Thursday, June 08, 2017

sipping my coffee

Visiting Colombia without seeing its coffee country would be like visiting Greece and skipping the Acropolis. After all, Colombia is the third largest grower of coffee in the world -- assuming, as I do, that coffee is not grown on Tralfamadore.

So, after several days in Bogota, off we went to Colombia's Coffee Zone in the west. The land of Juan Valdez.

Despite its importance to the Colombian economy, coffee is not native to the country. Or to any of the Americas. Its origin is African.

By a happy coincidence, coffee was being introduced to Europe just as Colombia was being conquered by the Spanish.  Remember those large tracts of land the Spanish crown sold to Spanish settlers? Eventually, many of them were turned into huge coffee plantations that were then turned into much smaller coffee plantations during Colombia's civil wars.

It turns out that the quality of coffee is very dependent upon its terroir. If the use of that French term makes you think I have confused coffee with wine, you are partially correct. Just like wine, the combination of climate, soil, and, particularly, altitude determine the taste of each variety of coffee.

With a bit of experimentation, the Colombians discovered the various types of arabica beans produced the best coffee when grown in the Andes of western Colombia. And that is still true. Some of the best coffee in the world comes from Colombia's Coffee Zone.

We visited two coffee plantations. I have already told you about the first, Finca El Placer, (is that a chocolate layer i taste?), where we learned about the growing cycle of coffee, its harvesting and processing, and the fussy manner that aficionados affect in brewing a cuppa.

Our second visit covered a lot of the same ground. Rather than repeat it, I will let you decide if you want to review that visit.

Our second visit was to a larger operation -- Recuca. Even though it is a working coffee plantation, the owners have discovered that turning a portion of their land into a coffee Disneyland is remunerative for them, and both amusing and educational for tourists.

Recuca outfits its guides in traditional coffee harvester outfits (the type of outfits that are described as traditional, but are usually only seen on fiesta days). The guides then lead their charges down concrete paths past a series of exhibits with some fascinating facts about coffee. (The fact that it starts with the apocraphyl -- and very unlikely -- tale of the Ethiopian Kaldi who discovered coffee when his goats ate some beans and started prancing about, was more diverting than off-putting.)

Our guide, Jefferson, walked us through the plantation and the minutiae of coffee. Most of which were new -- and surprising -- to me.

I knew there were two major varieties of arabica and robusta. Robusta, as its name implies, is far more hardy than arabica, and is usually grown in coastal areas of the tropics. Brazil. Africa. Vietnam.

Arabica is the preferred variety for most connoisseurs. What I did not know is that there are multiple types of arabica -- each having a different degree of hardiness, against the army of plagues that attack coffee, and producing best at specific altitudes.

Even within a specific type, the output will vary depending at the altitude it is grown. The favored type at Recuca is castillo. Its range is 1200 to 1800 meters. If grown too high, the coffee will be sour; if too low it will be bitter.

The chart that truly caught me out was the worldwide consumption of coffee, showing the national consumption of coffee by weight.

I always thought the United States was a big coffee consumer -- compared with Britain, for instance. It turns out, we are in the same category as Britain. Third-rate coffee consumers. The champions are the Scandinavians.

What surprised me most, though, was how few kilos the Colombians consume. They consume no more coffee than Mexicans do even though Colombia is the one of the heavyweights in growing the stuff.

Jefferson had a quick answer for that anomaly.

If you look over his left shoulder, you will see a photograph of a beetle. It is a coffee berry borer beetle. It has been an increasing problem in Colombia since its arrival in 1988.

When the a female beetle bores into the coffee berry, she lays a clutch of eggs. The larvae then start feeding on the bean itself.

During the sorting process, any cherry that shows beetle damage is shunted to the pile of cherries that will be processed solely for Colombian consumption. None of it is exported. For a very good reason.

To kill the larvae, the beans will be roasted at a very high temperature giving them a burnt taste. Because the taste is so strong, Colombians do not use much ground coffee in brewing.

That is why the chart at Recuca is a bit misleading. Colombians drink lots of coffee. A per-cup chart would indicate that. They simply do not use much of their burnt beans to make it.

I can attest that coffee served in most places in Colombia is just as bad as that sounds. That is why I truly admire the work Jesus Martin is doing to bring a good brew home to Colombia (coming to jesus).

Near the end of our tour, Jefferson (who turned out to be a very good comedian) showed us the outfits most coffee harvesters wear. He pointed out that his costume would not be very good protection from the rain, sun, dust, spiders, and scorpions that the pickers encounter. But this one is.

He called it his Coffee Terrorist outfit. A bit of gallows humor from a native whose country has faced a lot of terrorism from the now-defeated FARC.

Take a look at the "bamboo" the building is made of. Colombia has two types of bamboo. We are all aware of the yellow bamboo. But Colombia has a native green variety known as guadua. I will talk about it a bit later -- especially, its use as a building material.

But, it is most impressive in its natural state. You can see a grove of guadua at the center right in this panorama of the Recuca plantation.

There is something soothing and majestic about it in the wild. I get the same feeling from it that I do when looking at massive weeping willows.

But, we were talking about coffee, and I have come to the end of that conversation.

Gaining knowledge is the best goal of all travel. And I know much more about coffee than before I went to Colombia.

I am certainly not a connoisseur. I didn't drink coffee before I went there, and I have not started since I returned.

But I have a far greater respect for what goes into growing, harvesting, and producing what people drink the world over.

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