Colombia Is Finally Starting to Drink Its Own Coffee
Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world but almost all of the good stuff gets exported. Only recently have Columbians had the means to enjoy coffee made with high quality, homegrown beans.
In Colombia, the coffee you're most likely to come across is tinto. Loosely translated as "inky water," it's a thick, bitter drink made from beans that aren't good enough to export. On the country's coffee farms, they literally call them second class.
Tinto tastes like a concentrated cup of instant, and you can buy it from street vendors for pennies. Your average Colombian makes tinto at home every day using a traditional jug and cloth filter, and usually loads it with sugar and milk to mask the bitterness.
Colombia produces some of the best coffee in the world but the vast majority of it is exported, which is why locals have to make do with third-rate beans for their daily tinto. Only very recently have Colombians started to keep their high quality homegrown beans for themselves, meaning the country's coffee culture is surprisingly young.
One of the guys leading the charge is Diego Fernando Campos. He's the country's top barista, having won national championships in 2014 and 2016. But the 26-year-old Colombian didn't even drink coffee until a few years ago.
"In my home town, we just drank hot chocolate or agua panela, which is sugar cane with water," he tells me. "Colombians produce the best coffee in the world, but we don't drink the best coffee. We drink commercial ones. No one understands what it means to drink a special [artisan] coffee, and they don't understand why they have to pay more for it.
Campos works at Amor Perfecto, a coffee house in a residential suburb of Colombia's capital, Bogotá. He sees it as part of his job to inform his countrymen about high quality specialty coffee. Not only does he talk his customers through how he makes their orders, but he starts right at the beginning: with where and how the coffee is grown, processed, and roasted.
Punters at Amor Perfecto can select their beans, deciding everything from the acidity levels and fermentation period, the altitude and estate where it was grown—even the name of the farmer. I choose pink Bourbon (a rare variety of Arabica beans that ripen to be pink) grown by Edgar Motta in Huila, a coffee department in the south of the country.
"If we want to keep the good stuff in the country, we need to start drinking more of that good stuff," Campos says as he carefully weighs out 21 grams of finely ground beans. "As Colombians, we need to feel proud about the coffee [we export], and also drink that coffee."
Campos dampens a filter and places it, along with the coffee, in an AeroPress, The resulting cup has delicate floral and chamomile notes, balanced with a sharp sourness.
With every bag of coffee that Amor Perfecto buys in, the team goes through a meticulous process of deciding exactly how it's roasted. Each variety is precisely roasted to extract the best flavour—usually that's light or medium, explains Campos.
"The flavour profile comes from the coffee tree, so that depends on the altitude, rain, sun—the whole environment. For us it's important to understand the whole process: when it was harvested, how it was milled."
Next we taste a Caturra variety of coffee, produced by Noralba Gómez, promising maple syrup, cinnamon, and green grape flavours. Campos places the coffee in a glass syphon, and slowly pours over filtered water at exactly 92 degrees Celsius.
Campos even talks punters through how to taste the coffee, detecting the acidity and sourness and whether the balance is right.
"When it's cold it's much better," he says, "smoother, sweeter and with more body."
"Colombian coffee is known around the world because of its acidity because it's bright, clean and mostly citrusy—lemon, orange, grapefruit."
Campos believes what sets the country apart as a producer is its micro-climates.
"We have many different coffee departments which produce different qualities and flavour profiles because of their different weather conditions," he explains. "For me, it's like having different countries inside of Colombia."
Coffee from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in the north east of Columbia, for instance, has a chocolatey aftertaste because of the high altitude. The volcanic soil of Nariño in the west meanwhile makes the coffee taste like black currants, with a medium-high acidity.
"As a barista, I think it's my job to make them to encourage Colombians to drink home-grown coffee," Campos says as he prepares a silky cappuccino for a punter. This time it's beans produced by farmer Elix Mario Cariosama in Nariño. The tide is slowly changing, he believes, particularly among the younger students that frequent Amor Perfecto and other coffee shops like it.
"But it will take some time. That's why we try to explain the coffees, the process. We try to give them a better idea what coffee means. We need more people talking about coffee."