Like Brazil, Colombia is one of the world’s biggest export countries in the coffee business. Why the Arabica bean feels so at home in the Colombian mountains, and the part played by a man with a moustache and a smiling donkey in Colombia’s success story of coffee.
Coffee has been one of Colombia’s key export goods since the end of the nineteenth century, and plays a central role in the economic growth of the country. Only Arabica coffee is cultivated on the country’s three mountain ranges, up to altitudes of 2,300 metres above sea level. The large majority of Colombian green coffee is shipped from Buenaventura, and reaches the European continent via the Panama Canal.
Diversity and quality – Colombia’s two trump cards
Arabica plants are extremely sensitive and feel particularly at home in a mild, balanced climate. They prefer to grow at high altitudes, and the mountain ranges of Colombia are pure paradise for Arabica varieties. Soil conditions vary from region to region, and each area has its own microclimate. These factors mean that a range of coffee varieties with completely different flavour profiles thrive in Colombia, some with hints of nut and chocolate, others with floral and fruity notes. This diversity of speciality coffees is one of the biggest advantages that Colombia enjoys over its rivals.
In many regions, both flowers and green and red cherries can be found on the coffee trees all at the same time. This is only possible in a stable climate with regular rainfall, which enables some coffee varieties to be harvested twice a year. While this means extra work for the farmers, it also generates a regular income and hence additional security.
Huila and its fruity beans
The Huila Department in the south-west of the country is one of the main – and highest – cultivation areas, and is also the source of the Arabica beans for our Café Royal Colombia single-origin coffee. Typical of the coffee from this region is the extremely complex flavour with a fruity and fresh acidity.
The coffee is grown primarily by smallholders. Despite the modest size of the plantations, most of the farmers have their own small processing facilities in which they prepare the Arabica cherries using the wet process. Thanks to the ideal climate conditions, the fertile soil and support from the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), they are able to produce first-class high-altitude coffee.
FNC – stronger together
In 1927, a group of coffee farmers joined forces to found the FNC. The aim was, and still is, to improve living conditions for the coffee farmers, and today, the non-profit association has around half a million members, the majority of whom are smallholders. Sustainable cultivation and continuous improvement in coffee quality are two of the main areas of focus within the FNC, and in order to achieve this, the association invests a great deal in the research and development of new technologies.
UTZ – valuable tips for newcomers and old hands
UTZ certification offers huge advantages for both newcomers to coffee cultivation and long-established farmers. Those just starting out benefit from the latest know-how and are able to produce sustainable and high-quality coffee right from the word go. The old-timers of the coffee business are also happy to benefit from the advice. After all, even with 60 or more years, you are never too old to learn. The regular inspections help to ensure that the farmers are always up to date and keep on improving.
The certification ensures that the farmers are much better organised among themselves. They are assigned to a group and work together to take care of transport, hiring a suitable vehicle to bring the raw coffee safely down into the valley.
Juan Valdez and his Conchita
The Colombians understood early on that it takes not only first-class quality but also effective marketing to ensure the economic success of an export product. With this in mind, Juan Valdez was created by the FNC in 1959. Juan is a fictitious Colombian farmer who stands for authentic, high-quality Colombian coffee. His look is typical: he wears a hat, and the characteristic moustache that adorns his upper lip has remained jet black even after all these years. Always at his side is his ever-contented donkey, Conchita – a timeless beauty. It must be the Colombian mountain air!
The first Juan Valdez Café was opened in the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 2002. It is the world’s only café chain owned by coffee farmers themselves. As the chain was established by the FNC, members automatically benefit from the profits generated. By now, Juan Valdez Cafés can be found in all major cities in Colombia, as well as in Washington, D.C., and New York, and the coffee can also be purchased online in China, the USA and Europe.
Roller-coaster ride with a happy end?
Colombia’s coffee farmers have experienced some real ups and downs in recent decades. Significant losses were suffered in the 1990s due to the excessive appetite of the coffee bean weevil, which nibbled away at the coffee beans, and the replanting of larger cultivation areas. Later on, the coffee plants found themselves struggling with coffee rust, a fungal disease that affects coffee plants. Climate change continues to be a challenge, with prolonged drought periods interspersed with unusually heavy rain in the wet season.
Colombia is increasingly promoting new coffee varieties with the aim of remaining competitive, planting more resistant varieties that can withstand the changing weather conditions and defend themselves against pests. At the same time, the Colombians are also increasingly focusing on speciality coffees, thanks to factors such as research and the use of new technologies.
Colombia is on the right track. The diversity of flavour profiles and the ongoing improvements in the quality of the coffee varieties are ensuring that Juan Valdez and his Conchita will continue to have a smile on their faces in future. As will we, whenever we enjoy an authentic Colombian coffee.