes 18 million bags a year, working two shifts per day.


Later, we had dinner with the plant manager and shared a bottle of aguardiente. This is quite a tradition in Colombia. Every state has there own version. Bogata (Cristal) seems to be the favorite, in Popayan, (Caucano) with lots of anise, in Narino it is very strong and called Turbe. Calli and Medillin have their own versions. We sat around and talked (tried to anyway) and had appetizers ..... everything was fried .... fresh, hot, and greasy ..... plantinos, onions and corn chips with ajilla (a kind of homemade Colombian salsa). Then for the main course, I had a typical platter...... talk about a gut bomb special! Picture a big platter with rice and beans on it ...... got it? Now start adding fried plantino, 2 tasty greasy pork ribs, some deep fried hamburger, and to top it off with a fried over easy egg. Let me tell you there is no room for dessert. A final note at Hotel Plazuela in Popayan. What a beautiful set up, in the old, colonial part of town, all white stucco with an inner court of stone. My room was a decent size with a nice bed and a balcony out on to the street..... I was living pretty high!


Friday, Viernes, 25 of Feb.

Another 4 hour sleep night and I was off in the taxi for Cartago. I left my fate in Alejandro's hands and fitfully slept for a couple hours while he drove through blinding rain in typical Colombian style. One hand on the horn, the other on the gearshift, and heaven help you if you are a pedestrian. If you have 100 feet of visibility then you must pass the person in front of you. Alejandro was a good guy, we talked about many things.


After 5 hours we arrived in Cartago at the coffee mill and then on to Pereira. From the mill Rubin (one of the mill bosses) and I wound our way out of Pereira on a tight curving road in the rain. After a half hour of awesome views, we came to a halt with traffic at a standstill way off into the mist .... a truck went crashing off a curve and landed on the same road one bend below.


This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. First the blessing .... after much discussion we followed an 'old timer' on a one lane unimproved, dirt road which by passed the accident and went through endless coffee fincas carved into 35 degree slopes with classic colorful casas wedged in between. On the porches were little kids and adults who looked like they hadn't seen that much activity in years. The other amazing thing was that within a fourth a mile of each other were coffee trees that were in full flower and trees that were full of ripe cherries ready to pick. This is unusual because usually there is a 6 month lag between flowering and full fruit. Temperatures are lower at the bottom of the slope so the trees develop 6 months slower.


2nd, the curse .... because the detour took so long, the Colombian research station we came to visit was closed. After a little pleading they let us in but most of the research guys and tasters had already departed. I still picked up a lot of info, especially about the pestilence affecting 20 -30 % percent of the crop in Colombia. The pestilence is called Broca. It is a little bug that bores into the bean. Many feel that broca came from Equador.


Well just a little side observation about Colombian music. First I consider it extremely ironic that I have been working and struggling to communicate with people who don't know a lick of english and yet the music of choice on the juke box in this outdoor cafe was 90 percent english songs with english words. I was listening to 'A Day in the Life' by the Beatles and all of a sudden I didn't feel alone in Colombia. Anyway, I've listened to a lot of Colombian music in a lot of different places with young and old people and .... they really like their older traditional songs. Acoustic guitars (two or three of them), a little hand held percussion, some killer vocal harmonies .... pretty sappy stuff but I like it.


And here's some 21 year old singing along with a lot of passion. Or how about seeing a 14 year old girl walking down the street with her arm around her mom! Or how about an 18 year old guy giving his 6 year old brother a ride to town on his bike! It's nice to see these close family ties. 'Un differente moda de vida!' Downtown Pereira is a fairly intense place. I'm in an outdoor cafe at midnight while its raining, listening to American songs. Street people come up and ask for money .... 10 year old kids wander around together with darting eyes looking for easy prey. On the way to town today the driver pointed out all the huge coffee fincas owned by drug lords with big fences and satellite dishes out in the back.


So on the way home from the cafe, I wandered into a small dark tavern. I sat in the corner and surveyed the room while sipping my brandy. There was a guy in the middle trying hopelessly to keep his head up. Then there were 4 couples looking pretty bored with it all. In the background Colombian music could be heard. But when I went up to the bar to pay, I saw his stereo system behind the counter .... an old McIntosh tube PreAmp and 2 turntables keyed up to the play 45's and 78's. Packed in old cardboard sleeves, this guy must of have a couple thousand records. And here he is adjusting the volume and switching records carefully for a bunch of people that didn't have a clue! Getting closer to home I looked in this one door and on the back wall it said Zinco Social Club and there were lots of people sitting around big tables with wooden platters in front of them. I walked in to find a bunch of rabid bingo players and I immediately thought of mom. There were two ladies sitting across from me and they were playing eleven cards each. After a while I thought playing three cards would be easy enough.....wrong! I still don't have those spanish numbers down. Besides playing their own cards these ladies were playing mine too! Very humbling. Needless to say, I lost interest quickly.


Saturday, Sabado, 26 of Feb.

This was a five hour sleep night but I know I'll sleep more tonight! I was picked up by Rubin and taken to the coffee mill back in Cartago. Fabio and friends gave me an extensive tour of the mill ..... quite sophisticated, with laser light sorting of defective beans and everything. Every mill I've ever seen though ends with a 40 foot conveyer belt 2 feet wide with coffee moving on it and about 16 women sitting and picking out the defective beans. No matter how advanced, you just can't beat that women's touch! Afterwards we visited a smaller mill in Cartago that is not quite so high tech but they received good quality pergamino from the local growers. Then we went back to the big mill and did an interesting tasting comparing different varieties of coffee from the same area near Pereira.


  • 1) Varidad Colobiano decent...so so ##
  • 2) Corarcolito or Consumo (this had the best flavor with good acidity)
  • 3) Maragojipe, really large (very bland uninspiring - great cosmetics, lousy flavor)
  • 4) Supremo (decent cup, not much acidity).

#1 (varidad) was a relatively new strain developed at the Colombian Research Station. They tout it as a really great but it has a weak trunk and seems to be more susceptible to the infestation 'Broca'. The tasting was done in 400 ml. glass beakers using a ratio of: 13.5 grams of coffee to 300 ml of water or a .04.5 percent solution. While driving around with Rubin, he mentioned two other regions near Alan's finca to the west from Cartago. (Alan is an importer in the U.S. whose Swiss father owns a finca.) Area number one, La Argelia and number two, Cairo.


Presently, we are on our way to the finca of Herman Guarrero. This in many ways was the epitome of my journey to Colombia. Herman is el dueno (the boss). There is still more or less a feudal system in the rural agricultural areas. He is the master, a generous, hospitable one, but those living and working there might as well belong to him. First, Rubin and I drove up a nice concrete driveway. There were 2 houses, white stucco with thatched roofs and in the back, a beautiful brick porch and B.B.Q. (People enjoy living outside here.) The weather is warm, sometimes hot but not like in the lower elevations.


Anyhow, the fuel for the grill is dead coffee branches. In a large plastic bowl was a 5 pound chunk of meat that was crudely cut into steaks and to accompany, are arepas (corn cakes) and fried plantinos. There were two beverages to drink: 1) coffee in a 16 oz. bowl sweetened with panela (a sugar in it's crude stage tasting like molasses) and served at room temperature. 2) Aquardiente, an anise liquor (in this region named Crystal) and one shot glass which was to follow us all over the finca. So we ate while sitting on the side walls of the porch. There were no utensils ..... hands work great. You just pick up a flattened 7 inch square piece of meat and bite off a chunk, then wash it down with luke warm coffee. Needless to say, it was very casual and comfortable. The older foreman had lunch with us.


Surrounding the house spread Herman's finca ..... 40 or so hectares (about 85 acres) of coffee, banana trees for sombreros (shade) and around the house ..... 4 kinds of orange trees, one like kumquat, less than an inch in diameter, coconut and 10 or 15 other fruit trees I'd never heard of, let alone tasted. Herman would walk around and pull them off the trees and we would eat them,. This was somewhat of an act of faith for me but I didn't want to offend my host.


It was now time to start touring the finca by jeep. Herman was a strong believer in Cuturra (type of coffee tree), By now we had done 4 or 5 shots of Crystal. Next we saw where he processed the cherry (not as advanced as the finca in Popayan but decent in size). His foreman put a 100 pound bag of cherry in the hopper and turned on the water and we watched it get depulped and only the damp pergamino remained. These cherries were high.


Sunday, Domingo, 27th de feb.

Well burn out eventually catches up with you! I slept in till 9 a.m. Then I walked through downtown Pereira over to the christian church I had seen on Saturday night. It was standing room only and there was an older black man that was preaching. He talked slowly and I could almost understand what he was saying. These were good people and they wanted to be there. Afterwards I went to an outdoor market with lots of clothing, food and just stuff. It was fun walking around in the hustle and bustle .... talking to people from Equador selling sweaters .... guys using simple wood lathes making big spoons and creative do dads out of wood. Then all of a sudden it down poured and everyone scrambled for the plastic tarps. It seems like rain is a way of life here .... people just stop what they're doing and wait it out. Well it was time to think about heading back to Bogota so I thought just to be safe, I would go to the airport a couple of hours early. (As I found out flying from Bogota to Pasto a week ago, getting tickets in planes can be a hassle) Good thing I was early .... thought I had a reservation but .... Not!! .... and to add insult to injury, both flights to Bogota were sold out! The lady said I'd have to fly standby. She said come back 20 minutes before takeoff and see if you get lucky. So I headed over to the Parque Zoological (the zoo), fortunately right across the street to kill 90 minutes. It was a pretty good zoo but the problem of litter in Central & South America is definitely evident here. Also there were signs not to feed the animals but these often seemed ignored. Then watching a beautiful cougar, leopard or tiger pacing back and forth in a 30 foot cage is enough to make you cry. I guess these problems probably occur in most zoos. Anyhow, I did make it onto the plane to Bogota that afternoon .... a mere 40 minute flight that would have probably been a 5 to 6 hour drive. So here I am in the Bogota trying to find a place to stay that's both affordable and not hazardous to my health. I asked a flight attendant for Avianca who was helpful and eventually I found a room. Her name was Claudia and she also went out to dinner with me. The restaurant was in a blue collar neighborhood: the specialties were chicken and beef .... pretty universal all over Colombia. The beef is usually fairly chewy but flavorful; accompanied by potatoes & platino. It sure is nice to share dinner with someone; she was studying english so we practiced second languages on each other .... I learned a lot about the local culture around Bogota too! Then it was off to bed at the Hotel del Parque.


Monday, 28th de feb.

My last day was full of business meetings in the capital city. I'm convinced that the most journeyman taxi driver from New York City could not survive in Bogota. The ride to city center was about 3 miles and took 30 minutes. I was taken by an elderly gentleman who definitely kept the trip interesting. Between trying to sell me certified emeralds and almost crashing about 10 times, dozing off was not a problem! My first stop was at Vol-cafe on the 13th floor of the hectic downtown area. I met w. Roman Mueggler and we talked coffee for an hour while their sample roaster prepared a tasting of 6 distinct growing regions in Colombia. I gave my pitch for seeing more of an emphasis on quality by stating that I knew there were many roasters willing to pay a higher price for better quality coffee. (ie. - using lower yield varietals or more labor intensive and costly methods of sorting & milling) He replied by saying that his Swiss company exports about 2,000,000 bags (150# ea.) per year.... out of that, only 100,000 bags is for the specialty coffee trade. Statements like that tend to weaken your lobbying power for higher quality coffees. We also discussed typical shipping times for different regions ..... for Narino, it is late Mar. thru May .... Popayan is a little earlier because the climate is milder .... Nieva is more like Dec. thru Feb. To complicate matters, there is usually a fly crop for each distinct region which happens 6 months later than the normal picking season. Then we went to the cupping room & sampled coffee from six distinct regions. All but the Narino were recent deliveries. The tasting was interesting but I took it all with a grain of salt. In each region there are big variations in quality so it is hard to know if you are comparing apples with apples. This was my first opportunity to cup coffee from the Sierra Madre de Santa Marta which I enjoyed very much. Also the Neiva showed well. It seems that in Bucarumga & Sierra Madre there are many small fincas which tend to result in higher quality coffee. Listed below are some brief cupping comments:


Narino stale, cupped older sample Popayan* med. full rounded flavor Neiva** unique, bright, full finish Bucaramunga* a smooth, low acid but with flavor & a big finish Sierra Madre** very green sample, not big in acid but lively Armenia decent, rounded cup.


Next on my 'to do' list was a visit to the F.N.C. (the Colombia national coffee headquarters). Time was short but I did go through their offices in Bogota and pick up some more information. After walking around downtown and seeing the sights, it was time to head for the airport. The taxi driver was fascinating ..... on the way to the airport he told me what he would do if he were president of Colombia. It was a pretty animated conversation given the limitations of my linguistic skills. Well I could go on about clearing 'customs' in Colombia and back in Miami ..... big hassle but all things considered, what a wonderful trip! It was an adventure ..... an experience ..... a burnout (as it seems my trips usually are!). Nothing beats seeing these countries firsthand to really understand the coffee industry from more of a balanced prospective; not just that of a small specialty roaster like myself in the United States of America! Colombia is an amazing land .... full of sights and wonders, from the mystery of the Amazon to the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Madre ..... with different customs and language and food and especially, different priorities in people's lives! It was a privilege to visit Colombia. Like many other places in the world, it defies easy description and any attempt to generalize or stereotype is always an injustice. That is left for those seeking an easy answer. We live in a "been there, done that" age. For me it seems the more I experience; the less I know .... or better stated, I see how much there still remains to know! Since my return, I have had the opportunity to 'cup' green bean samples from various regions in Colombia. After several tastings, I preferred:


Santa Marta rich, full, low acid, long finish Narino full, bright, med finish, good balance Nieva bright, full body, like Costa Rica San Agustin balance and acidity, full finish Bucaramunga old style Bourbon trees with more character


- John Bolton ...... Salt Lake Roasting Co.