On April 18, 2021, in the middle of the Corona lockdown, it started - vaccinated, I set off to visit Juan Pablo in Colombia. The declared goal: to find the best coffee, expand my personal relationship to coffee farmers, and discover new horizons!
My journey took me zigzagging to Calí, into the jungle of the Sierra Nevada, to Bogotá, Medellín, Pasto (with its dangerous airport high in the mountains), Nariño and Bucaramanga. I talked to roasters, drank coffee in countless small and large cafes and at street stands, felt the altitude of the plantation (the air gets thin up there!) and learned a lot about coffee, Colombia and its cultivation. Here are some highlights:
Suprising: Corona was not the main problem
I had hardly arrived when the Colombian government published a tax reform that would have directly affected even the poorest people in Colombia. The protests came immediately, started by students ... and then they were picked up from other people in the area. Within days, police and gangs were fighting street battles. I was in the middle of it and, together with Juan Pablo in this moments. We could not leave the city and go as planned to the farm for a week - it was simply too dangerous to drive through the country. Again and again we heard gunshots in close proximity and once our eyes were effected from the passing gas on the streets. Roads were blocked and gas stations occupied. But the farmers impressed me very much in this situation: They kept in contact with each other, warned each other and made evensure that I could get to the coffee plantation a few weeks later with a small propeller machine. There was no "business as usual" in this situation. Rather, it was "business by improvisation. To deliver quality under these conditions - Chapeau!
Coffee cultivation with family connection
The weeks on the plantation of Juan Pablo have challenged me. I have been very conscious of actively helping with the harvest and quickly got big blisters on my hand! The whole family cooperates and the strength is kept up by three hot meals a day. Juan Pablo's 92-year-old grandma made hundreds of the most delicious empanadas (dumplings with a variety of fillings) for us every week fresh by hand. I was treated just like everyone else, given a gentle reminder if I left the light on in my room and didn't put my stuff away, and my portion at dinner was smaller or larger depending on my performance at work!
The art of picking coffee
My best result was 30 kg a day, but the professional coffee pickers manage up to 100 kg - and that on a steep slope! The beans are already sorted during picking - what is not yet ripe remains hanging and is only put into the "belly basket" in a later turn. Up to 5 kg can fit into the belly basket. The coffee fruits look like small cherries. They are first green, then bright red, and when ripe they have a deep burgundy color. Especially exhausting: After picking, the heavy bags are carried to the scale (sometimes uphill!).The payments for the pickers depending on the weight...
The wall of sombereos
In Juan Pablo's house there is a wall where the sombreros of the whole family are hanging. Also hanging there is the sombrero of Juan Pablo's father, who died of corona earlier this year. The sadness was still present everywhere ... and I was very touched when, at the end of my stay, a place was newly created where I could hang my newly acquired sombrero. "There it will wait for you until you return!"
The coffee ceremony
In France, it's champagne; in Japan, it's the traditional tea ceremony; and in Colombia, it's specialty coffee. In the cafés in Bogotá, specialty coffee is celebrated extensively! First you choose the filter (!). There are many different types: Hario V60, Chemex, French Press ... Then the bean is chosen, with plenty of time to talk about the cultivation and sensory details. Finally, the coffee is prepared at the table itself, while the barista tells anecdotes and backgrounds about the respective plantations. Specialty coffee in Colombia is pleasure, religion and passion at the same time. No wonder I immediately felt at home.
Cascara and other discoveries
Cascara is the pulp that coats the coffee bean (or cherry, as it is actually called in its original state). It is often used by farmers to fertilize the soil. But you can also brew a tea from it that contains many antioxidants. You can also make a syrup out of it, which is used to make refreshing iced teas. Cut into small pieces, I've also discovered cascara in buns ... comparable to our raisin bun. A little sweet, which, by the way, is a very typical flavor for the coffee from Colombia.
The Federacíon versus specialty coffee
Traditionally, the harvests of the coffee plantations are delivered to the "Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia". The prices are negotiated and guaranteed in advance, and the quality of the coffee is not the most important feature, because here it is about quantity for the very big buyers.
Juan Pablo knows that you can earn more with specialty coffee ... but it is also a greater risk, because the purchases are usually not guaranteed in advance. Therefore, he has to do some real convincing work if he wants to get the plantations in the surrounding area to switch to specialty coffee as he he.
Juan Pablo is very committed to spreading the knowledge about specialty coffee. He is currently building a training center for about 30 people with accommodation facilities.
I find it very impressive how much a single person can move with passion and I am grateful that he was very welcoming and for his insights about his life and coffee work.
If I can, I will fly there again in September to be right there when the beans are sorted!