Coffee & Empanadas: Colombia in a nutshell

When I visited Sumatra last year, it seemed the whole island was geared for coffee production. In that sense Colombia is no different. Throughout the hills that reside near towns, coffee farms spread through the land, and then in each town there are the businesses that support the farms – mills, nurseries, fertilizer agents etc.

Coffee provides the livelihood for many.

With these photos I hope to provide a small glimpse to the other side of coffee. That middle part of the world where coffee is grown and relatively hardly consumed. It’s we, on the outskirts of the world who do the drinking of it.

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Getting into Leticia from Iquitos, Peru involved a 9 hour (or 3 day) boat ride down the Amazon river.

I started my Colombian journey from Leticia, a small town along the Amazon which shares borders with Brazil (Tabatinga) and Peru. From there I flew to Bogotá, and then on to Neiva, which is the capital of a coffee region called Huila. I spent my coffee adventure there in the towns of Garzón and El Pital.

Coffee seedling
First light. A coffea arabica seedling sprouting from the ground in a nursery. El Pital, Huila, Colombia

Getting coffee to your cup (or to my bottles) requires many hands. It starts with the farmer who grows the coffea arabica plants which produce cherries. Each coffee cherry contains two little beans which are stuck together with a parchment, which is covered by the flesh of the cherry and then the skin.

A farmers work never ends.
A farmers work never ends. While 13 pickers work during the harvest season, the farmer must continually manage the land by pruning, weeding, planting, fertilizing etc.

The average farm size in Colombia is 5ha, so you’ve mostly got small independent growers who sell into the greater pool of coffee which is sold on.

Picking coffee
I picked for long enough to learn some technique: if you cup your hands, you can use your thumb and forefingers to do the picking, dropping the cherries into your cupped hands.

After the cherries are picked they are put through a pulper, which separates the skin from the beans. The pulped coffee (now a parchment covered in sticky flesh) goes straight into a pool of water, where it’s washed over time. During this, the bad beans will float and are skimmed off.

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The main varieties of coffee in Colombia are Castillo and Caturra
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Through Colombia are three main mountain ranges stemming from the Andes – ‘Cordillera’ Central, Oriental and Occidental. This mountainous landscape, paired with the long daylight hours provide the perfect foundation for growing coffee. They also provide absolutely stunning scenery.
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Señor Don Henry,  El Pital, Huila

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After washing, the coffee is put into sacks and taken on the back of a truck to a mill in the closest town. At this stage, the coffee is generally purchased from the farmer by the mill, at a price agreed on based on the C price. The job of the mill is to dry and grade the coffee, so it’s all spread out on beds under the sun or in a great, slow burning furnace. I believe the mills have the hardest workers in the industry. The guys here were manually moving 70Kg sacks from morning till night. A constant rotation of the coffee in and out. It was particularly busy as it was the middle of the harvest season, but indeed it was all manual- in, dry, out. Tonnes every hour.

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Drying out the coffee means spreading it along drying beds. This would be very relaxing if it wasn’t for the 40°C heat. Free sauna*
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And free gym membership*
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Tools of the trade
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The furnace was definitely not as fun as it sounds.

After drying is the grading. The goal here is to sort the billions of beans from high grade and high price coffee to low grade and low price coffee. Grading systems vary depending on country and abilities of the mill, there can be like 6 tiers but generally all espresso coffee that we get in NZ is high grade and the low grade is used for the local market and for instant coffee (so when you see 100% arabica on instant coffee this is what you’re getting). The beans can be graded in many ways –

  • Giant vibrating treadmills which are on a slight angle;
  • Chutes with lasers which autonomously detect faults in a row of falling coffee beans, sorting them with gust of air and;
  • Conveyor belts which have rows of pluckers either side who are trained to pluck out defects.

Almost all grading will have a manual component included at the end.

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Coffee coming out of the end of the treadmill. This is the good stuff.
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This photo is from Sumatra, but it’s the same process in all of coffee. Bad beans are manually plucked out as a means of quality control
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This is what low grade arabica looks like, also known as 100% arabica instant coffee.

And finally, once graded and priced it’s tasted and hopefully purchased by an exporter, who will allow importers from around the world to taste and buy it. To the importers it will travel in its green state, where it can last a year or so before it would be roasted.

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You could write a novel about each of these processes and the alternatives to them but this is a solid picture of the process of coffee production. The point I’d like to reiterate is to appreciate your cup.

Cupping four Colombian origins in Bogota
Cupping four Colombian origins in Bogota. Cupping is an international standardised protocol for the tasting of coffee. It’s what buyers, scorers and coffee afficionados do.
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Azahar in Bogota is one of a handful of excellent specialty coffee cafes popping up in Colombia

It was awesome to find a number of great specialty coffee cafes through the bigger cities: Azahar, Catacion Publica and Cafe Usaquen in Bogota proudly showcase Colombia’s finest coffee and do a darn good job of it too.

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Here you can see more photos of the non-coffee part of the adventure, Peru and Colombia (via Imgur album)

Thank you to Henrik from John Burton Ltd in NZ

Gracias mis amigos Juan Manual y familia, Pablo, Danilo, Diana y Gabriela de Garzón, Yaneth y familia Gomez de El Pital y Señor Don Henry. Ustedes muy amable, y tienen un pais bonita. Gracias por el bonitos recuerdos.

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