All You Need to Know about (Colombian) Coffee

There is one stereotype of Colombia that has persisted for over a century that is actual positive (and true): coffee. Why is Colombian coffee so famous (and delicious)? And why is Colombia such a great place to grow coffee? And what type of coffee to Colombians actually drink? (The answer might surprise you…)

Originally coffee comes from Africa, in what is today Ethiopia. Legend has it that Jesuit missionaries first brought coffee to Colombia in the mid 1700’s. The first bags of coffee headed overseas in 1835, and by 1860 coffee was Colombia’s top export.

Today coffee is grown in dozens of countries around the world.

Colombia is currently the #3 top exporter of coffee in the world. Brazil is number one by a long shot, followed by Vietnam and then Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. 11,000,000 bags of coffee are exported from Colombia each year.

Colombia has been in the coffee business for while and coffee is undeniably connected with the country of Colombia. But now let’s delve a little more into coffee itself, and Colombian coffee more specifically.

Why does Colombian coffee taste so good?

#1: Because the country of Colombia has the perfect geography for growing coffee. Colombian coffee (which is never known as Columbian coffee..) is known for its rich, mild flavor because of the perfect climate and beans that are grown.

Coffee grows best in volcanic soil between the elevations of 4,000 and 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 meters). (Consequently the higher the elevation, generally the better the taste of the bean.) Coffee must also grow between 30ºN and 30ºS (known as the coffee zone or “bean belt”) and in places that are frost-free with at least 80 inches of rain a year.

So all the places that are known for having great coffee are mountainous, volcanic, wet, and tropical or sub-tropical: in North America that can mean Hawai`i, Costa Rica or Nicaragua, in Africa countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, and in Asian countries such as Indonesian (such as the island of Java, which is the origin of coffee’s nickname). So a tip: sorry wannabe coffee growers in California, Chicago, or Seattle, but trying to grow coffee plants in your backyard garden is probably not going to work out so well.

Today, Colombia’s coffee growing region is generally between the cities of Cali, Medellín and Bogotá, and is known as the Zona Cafetero or Eje Cafetero (the Coffee Axle). (Read more about the Colombian coffee growing region in my blog post from my fall 2013 visit). The small towns and cities in these hills are in the perfect location to grow high-quality coffee. The high altitude, wet, tropical climate, and volcanic soil seem to be made to grow coffee.

Coffee fields in the hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains, in northern Colombia.

#2: Colombian coffee is so tasty also because of the types of coffee they grow.

There are two types of coffee beans in the world: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans tend to be slightly sweeter with a softer taste, but are also more acidic while Robusta has a stronger taste and is considered the lower-quality bean. Robusta also contain two times the amount of caffeine as Arabica beans. Many coffee chains store-bought beans will mix Arabica and Robusta beans to balance the flavor their customers want with the caffeine their customers want (okay…need).

Colombia is one of the few countries that only grows Arabica beans, which besides climate and elevation, is why Colombian coffee is considered higher quality.

How is coffee grown and processed?

There are 570,000 individual producers (mostly small coffee farms) in Colombia that almost all sell their coffee to the National Federation of Coffee Growers, which is known best for their fictional spokesman of Juan Valdez. But from growing in the fields to you drinking it, your cup of Colombian coffee from Starbucks or brewed in your kitchen coffee pot had to go through a lot to get to its final state.

Coffee in Stages
From green (unripe) coffee cherries to roasted and ground coffee: the different stages of coffee processing.

Coffee processing goes something like this:

  1. Coffee plants grow on the steep slopes, usually dispersed with banana plants to give the plants shade. Coffee plants flower, then turn into coffee cherries
  2. Beans (coffee cherries) are picked twice a year, usually during the rainy season.
  3. The outside cherry and inner husks are all removed from the coffee bean, which is the “pit” of the coffee cherry.
  4. Depending on the method, the beans are soaked, which also helps separate the different grades of beans.
  5. The green (unroasted) beans are shipped to roasters, usually overseas.
  6. The green beans are roasted and turn the tan to dark brown color we associate with coffee. Different roasts (light, medium, dark) mean the bean was roasted at a lower or higher temperature. Lighter roasts keep the original tastes of different beans while darker roasts have a fuller, bitterer flavor. Interesting note: the longer you roast the beans, the less caffeine will be retained, so dark roasts such as French or Italian roasts, actually have less caffeine.
  7. The roasted beans are then ground and brewed (either soaked in French press, brewed in coffeemaker, or hot water is pushed through the grounds to make espresso).
  8. You coffee is finally ready to be enjoyed!

(For an even more detailed look at coffee processing, check out the National Coffee Association’s explanation.)

So, what type of coffee do Colombians drink?

Colombians do drink a fair bit of coffee. However, the best beans are shipped overseas, so the quality of coffee is not great.

The best: Starbucks-style coffee shops that serve espresso can be found in the biggest (and richest) cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena. The most famous are the chain of Juan Valdez coffee shops that will put you back the usual $3 to $6 for your espresso, latte, or mocha.

Mediocre: Most Colombians order tinto if ordering coffee, called tinto for its reddish color. While sometime it is fresh and delicious, many times it is not usually brewed from the best beans and the quality varies from a great cup of fresh-brewed coffee to a strong bitter taste masked by heaps of sugar. In many cities you can find vendors walking around with Thermoses full of the steaming liquid, which is only occasionally served with milk but usually pre-sweetened.

DSC_0004 (2)
Two Colombians drink tinto in Cartagena.

The sad: Most Colombians (especially those outside the coffee-growing regions) do not make coffee at home with coffee makers or French presses. Instead, at home many Colombians drink instant coffee. Instant! Yes, it might be 100% pure Colombian Arabica coffee, but I can tell you from experience that freeze-dried granules are still freeze-dried granules. No, they don’t taste any better in Colombia than your office break room.

DSC_0750 (2)
At a grocery store in the coffee-growing region of Colombia. Shelves and shelves of instant “coffee.”

So there you have it. Colombia is one of the best place in the world to grow coffee thanks to its location and climate, and has a rich history of growing and exporting coffee, but many Colombians drink instant coffee and the quality in the country varies dramatically.

Coffee may or may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Colombia. To explore a little more, check out the entertaining flowchart on where you might end up in Colombia, depending on what you first think of.

Whenever you enjoy your next cup of Colombian coffee (whether from a high-end coffee shop, fresh from your own coffeemaker, or even…tragically…as you dissolve instant coffee granules in hot water), I hope you’ll think about the origins of those coffee beans as you let the aroma and flavor of your morning café whisk you away to the cool, green mountains of Colombia.


Coffee mug

16 Replies to “All You Need to Know about (Colombian) Coffee”

  1. Good explanations, but a few of them no enough accurate. such as: Tintō (the watery black Colombian coffe) doesn’t mean Ink. It means Red Wine Colour. Tintā is the Spanish for Ink, and not related to this subject.

    About if Colombians drink or not the best coffee used to be true before mid- eighties. After that it’s up to every costumer to get the different quality & price level for shure. and it is due to the over-production.

    And, in the other hand. Independent (from the federation) growers arise with better conditioned grounds to grow coffe, such Bucaramanga (Santander), Tolima & Nariño between others.

    Finally, it is not necessary to be into the corporatized coffee shops to enjoy a good coffe in Colombia, just be sure to avoid miscellaneous shops just because they won’t be prepare anything different to Tinto.

    Add: The Tinto is not bad by itself, the issue lied on it is prepare early in the morning and keep it warm until the end of the day. After 30 mins Tinto became bad. The Tinto is very popular between Colombian office workers to keep them in touch & diligent.

    1. Great points, Pablo. Thanks for catching the error on my translation. And though it can be hard to find good coffee, I know many places have it too (not just Juan Valdez). Colombian coffee is still some of the best in the world!

  2. prior to the advent of starbucks, how strong was the coffee drunk by the AVERAGE columbian, especially in light of the fact that they drink freeze dry? although i have no facts, i believe coffee consumed in the USA has increased in concentration (more beans/water) although the instructions on most coffee cans will still produce a weak cuppa.

  3. Hi sorry but I have to add that Starbucks do not mix Robusta beans in any of the coffee sold. Every single bean is high quality Arabica grown in the various Coffee Belt regions.

    1. You are correct! While some coffeeshops used to mix in both types of beans, I didn’t realize Starbucks and many others only use Arabica coffee. Thanks for the correction!

  4. Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros which the association many of the coffee growers sell their coffee to, mixes all the coffee they buy from all these growers, you buy a mix of coffee from many farms, yes it’s really good BUT the best you could find is called “Cafe de Origen”, this coffee comes from small producers/growers is the best you can get, it’s buying directly from the person who works that soil, every single bean of your coffee bag comes from the same farm. It’s just amazingly tasty. You gotta go to any of these towns, not easy to find it in big cities, if so must be expensive but it is worth it. My mom comes from a small town where I always go to get my ‘Cafe de Origen’ when I go to Colombia, jus have to drive 4 hours to get there 😛
    Oma is another good company, they sell really good coffee, it’s Colombian as well. Not as popular as Juan Valdez though.

  5. In colombia quality coffee is already found in different regions apart from the ones you named, among them Tolima and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. if you want to know them enter my page to take a tour of my passion.

  6. Overall, great article! I’m not sure whether or not your from a Colombian background but both my parents are from Bucaramanga and the simple fact that you cared enough to write an article about this makes me proud to be Colombian! So thank you!

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