Monday, April 17, 2017

is that a chocolate layer i taste?

We spent the day today amongst the grands crus of Bordeaux. The equivalent of Chateau Latour, perhaps. Well, at least, Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron.

The fact that we were in Colombia and the subject was coffee does not matter. And that needs a little explanation.

Last night we arranged a coffee plantation tour with a local guide, Paula, and her husband-driver, Juan Carlos. They picked us up in the morning at our hotel, and we were on our way to Santa Rosa de Cabal. More accurately, to Finca El Placer. "Us" being the traveling trio along with Alejandra, a Chilean who works for the United Nations as an observer of the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government.

Pereira is surrounded by coffee plantations. It is not a coincidence that it is also surrounded by steep mountainsides. Coffee and steep are natural partners.

Finca El Placer has two missions: to grow both commercial and specialty coffees. The plantation once contained 200 hectares -- large for the average coffee plantation. Like many of the local farmers, the owner, Juan Carlos Ortega, has been forced to sell off some of his land to keep the plantation operating. He now grows only on 22 hectares.

You can read elsewhere about the byzantine relationships between international coffee buyers, the local growers, and the cooperatives to which the growers belong. Suffice it say, the grower receives only 7 cents for each dollar sold at retail. Of the amount the grower receives, 75% is labor cost.

Colombia has long sent its best coffee out of the country -- with the exception of a small contingent of growers who are attempting to creating an internal premium coffee market (and I may tell you more about that tomorrow). Juan Carlos's coffee -- both the commercial and the specialty varieties -- are destined for export.

Coffee trees are slow growers. It takes 
a minimum of 30 months before a newly-planted tree will produce fruit -- or cherries, as the professionals call them. The trees will then grow for seven years, be cut back to the roots for another 5 five years of growth, and then be cut back a second time -- again for five years of growth.

During that time, coffee fads change. Some buyers want coffee grown in shades. Others only coffee grown in sunshine. It is a bit like steering an oil tanker through a storm with constantly shifting hazards.

That is one reason acreage is sold. Another is the shifting market that any commodity faces. Tied with the expense of water and the lack of pickers, some of the growers simply throw in the towel.

It is easy to see why it is hard to find adequate pickers. Most of the plantations are on steep hillsides and harvesting is often done in very difficult conditions -- spiders, scorpions, rain.

My cousin Dan makes it look easy. But if any of us had been forced to live off of the coffee we picked, we would have starved.

Don Carlos taught us how coffee gets from the cherry to the cup. How the cherries are fermented for 2 to 4 days to make the removal of the skin easier. How the beans are then dried -- and, in most cases, shipped off to the international buyers as green, unroasted beans.

The next step is roasting -- usually, in large commercial roasters. Don Carlos used a specially-designed pan that stirred the beans while they roasted. Time, sound, smell, and color lets the person roasting the beans know when to stop the process and air-cool them.

And this is where everything seems to go a bit wine school crazy.

According to Don Carlos, the beans should be hand-ground to ensure the proper grind is obtained. His grinder looked like something my grandmother used to mince beef tongue for sandwiches.

Coffee cannot be brewed in just any pot. It needs a special filter (the Japanese and Germans seem to have the best) that contains the right size hole for the brew to exit and bevels to properly funnel the water.

The water is the central key to successful coffee -- 90% of the taste is in the water. The temperature must never be above boiling or the coffee will taste burnt. The paper filter is rinsed to remove residue and the carafe is warmed with water.

The ground coffee is then added to the filter allowing itself to level, and the brewer creates a small hole in the middle to allow the water to completely pass through the grind without lifting it.

It must have taken Don Carlos at least five minutes to carefully pour the water over the top of the grind at about the same rate the water was passing through the filter into the carafe.

His goal is to serve the coffee no more than 10 minutes from the time the beans are roasted. And so he did.

I am not a coffee connoisseur. I am not even a coffee consumer. But I found his two offerings interesting. One was a medium grind. The darker is a fine grind.

Even though I tasted some subtle flavors in the coffee (and the adjectives thrown around would have thrilled the soul of an oenophile), I suspect the brew served could just as easily been served at a truck stop or Denny's.

But, remember, I hardly pass as a coffee expert.

What I learned to appreciate most of all is the hard work and time that both the growers and pickers put in to ensure that cups of coffee appear on tables throughout the world. Whether or not the resulting brew is indifferent.

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