Colombia has an unparalleled reputation for producing great coffee. Although it’s just three times the size of Montana and has few, if any, large farms, Colombia produces 12 percent of the world’s coffee — and most of what it produces is excellent. Colombia’s coffee is some of the best in the world because the country has many biodiverse microclimates, only grows arabica varietals and has been marketing its coffee well since at least the 1950s.
Colombia Has a Long History of Exporting Lots of Coffee
It’s unclear when coffee was first introduced in Colombia. It may have been brought by Jesuit priests in the 1700s, or it might not have entered the country until the 1800s.
Regardless of when farmers began growing coffee, they quickly saw its potential as a cash crop. In 1835, 2,500 pounds were exported to the United States, and Colombia has continued to export coffee every year since then.
For years, Colombia was the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, and the largest producer of washed coffee. (Brazil, which is geographically much bigger, produced more coffee but not as much washed coffee.) In 2000, Vietnam overtook Colombia in coffee production, although only robusta — which has a higher yield than arabica — is grown in Vietnam. A plague of coffee leaf rust, a disease especially prevalent in Colombia, further decimated Colombia’s crop in 2008. Still, the country continues to regularly rank as one of the top five coffee-producing countries annually. Average production is currently at 10 million bags each year.
Although coffee is grown as a cash crop, Colombians have a taste for good coffee. About 20 percent of the country’s crop is consumed by people in the country each year. (In contrast, Ecuador exports all of its coffee and imports lower-quality robusta from Vietnam that residents drink.)
Colombians drink coffee several different ways, depending on where they are:
- High-end cafes charge between $3 and $6 for an espresso or espresso-based beverage. The most popular chain is Juan Valdez.
- Street vendors serve “tinto,” which tranlates “ink.” It’s black coffee. Often the coffee is served sweetened, but less frequently with milk.
- At home, most Colombians drink instant coffee.
Colombia Grows Only Arabica Varietals
Colombia’s reputation for producing excellent coffee is partly because only arabica varietals are grown in the country. (Arabica produces much better tasting and less bitter coffee than robusta varietals do.) Some of the main varietals grown in the country are Bourbon, Typica, Maragogype and Caturra.
In addition to these varietals, two others have been developed specifically to help growers address diseases prevalent in Colombia. Variedad Colombia was developed in 1982 as a disease-resistant strain, and Castillo was developed in 2008 as a hybrid that’s specifically resistant to rust (the disease).
Both Variedad Colombia and Castillo are considered arabica varietals, even though they have some robusta influences. They’re both hybrids of Caturra and Timor, which itself is a robusta hybrid. The robusta influence provides disease resistance, but it also imparts some undesirable flavors.
There Are Many Biodiverse Microclimates in Colombia
Although it’s a relatively small country, Colombia has many mountain ranges that create a number of distinct growing regions and microclimates. The Andes Mountains separate into three ranges in Colombia, which run North-South through the country. There is also a fourth separate range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Coffee is grown in all of these ranges.
Because Colombia has such biodiversity, each microclimate infuses coffees with unique characteristics. Each Colombian coffee, therefore, has its own distinct traits. In general, however, a few remarks can be said about some of the regions in Colombia:
- In the Central Region, Medillín, Armenia and Manizales are known for coffees that have heavy bodies, rich flavors and bright acidities
- In the Eastern Mountainous Region, Bogotá produces coffees with comparatively less acidity (although they’re still bright)
- Also in the Eastern Mountainous Region, Bucaramanga’s coffees have even heavier bodies and milder flavors. These have been likened to Sumatran coffees, although processing in Colombia is generally better than in Sumatra.
- In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Range, most farms are owned by indigenous tribes. Many of these farms are organic and Fair Trade certified.
In all of these regions, there is both a main and secondary, fly crop. The seasons in Northern and Southern Colombia are reversed, though. In Northern Colombia, the main harvest is in November, and the fly crop is harvested in May and June. In the South, the main harvest is in May and June, and the fly crop is harvested in November.
Most Growers Process Their Own Coffee
Unlike in other South and Central American countries, most coffee growers in Colombia process their own coffee at wet mills that they have on site. Typically, the day’s harvest of cherries is depulped in the afternoon, fermented overnight in tanks and then dried on patios at the farm. Doing all processing on-site gives growers complete control over the quality of their coffees.
Almost all of these farmers have small farms. Of the coffee farms in Colombia, 88 percent are smaller than 6 acres.
The National Federation of Coffee Growers Promotes and Ensures Quality
The other major contributor to Colombia’s reputation for producing quality coffee is the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia). The FNC, as it’s abbreviated, is a quasi-government organization that’s been overseeing the coffee industry in Colombia since 1927. The FNC has been marketing Colombia’s coffee especially aggressively since the 1950s, when they first created the fictional Juan Valdez.
Today, the FNC represents 500,000 of the 600,000 small coffee farmers in Colombia. All coffee farmers are guaranteed purchase of their green coffee by the FNC. Farmers, however, aren’t required to sell to the FNC, unlike in other countries. The offer applies to both member and non-member farmers.
In addition to promoting coffee and offering to purchase green coffee, the FNC also:
- inspects all coffee leaving Colombia to ensure quality
- supports research and development in the industry
- charges producers about 3 cents per pound for its services
Colombia Needs More than Fair Trade Certification
The most pressing problems that coffee farmers in Colombia are facing are similar to those in other coffee-producing countries. Deforestation, an over-reliance on pesticides and soil erosion threaten farms.
To overcome these problems, Colombia’s coffee industry will need to focus on environmentally friendly practices. Many farms in the country are Fair Trade certified, but there may be an opportunity for more to become Rainforest Alliance Certified or Certified Organic.
To afford certifications, small-scale farmers will need to form cooperatives. Currently, there are 38 co-ops in the country, 19 of which are Fair Trade Certified. As more farmers join co-ops, they’ll be better able to work with one another and the FNC to implement better growing practices and pursue certifications.