(April 30 – written by Dave)
We woke to blue skies and sunshine today, and no alarm clock – the simple pleasures of life in the Colombian Andes. Life is good.
The big activity of the day was a coffee plantation tour. We are staying at a hostel that is an old plantation house and went on a tour with the owner of what’s left of the actual plantation. Before I get into the tour and the steps leading your morning coffee, I’ll share a few interesting facts that we learned on the tour.
- Coffee comes in two basic types:
- Arabica – more flavour, less caffeine
- Robusta – more caffeine, less flavour
- Colombia only grows Arabica coffee.
- Most of Colombia’s coffee grows on small (less than 3 hectacre) farms,
- Most coffee is harvested by hand.
- The best Colombian coffee is exported and until recently, most coffee consumed in Colombia was the lower quality coffee or instant coffee.
- Ripe cherries come in yellow and red and several different sizes.
- Once shucked, all beans are white.
- Counting the cherry, there are three husks on each bean.
- Most coffee ships with two husks removed in the form of green coffee.
- Two beans grow per cherry
- When one bean is bigger than the other the bean is called a peaberry bean, and coffee made from these beans is more expensive.
- Peaberry beans are hand selected from large piles of normal beans @ about 1 KG per day.
- There are many different kinds of Arabica plants but mostly coffee gets blended so uniqueness is lost.
The tour was on an actual coffee farm, run by the owner. We had to walk a pretty muddy trail out to the farm but we were able to borrow some wellingtons and had a fun time.
To the coffee making… First up, there are a whole bunch of steps that I’m not going to talk about here. They include growing and picking. Simply turning a bean into a coffee plant is a science all by itself. And picking has many forms, up to mechanized picking in Brazil. Instead I’ll stick to what we learned today – we started with a bucket of ripe cherries.
Step 1 – removing the cherry husk – A machine was invented about 150 years ago that makes this pretty simple. Pour the cherries in the top. Out one side comes the white beans, out the other side comes the cherry husk. The husk is recycled back into the farm soils.
Step 2 – soaking and sorting with water. The beans go straight into tubs of water so that they can leach out the natural sugars. A rough sorting is also done here as under-ripe beans float. These beans are normally used in Colombian instant coffee. Water is changed up to 10 times, or until it stops changing color, meaning the sugars are all removed.
Step 3 – drying. Coffee is laid out in the sun on a hard surface, road, carpark, roof, whatever. It can be laid out for several days and may be up to 8 inches thick. It is rotated or turned by hand. The required dryness is judged by feel. Rains that come during picking season are not the friend of this process, but the rains are necessary to ripen the beans.
Step 4 – bagging and selling. At this point coffee is sold to wholesale buyers. They pay $2.50-3.00 USD per KG. They check bags for dryness as coffee that has not dried enough will weigh more and obtain a lower price as the weight is from moisture rather than coffee.
Step 5 – removing bean husk. Beans are ground to remove the second husk. This can be done a small amount at a time or on commercial scale. When completed, you have what is known as a green coffee bean and you’re ready for the next step. Green beans from this step came generally be purchase for folks wanting to home roast their coffee.
Step 6 – roasting. Roasting is and isn’t highly scientific. It can be done in a wok on a stove or in a fancy machine with a bunch of preset parameters. The third husk cracks during the roasting process – making it sound a bit like popcorn popping. Even in the machines, the person roasting has a big impact as no two batches of beans are the same. More or less roasting needs to be judged by experience. Less roasting = more flavour, more acid. More roasting = less coffee flavour, less acid. I’ll skip the religious arguments over roasting more of less, this really is down to one’s personal taste.
Step 7 – grinding. Everyone knows what this is. The most important things to remember here are to grind for your brewing method and to grind as close the brewing time as possible. According to our guide, the single most important thing you can do to get the “best” coffee is to grind, then brew immediately afterwards. We break this cardinal rule every day as we are not carrying a grinder with us.
Step 8 – brewing. Today we simply poured water through a filter filled with coffee. Our guide was not disparaging about all the different methods of brewing, rather he was just focused on getting us different beans with different roast levels. Like planting and picking, there are 10’s of different techniques for brewing. If you have good beans, roasted the way you like, then brewing is slightly less important.
Step 9 – cupping. Cupping or in our case, spooning, is done to judge the coffee and pick your favourite. If all you’ve got is one type of coffee, one way of making it and a cup, you can skip this step and move right onto step 10. If you are a coffee snob, coffee judge or you are just trying to figure out what works, use this step with variances of your techniques to figure out what you like.
Step 10 – drinking. This step is the most important. Add milk and sugar if you like. Know that we won’t judge anyone for this, but the coffee snobs may. However you enjoy it, keep on doing it.
If you’re like us, you’ll probably never do steps 1-7 and 9 – and your life will be just fine. If we learned anything today, coffee is a lot like wine. Gold medals, fancy labels and exotic names are all well and good, but if you don’t like it, then it’s not good coffee.
If after reading this you think that coffee is just coffee, no big deal. That’s fine as well. Just know that a lot of work goes into your morning cuppa. Like many things in the grocery store, an army of folks behind the scenes make our lives that much simpler, and in the case of coffee, that much better.
Tomorrow we’ll post a little more about Salento and the famous wax palm trees – which we hope to visit. We are taking another day off here to smell the coffee and see the palm trees.