Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
My Colombian Journey
I’m an inveterate coffee drinker and I had the privilege of visiting the region of Colombia called Armenia, at the Coffee Triangle (Triángulo del Café), one of the best and largest South American coffee producing areas.
Coffee plantation originated in East Africa – Ethiopia to be exact – and coffee cultivation spread to Yemen, in the Arabian peninsula where it was first mentioned in writing around 1100 CE. Coffee was later cultivated in Europe by the Dutch as a garden plant and introduced by them to their Java colony in the late 1600s (where the term “java” as a name for the coffee brew originated). It was eventually introduced to South America as a cash crop around 1723. Coffea Arabica now represents more than 60% of the total world coffee bean production. An advantage of coffee growing is that the coffee plants have also become a major source of oxygen for much of the planet. Each hectare of coffee plantation produces 86 lbs of oxygen per day.
While there are several different coffee species, two main species are currently the preferred cultivars around the world. Coffea Arabica, known as Arabica coffee; it accounts for about 75% of the local production. Coffea Canephora, also known as Robusta, accounts for about 25% and differs from the Arabica coffees in terms of taste. While Robusta coffee beans are heartier than the ones produced by the Arabica plants, they actually produce an inferior tasting beverage with much higher caffeine content. Many importers blend a low percentage of Robusta into their Arabica beans to spice up the coffee blend (and to improve profits when they sell the blend as 100% Arabica).
Gourmet coffees are almost exclusively high-quality mild varieties of Arabica, and among the best known coffee beans are those from Jamaican Blue Mountain, Colombian Supremo, Tarrazú, Hawaiian Kona, and Ethiopian Sidamo. Espresso is typically made from a 60/40 or 50/50 blend of Arabica and Robusta beans.
Evergreen coffee plants are grown in rows several feet apart, in plantations that also farm cocoa, plantains and avocados, as the byproducts of coffee processing are used to fertilize the other three crops. “Coffee bean” is a misnomer for the seed of the coffee plant. The coffee fruits ripen, at first to yellow and then light red and finally a glossy, deep red. The ripe red fruit, which is often referred to as a “cherry”, contains a double seed inside that is the coffee bean. When the fruit is ripe, it is handpicked, using selective picking, where only the ripe fruit is removed from the branch. Because a branch has both ripe and unripe (green, yellow and red) berries at the same time, one plant has to be picked several times, making harvesting the most labor intensive process of coffee production. Once the cherries are picked, they are milled to remove the husk, then washed and kiln-dried. The beans are usually exported green (unroasted) as most importers prefer to roast the coffee themselves, depending on their market’s taste. The beans are roasted at 200° C for 12 to 16 minutes – depending on the type of roast required: ground for European or American style coffee or pulverized for Greek, Turkish or Arabic style, then packed and sold.
In Colombia the coffee produced in the fincas (plantations) we visited is 100% Arabica.
During my trip we visited a number of plantations to taste their product; some of them have been converted to eco-haciendas or fincas touristicas. We tasted coffees from about 25 different producers; many of the hotels and restaurants we stayed at and/or ate, belong to finca owners, so they grow and produce their own coffees.
During our visit we also met “Juan Valdez” the mustachioed character created in 1958 by Doyle Dane Burnbach, a North American advertising agency, to promote Colombian coffee for the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia. Nowadays there are many Juan Valdez and Conchita their smiling mule, frequenting tourist locations and restaurants around the Armenia region and posing for pictures for tips.
In general the trip was very enjoyable. The food was fairly simple but very hearty- only one meal at the “Estacion Gourmet” in the Parque del Café was at an international level, where all the sauces were made with coffee. Other excellent meals were at Restaurante Juan B and Restaurante la Gran Trucha – in both we had very well prepared locally aqua-farmed trout – and at Restaurante El Roble we had typical local dishes, together with about 300 families that frequent the restaurant on a Sunday (the manager said they serve an average of 1200 main courses per day on the weekend).
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