South America’s Coffee Mecca Is Bouncing Back

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Originally published in VICE Magazine, April 3, 2017.

Don Elias is taking life easy. At nearly 70 years old, most of his working life has been spent in the coffee fields of Quindío—an unbelievably beautiful Andean region—first with his father, and then, for the past two decades, on his own four-hectare plantation. About 180 miles west of Bogotá, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed “Zona Cafetera” is responsible for producing 50 percent of Colombia’s annual output of 696,000 metric tonnes, and I’m right in the middle of it.

I’d just walked 45 minutes from Salento, a rural, colonial town of 7,000, popular with Colombian vacationers and gringos alike. The dirt road was flanked on either side by lush fields and jungle greenery. Exotic flowers like orange heliconias cascaded through banana leaves; hummingbirds, iridescent green blips of colour, flitted erratically from one to another. I knew I was approaching my target when the cow pastures made way to rows upon rows of coffee—whole hillsides carpeted beyond the line of sight. The Andean cloud forests rise just above the valley I’m walking in. Low moving clouds often linger below the horizon, sometimes obscuring views, but also lending an ethereal quality to the landscape.

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The path widens and Don Elias’ farmhouse comes into view. The man himself smiles broadly, and welcomes me in his softly spoken Spanish.

Bienvenida, por favor,” he extends a weathered hand and tips his head, his white cowboy hat obscuring his dark eyes for a second. I take the offered seat on his porch, and we enjoy the calm of our surroundings; Elias already has a coffee cup in hand. It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the industriousness of the plantations here. Perfectly placed between the optimal altitudes of 1,350 and 1,950 metres, Colombia’s coffee heartland produces the most Arabica coffee globally, and its beans are widely considered the best quality in the world.

Demand continues to grow for its roasted beans—organic and handpicked, neatly packaged in shiny foil wrapping, snatched greedily down from supermarket shelves. But while most of us are as particular as hell about how we make our own cups of coffee, how many of us know how coffee is grown, or what a coffee berry even looks like? The Colombian coffee producers of Quindío are banking on the answer being, “er, not many.”

Something else they’re hoping for—more elusive—is peace.

April 2016 is expected to mark the end of five decades of drug-addled conflict between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC.

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The stakes are high, with 260,000 dead, 6.6 million people displaced, and 45,000 missing since the conflict broke out. “If we achieve peace, it will be the end of the guerrillas in Colombia and therefore in Latin America,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last month, at negotiations in Cuba.

For the nearly 600,000 Colombian families who produce our coffee, this could mean better access to an even more lucrative crop: tourists.

FARC started as a guerilla group in 1964, but morphed into a terrorist organization relying on narco-trafficking and kidnapping. Added into the volatile mix were rival paramilitary groups and rampant government corruption, creating a security situation that put Colombia off-limits to travelers. From 1996 to 2005, on average, someone was kidnapped every eight hours.

You need only watch Escobar: Paradise Lost, about notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, who made billions smugging cocaine into the USA, to get a sense of how unhinged parts of the country became. Nothing was too flamboyant for the kingpin dubbed the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes in 1989. His playground city of Medellín still has resident African hippos from when Escobar chose to import them to his own personal zoo.

But the conflict has been on hold since negotiations began in 2012. Incredibly, tourists have wasted little time in stepping in. They are no longer afraid. As most Colombian growers live on farms of five acres or less, so producers have started to diversify, offering accommodation and plantation tours. Don Elias reflects that now life is quiet, business is good. There’s an expectation that it will continue to be so—that new opportunities will open up as hope across the country is burgeoning.

In fact, I’m still waiting next to Señor Elias for my turn to see his plantation. Six tourists, from Canada and Australia, are currently making the rounds, and there’s been a stream of coffee-lovers all day, I’m told.

I ask him if he’s going to show me around himself. Elias chuckles mischievously. “I’m older now. Now I relax and the young ones do the work.”

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Right on cue, dressed casually in a black tracksuit with green and white stripes, a man in his early twenties makes his way over to us. Leaning on a bannister in front of me, he confidently introduces himself as Carlos, Elias’ grandson and my tour guide. He explains that over the next 40 minutes, I’m going to see every stage of coffees progress, from bud to brew. Then, flashing a boyish grin, he motions for me to follow him.

Elias remains seated, moving only to raise his cup to his lips again, and smile wryly. Retirement is definitely agreeing with him.

I follow Carlos and am plunged into the jungle. All around are exotic fruit trees, over, beneath, and mingling with the 8,000 coffee plants. This isn’t just aesthetics.

“Everything has a purpose here, to grow the best coffee we can,” Carlos says.

“Plantain trees provide shade to protect the coffee from direct sunlight, and their trunks hold onto water that’s released into the ground when it’s dry.”

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He points out further examples of natural ingenuity.

Fallen avocados add nutrients to the compost; yuca helps sprawling roots to grow; and the smell of oranges and pineapples draw insects away from the coffee.

As we walk, the pitter-patter of rain begins to softly strike the leaves around us. Undeterred, Carlos continues his tour. “We don’t need chemicals,” he says, indicating a small line of shrubs. “These are chilli plants. We grind the chilli, mix it with water, and spray the coffee plants, like a natural pesticide.” I’m impressed. (So too are other visitors. Later on, I overhear one Canadian muttering to herself why she hadn’t thought of it for her own garden.)

We continue walking. With the coffee plants above head height, I need to push the long branches laden with large, olive-sized fruit, mostly still green, out of the way to pass.

“We have Arabica and Colombiana here. They produce the same flavour and intensity, but their colour is different. Colombiana turns yellow; Arabica, red.” Carlos grasps one branch so I can see some of the berries reddening. “We grow both because Arabica supports Colombiana’s growth.”

Coffee plants produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and from September to November. Extra workers are brought in to help this farm produce roughly four tonnes a year—70 percent for export.

It’s a small operation, but Carlos feels fortunate.

“Ten years ago, tourists were saying they were afraid of Colombia. But last year, we had 2 million tourists just in Salento. And this year, we’ve already had nearly a million. I don’t know why, but we are encouraged and welcome it.”

“Plus,” Carlos adds, “it’s beautiful. I was raised here my whole life.” He looks across his family’s land proudly.

With the growth stages explained, we hurry back into the farmhouse, the rain now torrential, knocking the delicate white coffee flowers, smelling faintly of jasmine, from their stems.

Speaking up over the drumbeat of the downpour, Carlos demonstrates the manual machinery used to process picked coffee. First, a shelling machine removes the beans from the berry pulp—the freshly peeled beans are slick and pale green. They fall into a tank and ferment for 24 hours.

Afterwards, they’re laid out to dry under plastic sheeting for a few days to a month, depending on the weather.

Then, the coffee is roasted in flat pans in very small batches. “No agua, no aceite, nada,” Carlos tells me in staccato tones. The longer they roast the coffee, the darker the bean and stronger the taste but, surprisingly, the less caffeine it contains. “Everyone always expects it to be the other way round,” Carlos tuts.

A few turns from a small hand-turned grinder later, and the fragrant chocolate-brown powder is ready.

“You don’t want milk or sugar do you?” another employee asks me. I sense the correct answer is “no,” and am presented with my end-of-tour cup of coffee, free of flavour “distractions.”

I’m encouraged, not just by the deliciously smooth taste of my drink, but by my whole experience of Colombia.

A peace deal is expected to be signed within weeks, but the people I’ve met aren’t waiting for the ink to be put to paper.

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They’ve taken the initiative. They’ve recognised the growing appetite for learning how, with traditional knowledge and no chemicals, our coffee makes it from farm to cup.

For tourists willing to engage with producers of their favourite drink, 2016 offers the opportunity to see first-hand that Colombia has changed.

As Carlos tells me, “Colombia is more than just war and drugs.”

It can now be celebrated for what it creates, rather than be damned solely by its headlines.

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