For years Colombians have exported all their best beans, preferring to sip on sugary ‘tinto’ instead of real coffee. In Bogota however a revolution is brewing, and James Pengelley is keen to meet those who are stirring it up…
The first word on most peoples’ lips when conversation turns to Colombia is unlikely to be coffee, but here’s something you probably don’t know: Colombia is the second largest producer of arabica coffee beans in the world (churning out nearly 9 million bags every 12 months), yet it consumes only 2% of the coffee it produces. This would be the unthinkable equivalent of the Saudis exporting all their oil, or France selling all its wine.
The “average” cup of Colombian coffee, is a sugary brew called tinto. It’s typically made from low-grade coffee which, to my senses, tastes more like water that has had coffee waved at it, with subtle undertones of old socks. Tinto is endemic in Colombia: don’t be surprised if you start noticing tall stainless steel coffee percolators in the corner of offices and every pokey corner store all over Colombia, or if you here cries of “tinto, tinto, tinto” along the grungy streets of Bogota’s centre, from those who make their living selling small espresso-sized cups of the stuff out of thermos-laden, home-made carts and trolleys.
The “average” cup of Colombian coffee, is a sugary brew called tinto. It tastes more like water that has had coffee waved at it, with subtle undertones of old socks.
The prevalence of tinto is a real mystery, if you consider the spin of exotic appeal that the Colombian coffee lining our supermarket shelves back home is afforded. In fact, it took me a little while, several failed attempts and a little perseverance to educate myself as to the reality of Colombian coffee.
Where traditionally Colombian coffee has been associated (at least on the tourist trail) with the eje cafetero – Colombia’s coffee region which includes the stunning town of Salento, the shifting local appreciation of homegrown quality means even those stopping over for a day or two in the capital now have access to the two key ingredients in any revolution: an education, and its subscribing revolutionaries.
It’s a bright Saturday morning in the north of the city as I sit down with Jaime Duque in one corner of his answer to Colombian tinto. The E y D Café can be found in Rosales, home to Bogota’s Zona G – the city’s Gourmet Zone, and the epicentre of its uber-chic contemporary dining scene. Duque’s cafe serves up a different league of coffee all together. The bar is lined with huge jars of single origin coffee varieties from different regions in Colombia that are spread across an area covering more than 60,000 square kilometres of the mountainous countryside. The café is bright and modern – a far cry from your average, pokey, tinto-selling tienda – and one entire corner of the room is a glass-walled Coffee Lab, where Duque runs coffee tasting workshops to teach people about different drying, roasting and processing methods and the way this affects the final product.
Education seems to be the real theme for Colombians like Duque, who are redefining the regard their people and their culture have for coffee. “We don’t have enough mouths to consume the amount of coffee we produce,” Duque explains to me as we sit with his wife and two children in one corner of his café. “It doesn’t make sense. The coffee we make here is like no other.” He pauses to gather his thoughts. “But people are so used to drinking tinto, they don’t really know what Colombian coffee is all about, from the growing, to the harvesting, right through to the roasting and preparation. To them, it’s all the same but that’s just not true.”
“It doesn’t make sense. The coffee we make here is like no other… But people are so used to drinking tinto, they don’t really know what Colombian coffee is all about.”
Jaime goes on to explain to me that the result of exporting so much locally grown coffee is simply that what is left in the country is bitter and low-grade. One sip of tinto and I have no doubt what he tells me is true, yet a huge shift has been brewing in Colombian coffee culture since the doors of only the second of its Starbucks-esque cafés, Juan Valdez, opened its doors in 2002. Modern café chains, like Juan Valdez and Oma, which are synonymous with the inner city lifestyle, can now be seen on almost every other corner in the major cities and make locally-produced, high-quality coffee so much more accessible to Colombians, despite there being long way to go for Colombia’s coffee culture in terms of recognition and appreciation of a true national asset. As one student of mine recently protested: “what do you mean when you ask us why Colombians prefer to drink tinto instead of regular coffee?”
Duque later confesses to me that, in setting up his café, he didn’t have deluded dreams of changing the way Colombians relate to coffee all by himself. As his daughters climb on to his lap and over the other side, he smiles at me, and it’s easy to see he’s a realist. It is, however, a fierce belief in his country and its coffee that makes his café a special place. “This is a space to showcase Colombian coffee for what it really is. And little by little, people, Colombian people, will leave with a little bit more knowledge, appreciation of, and curiosity for our coffee.”
Pride is an infectious condition that underlies all revolutions and anyone who has spent any amount of time in Colombia will attest to the passion and sense of national pride that is so distinctive of the country and its people. I find the prevalence, the near-reverence that Colombians hold for tinto so baffling in the context of the range, choice, diversity and quality (and not to mention, the price) of fine Colombian coffee. All this makes you wonder, just how much passion, just how many educators, how many revolutionaries does the country need to reach a critical mass, and turn Colombian coffee into something every citizen of the country can, and should be, proud of.
At the other end of town, nestled in the back of a small colonial arcade adjoined to a pedestrian mall that runs between two of the oldest churches in the city, Antonio Romero’s Arte y Pasión Café is just getting the day’s first trickle of customers, as I settle in for a morning master class with the former national barista champion. “Marcela is completing our level 2 barista course this week,” Romero tells me of the young lady who has just arrived at the café and is donning her apron as we speak. She spends the next two hours working behind the bar, as I chat to Romero; although there are occasional intermissions during which he shoots over to her side and briefs her on the details and specifics of her next cup. “She has the basic knowledge of the espresso, but she is now refining her ability to extract an espresso with texture. An espresso with body.”
The intensity of Antonio’s passion is evident in the moment to moment running of the café. One second he is mid-sentence, the next he jumps up from his seat to join Marcela at a customer’s table where it is his custom to kneel at the table to demonstrate his pouring technique to his students, and explain a little about the coffee awaiting his clients’ lips. “This is a coffee from Nariño, in the south of Colombia,” he explains. “It has a slightly higher acidity, some hints of citric fruit and red fruits. Enjoy!” And for second I wonder if he is about to produce a glass of oak-aged wine, or craft beer.
As the morning rolls from one type of coffee to the next, a commitment to his trade and a longing to educate his own people shines through, and it becomes increasingly evident throughout my conversation with Antonio that coffee is a complex beast about which I, along with many Colombians, still have much to learn.
Antonio takes me upstairs to show me around the café. He introduces me to three coffee farmers watching a presentation, and I have barely enough time to smile back at them with a typical Colombian “mucho gusto” before I am cordially invited by the lady sitting closest to me to visit her coffee plantation less than a 90-minute bus ride from Bogota’s main bus terminal. Such is the enthusiasm and pride that unifies an industry that deserves so much more domestic recognition than it has traditionally received.
Sat in Romero’s café, it’s hard not to feel a million miles away from the roughshod urban centre of Bogota’s colonial centre, and I get the sense that this is one of those few places (especially this far south of Zona G) that reflects the dreams and hopes of how so many Bogotanos imagine their city in the not-too-distant future: stylish, contemporary and comfortably progressive.
Romero tells me his initial objective was to open a restaurant, but once he added the café in the last round of renovations, his instinctual passion for great coffee kicked into overdrive.
The morning brings a mix of professionals, coffee growers and barista students to Arte y Pasion. Later in the day, the tables in the front courtyard restaurant will be filled with a mix of salads, filets, fish and pastas for the historic centre’s hungry lunchtime crowds. Romero tells me his initial objective was to open a restaurant, but once he added the café in the last round of renovations, his instinctual passion for great coffee kicked into overdrive.
Anyone who spends any amount of time in Colombia will, without doubt, recognize not just the need for education, but the aspirations Colombians have for the development of their tierra querida. “I trained in Germany, France and Italy,” Antonio explains. “Because there aren’t any programmes or options for baristas to train here in Colombia. Now we are more than a café, we are a school.”
“I hope that in 10 years, maybe even 5, we will be a proud nation of coffee growers and drinkers,” Romero smiles at me. “I would like to see Colombia drink at least half of the coffee it produces.” In a country where 95% of the coffee industry here is supported by family-run mountainous micro lots on which all of the coffee is still planted, picked, roasted and sorted by hand, Romero’s long-term wish is an optimistic one that will require the support of other impassioned revolutionaries, educators and proud, quality-oriented coffee drinkers in the years to come.
Bogota’s Best Cafes
Arte y Pasion Café offer training courses for kids through to café managers and tastings for anyone and everyone, starting at COP$45,000 for 4 hours. You can find them at calle 16 #7-76.
E y D Cafes are located in the city’s north (Carrera 4 #66-46) and offer a range of coffees, tastings and classes in their coffee lab and café.
The coffee region (a.k.a. la zona cafetera or the coffee triangle) is an area to the south-west of Bogota lying roughly between the towns of Armenia to the south and Manizales to the north. It is famous for its stunning mountainous terrain and ideal climatic conditions for growing coffee.
If you have the time, and are headed to the coffee region, buses leave from the main terminal. Most buses stop in Armenia after 8 or 9 hours, where you should change buses for the final 60-minute trip to Salento, where most visitors head. Make sure you check out Jesus Martin’s coffee shop, just off the main plaza, for arguably the best cup of coffee (or three) you’ll ever have in your life and a chance to experience what it’s really like to sort coffee beans by hand on one of his coffee tours.