Colombia’s coffee is world famous for its flavor and the unmistakeable mild but rich aroma that rises from every brew. That may explain why we’ve been exporting our coffee for almost 200 years and, for most of that time, it’s been our top export. There are many secrets to our success but our geography is undeniably one of them. Coffee grows best in volcanic soil, at altitudes of 1,200 to 1,800 meters, in places that are free of frost but receive around 80 inches of rain a year. Colombia ticks all those boxes.
Colombia’s coffee zone or eje cafetero (Coffee Cultural Landscape) in the center of our country produces most of our coffee. It spans the coffee-growing areas of Caldas, Quindio, Risaralda and the north of Valle. But the coffee belt doesn’t get all the glory and the flavor of each bean varies according to its origin. Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Boyaca and the north of Tolima have similar conditions to the (Coffee Cultural Landscape) and also harvest all year round. The coffee grown in our warmer, more northerly, lower altitude zones – such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Perija mountains, Casanare, Santander and the North of Santander – has a lower acidity and a fuller body. Whereas the beans from the more southerly Narino, Cauca, Huila and the south of Tolima grow at higher altitudes, closer to the equator, giving them a higher acidity and much sought-after sweetness. Colombia basically has a bean to suit every taste.
And that’s another secret to our success. Our beans. The world’s most important species of coffee shrub are the cofea arabica (arabica) and the cofea canephora (robusta) and everyone knows arabica has the best flavor (we may be a bit biased there but the clue is in the name, robusta is cheaper, contains more caffeine and has a bigger yield) Colombian coffee is 100% arabica. No surprises there.
Our harvest is a game-changer too. Some countries favor strip picking, which means pulling all the coffee cherries off the branch in one go, usually by machine. In mountainous Colombia, our norm is to “cherry-pick” or select only the fully ripe cherries. Our coffee pickers examine a tree every 10 days or so and a good picker can harvest up to 90 kilos of ripe red cherries a day that way, around 18 kilos of coffee beans. Just thinking about it is enough to bring on a thirst. Time for a coffee break!