With a near-perfect growing climate, Colombia is one of the world’s finest coffee-growing countries. The temperature rarely falls below freezing, they get a ton of rain, and the country is split down the middle by the Andes Mountains with 16 active or extinct volcanoes within the country’s borders.
Colombia’s coffee industry is so well-developed that UNESCO designated the country’s coffee cultural landscape a World Heritage Site because it’s “an exceptional example of a sustainable and productive cultural landscape that is unique and representative of a tradition that is a strong symbol for coffee growing areas worldwide.”
Colombian coffee is characterized by low acidity with balanced sweetness, often with caramel notes. However, there is a ton of variety between different crops with other subtle notes like cherry, orange, vanilla, chocolate and even cola making their way into your cup.
Picture a coffee farmer.
Does he have a mustache and a donkey?
There’s a good chance you’re thinking of Juan Valdez, an iconic mascot created for Colombian coffee bean growers and symbolic of one of the world’s finest coffee producing countries: Colombia.
Coffee first made its way to Colombia in the early 1700s but it did not become a staple of the economy, or even a cash crop, until the early 1800s.
Even then, Colombian farmers were not convinced that coffee was a good crop for them.
After all, coffee trees take some time to mature before they can produce beans and what were the farmers to do to feed their families in the meantime?
According to legend and murky history, one Jesuit priest, named Francisco Romero, came up with a unique solution. At confession, when it came time to assign penance, Father Romero instructed his church members to plant coffee trees. Eventually, there were enough mature trees to begin agricultural production of coffee.
Over the course of the next few decades, large plantations were built and a coffee industry established. However, internal political conflicts, including the Thousand Day War, destabilized the country’s economy, leading to the collapse of these same plantations.
Small, family-run farms rose to fill this breach in the coffee industry and remains the case to this day. In 1927, the National Federation of Coffee Growers was created to ensure that these small farms would be protected from wars and political upheaval.
Over the course of the 20th century, and with the help of a mascot named Juan Valdez, Colombian coffee bean farms, under the umbrella of the Federation, increased production and export of a smooth, uniform product collectively known as 100% Colombian Coffee.
The early part of the 21st century, has not been as kind to the industry, however, with outbreaks of coffee rust and climate change taking heavy tolls on coffee production.
In the very recent past, Colombian farmers have been working to establish new strains of coffee plants that are resistant to disease and produce amazing flavors. Additionally, new legislation is permitting small farms to export small batches of coffee, opening the doors to a new boom in Colombian coffee.
Fun Fact: A thick, syrupy coffee called Tinto is sold by street vendors all over Colombia. It’s part pick-me-up, part social interaction, and it’s an important part of many Colombians daily routine.
Colombian coffee is often described as:
Adding to this, it can have chocolate, nutty, or fruity overtones, and is well suited to both medium and dark roasts.
In other words, it tastes like coffee.
There are a few reasons for this, starting with the Coffea plant itself. The beans derived from Coffea plants come in two varieties:
Broadly speaking, Arabica is lighter and more flavorful than Robusta and much more common in the coffee drinking world even though it's less caffeinated.
Both strains require very specific environmental conditions to grow well.
It so happens that conditions in The Colombian Coffee Triangle are perfect for Arabica. The particular combination of altitude, temperature, rainfall, and soil content produces acidic, aromatic flavors in the coffee beans. And while there are differences in the beans produced across the Triangle, they are minor.
Adding to this, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (NFC in Spanish) made efforts to strengthen Colombian coffee exports with the 100% Colombian Coffee Program. In order to ensure that coffee drinkers in other nations would recognize the value in Colombian coffee, the NFC created standards and quality control testing leading to a homogeneity of flavor profiles across different strains of beans.
As a result, as exports increased and cafe culture boomed worldwide, large chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts began reselling packaged Colombian coffee in their thousands of outlets with the effect of further refining Colombian coffee into the default “coffee taste.”
However, recent initiatives to allow small batch exports have begun allowing coffee farmers in Colombia to sell their own varietals with their own unique flavor profiles. While these profiles still fall under the general description of “mellow, smooth, slightly sweet,” they are more wide ranging in their under and overtones as different growers pull fruity, chocolatey, or nutty flavors out of their beans.
Coffee production in Colombia, as in many other coffee producing countries, is under direct threat from two foes:
To counter these threats, farmers have been hard at work creating new varietals of coffee as well as protecting existing strains.
For us, the consumers, these efforts will keep us well supplied with beans, but they will also bring us new flavor profiles. We’ll describe a few of the more recent varieties below, but we need to begin with a quick description of what a varietal is:
We mentioned that Coffea plants come in two broad types: Arabica and Robusta. Varietals are basically further divisions in the look, needed growth conditions, and produce of the plants. Usually, variety or varietal refers to a natural evolution, while cultivar refers to a created, or cultivated, strain. Increasingly, however, these two terms are interchangeable.
Here's a quick look at the six Arabica varietals popular in Colombian coffee bean production:
Caturra is the most common varietal found in Colombia. It accounts for around 45% of Colombian coffee. Caturra has a medium body and presents citric overtones like lime and lemon.
Typica was the first varietal introduced to Colombia and still accounts for about 25% of Colombian trees. It is a little sweet and can have a mild fruit note to its taste.
Colombian is a recent (1982) cultivar, produced to be resistant to Coffee rust. It typically has the caramel or chocolate notes associated with Colombian coffee.
Cenicafe is the research arm of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation. Their work has created some promising new strains of coffee better suited to rising temperatures and more resistant to coffee rust and other diseases.
Cenicafe 1 is a promising new varietal based on Caturra. Resistant to both coffee rust and coffee berry disease, initial reviews have likened the flavor to its parent strain with notes of honey and hazelnut.
Castillo and Tabi are two other disease resistant varietals from Cenicafe that are popular with Colombian farmers. Their flavor profiles are similar to Typica’s.
Perhaps the best way to taste Colombian coffee for yourself is to try the most well-known brand available: Juan Valdez.
First a mascot, now a brand, Juan Valdez coffee is winning acclaim from travelers and locals alike for its flavorful, aromatic but mild coffee, available in its cafes as well as in supermarkets throughout the world.