A few weeks ago I visited the Coffee Triangle region of Colombia for the second time and drank lots of coffee of course. Colombia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee and the best beans from here are praised as some of the best available anywhere.
Many travelers come back underwhelmed by what they drink there though, which is a shame. Despite the importance of coffee to Colombia’s economy and tourism, a lot of cheap, bad coffee is served there—the kind of stuff you get from a fast food place or gas station at home, not what you get from a good independent cafe. Which brings us to this list:
1) Most of the good Colombian coffee doesn’t stay in Colombia.
There are several grades of coffee beans, based on the farm they come from, the size of the beans, and whether the beans have defects. I saw one demo with several screens the beans go through, each with smaller and smaller holes. Someone goes through the biggest ones, picks out the defectives, and those are tagged for high-grade export. The next batch is lower-grade export. The rest stay in Colombia. To get something good in Colombia itself, you need to go to a hotel buying export-quality beans (surprisingly few of those, so see our luxury hotels in Colombia listings) or a good coffee shop.
2) Fresh coffee is better coffee
If you buy ground coffee in a store, it’s only going to be but so good, no matter where it comes from. To get all the essences and flavors the beans are capable of, you need to grind them yourself. Or buy at a shop that does that right before they make your cup. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you can get farm-fresh coffee from Azahar, a company drastically shortening the time between farm and cup.
3) Colombian coffee is best roasted light or medium
Beans from different countries have a different flavor profile and the ones from here are not known for being dark, earthy, or robust. So if you’re getting dark French Roast coffee, it’s better from a place like Sumatra or Chiapas. The best cappuccino I’ve ever had was from Jesus Martin cafe in Salento on this trip, roasted medium, not dark.
4) Fair trade matters a lot right now
Due to lots of oversupply from Vietnam and other players, the price of coffee on the world market has dropped to a record low. It’s to the point where farmers are selling raw beans for less than what it costs to produce them. So a lot of them have gone on strike and are waging protests. With fair trade arrangements, farmers are paid a set price regardless of the ups and downs with commodity prices. It has its own flaws, of course, and it’s not a sure guarantee of quality, but it’s at least an indication that the wholesaler middleman is not getting all the profit.
5) Prepare good coffee with care
There’s a good reason most coffee nuts you know use a French press to prepare their coffee. It tastes a whole lot better than it will in your typical automatic drip maker. The same beans can taste drastically different in those two methods. The next best is any kind of filter system where you’re pouring hot (not quite boiling) water over the coffee yourself. Do it right and you’ll be rewarded.
See more on travel in Colombia on Luxury Latin America or the official Colombia Tourism site.