After what can only be described as a shitful start to our time in Colombia we’re back to our more traditional travelling ethos of getting out of cities and it’s paying off. We’re off to climb a mountain today, so it’s up at 4:30 and meeting the bus on a cold lonely street at 5am. It’s nearly six before we decide to go back to bed seeing no hint of the bus; fuck you Colombia! It later turns out that the operator didn’t have at least four hikers so they just didn’t find it profitable. Funnily enough this is the exact scenario that I joke with my clients about at work. When a job is drastically deadline based I’ll often reply to a clients panicked follow up with “yeah, you know; I just didn’t think your job was that profitable so we kinda didn’t bother; that’s cool yeah”?… I think this is karma’s aptly tasteless joke, I deliver that line dripping with sarcasm but it’s actually happened to me.
So plan B it is then. We’d heard of a coffee plantation that is a nice setting and does coffee tours; desperate to make something of today, it’s off we go. In our cafes at home we often see advertised where beans come from which is interesting but does it really mean anything? Not to us I have to admit. We now know that Colombian coffee has a few distinct characteristics. Firstly Colombia appears to have a very manual harvesting process which is amazing given that it’s the fourth biggest producer in the world. Secondly Colombian coffee, for this reason, is known to be quite smooth and subtle. Barristers everywhere, feel free to contradict me, just going by what little I was told here in Colombia.
It has to be said that Hacienda Guayabal is a stark contrast to much of Colombia. I’ve been resisting being negative but there’s not a huge amount of style abound. There seems to be money, but it comes across like a classless cliche of tacky ‘new money’ with little appeal. On the other hand Guayabal has a combination of rustic and more grand buildings alongside a beautiful informal garden, the setting just feels great. As opposed to much of Colombia which is sadly a bit like a less polished mall; we exhale, this is more like what we were hoping to see from Colombia. We spy woodpeckers, toucans, vultures and hummingbirds in the wild, genuinely something to inspire.
Our tour is also a surprise, we go through the entire process from seed to cup, literally. We see stages of seedling propagation, planting and crop maintenance, the workers in action picking berries, farm management, classification, processing, drying, washing, roasting all the way through to making a true coffee and how to taste/ recognise characteristics properly. Wow, it’s bloody comprehensive. On the way in I had noted that coffee fields don’t quite have the romance of vineyards, this belief feels embarrassing already. At home we learn so much about wine making but all we know of coffee is what’s in the cup, this experience is truly that, an experience. With just this day I have a lot more confidence in what I feel I know along with an appreciation for what more there is to know, much more of the latter than the former.
So here’s a few interesting facts we learnt about coffee, as it works in Guayabal anyhow:
– Plants are cut back right to the base every 7 years for regeneration.
– Plants are only used for three cycles, i.e. 21 years.
– A mature plant (approx 2m tall) produces about 2000 good beans per year.
– A typical espresso requires 50 beans, yes just 40 cups per year.
– Beans with parasites or dried out beans are commonly used for instant coffee, ouch!
– Colombia exports nearly all ‘good’ beans (good meaning larger beans with intact skins that sink in water), very few premium ones are kept in Colombia.
– Under roasted beans are best for tasting as they expose more characteristics. Medium roasted are best for enjoying and over roasted are best for hiding dodgy beans. A quick smell comparison displays this amazingly.
– Basically no mass market coffee is not over roasted, from our smell test this seems about right too, ‘proper’ medium roasting is sadly a bit of an unfamiliar smell to us.
This day has left us hungry to learn more, now appreciating a huge amount more about our coffee, and showing how much we don’t know at all. Hopefully we will get to try a similar experience in another country to see a different perspective. What we got today was a blistering amount of passion about coffee, immense pride in Colombian quality and a genuine concern about the degradation of global coffee trends. Jorge is our guide and its his drive and intuitive grasp on matters of tact, taste, class and integrity set him and Guayabal apart from the ‘human’ Colombia we’ve seen so far. With heads spinning we leave feeling that Colombia is a premium producer sticking to manual quality production methods against a global trend of Starbucks price driven mass production rubbish.
There’s a trend appearing here that Colombia has a polarising presentation from a tourist point of view: Things that are human reliant and things that are natural assets. We’ve had very little positive experience with social aspects, but the natural world here is beautiful. Coffee is a good example, in a global coffee powerhouse, we have found pretty average coffee everywhere but the agriculture is simple and beautiful, it’s bizarre and sad. But we are only just now getting to some of what Colombia has to offer, lets hope we’ve turned a corner.