Salento – more than you wanted to know about coffee

(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:
  1. Arabica – more flavour, less caffeine
  2. 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.

Trail mud

Slippery path to farm

View of plantaion house

The actual farm down the hillside

Nancy and hostal dog

Because every coffee farm comes with at least one dog

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.

Coffee flower

Only a few blossoms now, we are in the smaller wet season now

Coffee cherries 3

Ripe yellow cherries

Coffee cherries 1

Ripe red 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.

1 removing cherry husk

Cherries in the top

2 Beans without cherry husk

Beans out the front

3 wate cherry husks

Husks out the back

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.

4 Beans soaking - bad one float

Good picking means fewer unripe beans

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.

8 Beans with inner husk on still dryin5 g

Drying the beans – these are under cover so that they don’t have to picked up when it rains

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.

6 removing inner husk

Small scale manual version of this step

7 cleaning chafe

Sifting out the husks

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.

9 oasting green beans

Green beans just put on the wok

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.

11 ground

Still warm from the wok this smells amazing

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.

12 prep for water

Simple filter in a pot technique

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.

13 cupping - usea sppon to try out different coffee and roasts

Using spoons for cupping – a working farm

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.

13 pouring the finished cup

Nearly there

14 tasting 1

There – yum

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.

Coffee stages 3

Left to right, unripe green berries, ripe red and yellow berries, husk and wet beans, dried beans, beans and second husk, roasted, ground – three different roastings

Floer for pete

And finally, a flower for Pete

7 thoughts on “Salento – more than you wanted to know about coffee

  1. That was an education. I will have more respect for my cup of coffee tomorrow! Thank you for all the great pictures and the story of the whole process. I’m a fan of the flower also. Hibiscus???

  2. For sure all of us under appreciate what it takes to put coffee in a bag, corn in a can, mango juice in a bottle, cereal in a box, etc, etc, etc. The good news about coffee is that it can have a pretty low environmental impact, if done on small scale and pesticides are not used. And of course, you ignore things like deforestation.

  3. Yes! The Hibiscus is beautiful! And the coffee information lovely! We do take many things for granted, even tho we know it takes many unseen hands to provide all that delightful odor & taste each morning!

  4. Dave – You kept me on the edge of my seat till the end … and saved the best for last. I didn’t see a Keurig machine?

    • The coffee growers say that the beans make the most difference.
      The coffee machine makers says it’s their fancy machines.
      The roasters say it’s all in the roast.
      The scientist say it’s all their plant breading programs.
      I say it’s coffee – just drink it!

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