At the end of a winding country road one hour from Armenia lies the peaceful small village of Buenavista, in Quindío. Cute, but nothing special. Its square is not particularly charming, its houses are not as colourful as in other villages around. It doesn’t boast a vibrant market. In fact, most visitors, national and foreign, come to the place for just one thing: to drink a cup of the best coffee produced in Colombia.
After a mere 15 minute steep walk up the hill from the central square, Julián welcomes us with a warm smile. He is a coffee connoisseur and an “Experience Leader” at the San Alberto Cafe estate in Buenavista, Quindío. Meaning he knows tons about coffee and will tell us everything about its making process.
Poor Julián is not talking to the best prepared visitors. We both drink coffee occasionally; Anna usually drowned in milk, me mainly for the smell, with enough sugar to hide the bitterness. We’re certainly not one of those devoted coffee drinkers who could argue endlessly about the merits of the French press over the moka pot.
But if we come all the way to Colombia and its reputed coffee region, it cannot be exclusively for the famous colourful villages and the unique landscape – we also want to learn about coffee!
Colombia’s Coffee Region
There are indeed several reasons for visiting Colombia’s coffee region (“eje cafetero” in Spanish), an area that is comprised very roughly between Cali and Medellín.
Some will road trip from village to village to photograph the charming colourful facades. Others will hike through its beautiful nature of green hills and gigantic palm trees, the most famous part being the Cocora Valley. You can also indulge in the region’s famous sweets (did someone say “dulce de leche“?!) or the traditional craft of its Paisa people.
Or, if you want to be really original, you can visit the coffee region and drink coffee. Why not.
The area ― also known as “coffee triangle” ― earned its nickname despite not being the only coffee-producing region in Colombia. Out of the 32 administrative departments in the country, at least 19 of them produce coffee to some extent, amounting to 563,000 coffee families (in Colombia, agricultural production is very family-oriented). Quindío, where Buenavista lies, is actually the smallest of them all.
The San Alberto Cafe Experience
We therefore had a plethora of options for our coffee discovering quest. After both asking around and researching online, our choice fell on the San Alberto coffee estate. So we headed to Buenavista, Quindío.
The coffee farm is nestled in a beautiful landscape: green, rolling hills as long as the eye can see. The estate doesn’t seem to break this landscape, it rather blends smoothly into the surroundings.
The best to enjoy this gorgeous view is from San Alberto Cafe terrace, where we start our coffee experience. Julián explains us that the 40 hectares give job, but also boarding, to 120 workers during harvest. The pickers are paid per kilo; they pick between 80-100 kg/day.
The San Alberto coffee taste is a very precise one which needs high quality beans. In fact, the producer has been pocketing most of the awards for premium coffee for years and recently received 4 more. They have a display window that is wider than my bedroom.
Every coffee bean goes through a 5-level manual selection process, and only first quality beans become San Alberto coffee ― 25,000 out of 300,000 beans. Second quality beans are sold to the national cooperative and end up on the local and international markets without their brand name.
As we walk through the farm, Julián shows us step-by-step how coffee is made. He patiently answers our never-ending line of questions in impeccable English. Our favourite part of the farm tour is the so-called “experimental field”; San Alberto regularly brings in coffee trees from other countries to Buenavista, Quindío to develop new coffee variations. The owner, Juan Pablo Villota personally tastes each one of them to find new recipes.
After the tour on the farm we are invited to a coffee tasting session, which is rather a mini-training to become a coffee connoisseur. We smell, inspect and taste cups prepared with differing qualities of beans. The goal is to be able to recognise the high and low quality coffee.
We’re told to let our imagination go and put in words what we smell and taste, pretty much like sommeliers do with wines. I don’t know if many visitors come up with “crunchy choco-like” and “sweet tree roots”. I don’t have a very good nose myself, and don’t usually recognise a Chanel from a fennel. But we learn that the smell and the taste of coffee can be organised in different groups, like nutty, flowery, winey or hellokitty…
Why is Colombian Coffee so Renowned?
The answer is very simple: they’ve got the perfect conditions; they do their job right; and they’re freaking good at marketing.
Let’s get a bit scientific, shall we? The best coffee grows on steep slopes, where the temperature never falls below freezing, with at least 200 centimetres of rainfall per year and between an elevation of 1,200 to 1,800 meters. Colombia’s mountainous and volcanic terrain (apparently that helps!), high rainfall with just the right amount of sunlight, and relatively mild climate create a spot-on coffee-growing location.
Colombia is dedicated to growing 100% arabica coffee beans – not a single robusta. While the latter renders more and is heavier in caffeine, arabica makes for a tastier, more flavoursome cup of coffee. For those who are not in the know about coffee (like we were), there are three main types of coffees produced in the world: arabica, robusta and liberica. Find more info about coffee types that you might have not heard before.
Right now Colombia is the world’s 3rd largest producer of coffee (after Brazil and Vietnam), and they’re responsible for roughly 12% of global coffee.
At San Alberto Cafe, like on many other family estates, every single bean of the harvest is picked by hand. Indeed, no harvesting machine is ever used unlike in some other coffee-producing countries.
At harvest time, workers will check the plants every 10 days approximately, just to make sure that the fruits are perfectly ripe. They will only pick the best cherries, leaving the rest to continue maturing until their perfect point. Undoubtedly for these reasons, UNESCO declared in 2011 the Coffee of Colombia “Cultural Landscape”, a World Heritage label.
In 1927, coffee producers united to form the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, with the goal of protecting the industry and its interests. In the 1960’s, the Federation made a ‘buzz’ by creating a fictitious character that would stick to consumers’ minds for a long time: the stereotypical Colombian coffee producer Juan Valdez and his faithful mule Conchita.
The worldwide famous Juan Valdez is used as a marker to identify a coffee product that is 100% Colombian, as opposed to blends of coffee beans of various origins. Juan Valdez, despite bearing a common name, is not a real person. His outfit represents the Paisa peasant of the “eje cafetero” region.
If the name rings a bell, don’t be surprised: nowadays, ‘Juan Valdez’ is also a chain of coffee shops serving 100% Colombian arabica coffee in 11 countries.
The reason why San Alberto Cafe attracted us to Buenavista and Quindío in the first place is their acknowledged efforts for sustainability.
To our question Julián listed all the programs they have in place for caring about the environment and their workers. Just to mention the most important ones:
- San Alberto is part of the international Rainforest Alliance for using less pesticides;
- instead they use hibiscus trees to warn of parasites and remove them in time;
- they create a balanced ecosystem that is good for the soil, by growing other types of trees too: plantains, guava, lemons, bananas etc;
- the roots of old, cut-off trees are not removed, in order to avoid erosion;
- the coffee cherry skins and dead trees are given a second life as compost and fuel or construction material;
- they run a social responsibility program for their workers for which they are recognised with a UTZ certificate.
Today, San Alberto Cafe’s name is pretty much linked together with sustainability.
The Perfect Colombian Coffee Recipe
In the meantime in the San Alberto Cafe, Julián has now been pouring that water for 3 long minutes. I would probably start yawning if 1) my mum hadn’t taught me better, and 2) Julián wasn’t explaining at the same time how to improve my filter coffee at home.
See, pouring water slowly on the grounds, in a rotating way, allows the flavour to fully express itself. The water, by the way, must be between 80 and 90 degrees Celsius; go above that and you just burn the coffee. The French have an expression for that: “Café bouillu, café foutu” (boiled coffee, ruined coffee). One last trick from the pro: remove the filter quickly before all the water goes through to avoid the most bitter notes.
This is of course one of the many methods to prepare coffee. San Alberto produces only one type of coffee, a mix of Caturra and Castillo arabica beans, but their visitors can choose among 8 different coffee brewing methods plus different filter papers. Yes, the thickness of your filter also influences the taste of your brew. Another trick from the pro: wet your filter to make sure it’s clean; impurities alter the taste.
Of course, such an attention to details might not be for your everyday life…
Julián likes his coffee strong and his favourite brewing methods are the cold drip (which implies an impressive machine and a brewing of up to 20h), and the vacuum syphon (which sounds like an intergalactic machine straight out of an Asimov-novel, but is well known to coffee aficionados).
Our expert tells us: when they’re longer in contact with water, the grounds release more caffeine. He also corrects a mistake that other amateurs might believe; the bitterness of the coffee is not its strength. They’re two different things.
The Process Before Your Cup
Something like this happens before you can enjoy your cup of black brew:
- Coffee plants grow (hopefully). Then they bloom and their flowers become coffee cherries;
- Cherries are picked, usually during the rainy season;
- Outside flesh and inner husks get removed from the bean;
- Beans can be soaked (depending on the method), separating the different grades of beans;
- Beans are roasted and take their famous dark brown colour;
- The roasted beans are then ground and brewed;
- You cup is there, ready to be enjoyed!
As we saw before, Colombia is one of the best places in the world to grow coffee, thanks to its location and climate, and it has a rich history of growing and exporting coffee. However, it’s sad to see that many Colombians usually drink poor-quality instant coffee; for reasons of price, convenience, and probably habit.
The Threat to Coffee Producers
Despite producing among the most appreciated coffees in the world, Colombia has seen a striking recess in its production recently. In fact, from 78,000 hectares in 2007 dedicated to coffee in Quindío alone, there were less than half left in 2018, and only around 23,000 hectares today.
The trouble is that the selling price of the roasted produce has been on the decrease for more than 12 years now. Roberto Velez Vallejo, the head of the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers, says it plain and simple:
“Price levels of $1.15 are an embarrassment. Price levels of that kind are unexplained because I’ve not seen the cost of a cup of coffee go down anywhere in the world, nor that a pound of coffee has gone down in cost on supermarket shelves.” In other words: customers are ready to pay more for their dose of the brew, but producers gain less. Whose pockets is that money going to?
Coffee producers are therefore calling on large brands like Nestlé and Starbucks to commit themselves to more balanced profits. Nestlé has already formed an alliance with the National Federation of Coffee Growers, in fact since 2011. But progress has ever since failed to materialise for producers – while the results for the international company are undoubtedly more substantial.
In the meantime, more and more coffee producers, in Quindío and elsewhere, are switching to avocado, which not only sells better but is also less difficult to produce. (Having said that, it seems that the production of coffee is increasing in Buenavista and all of Quindío, according to this article.)
Another major concern for farmers is climate change and its obvious impact on the crops. As we’ve seen before, coffee trees require mild temperatures and regular rainfall to mature a healthy and flavoursome fruit. Global warming puts this in peril and coffee producers start worrying about their livelihood.
Recommended read: Advice for a Sustainable Travel
Choose organic and fair trade coffee
For these reasons, it’s extremely important to choose a coffee that is organic and beneficial to the producer. Each one of your cups needs around 70 coffee beans ― at the end of the week, you’ve already drunk a small bag. Because coffee is so readily available, your decision has an impact. Whoever gets your money will keep producing.
Since we learnt about all this, we dropped the usual blend and went for a sustainable coffee. Because it’s usually a little bit pricier, we’ve decided to just drink one cup less each day. And voilà.
Want to book a San Alberto Cafe experience?
Travelling to Buenavista, Quindío and choosing San Alberto Cafe for your coffee experience in Colombia is a great decision! Besides learning from experts, your money will support a sustainable coffee farm. You will have to book in advance: at least 2 days in low season and 1 week in high season.
There are different experiences available (with coffee tasting or with coffee pairing or with a tour on the farm) in English or in Spanish. The one we did is the coffee tour with cupping which included a tour on the farms, a coffee tasting session and 2 cups of coffee. If you’d like to take home the San Alberto coffee experience, you can buy the coffee and the brewing equipment in their coffee shop, or online on their website.
In case you are travelling further in Colombia, you can also enjoy an expertly brewed cuppa in San Alberto “coffee temples” in Bogota and Cartagena.
I am now back home, and sipping a San Alberto coffee as I am writing this. Of course it doesn’t taste as rich and good as what Julián prepared for us in Buenavista, Quindío. I’m missing the proper machinery and the professional’s skill. But it’s amazing what difference a bit of knowledge and a great-quality coffee can make! If you ever visit Colombia, treat yourself to a coffee tour – even if you’re not a coffee drinker, it’s a great approach to an important part of the country’s culture. And a pack of coffee will always be a good present to your coffee-loving friends!
Disclaimer: We were honoured to be guests of San Alberto Cafe in their estate of Buenavista, Quindío for this coffee experience. But everything we write in the post is our own honest opinion.