Arabica coffee beans, which are red when ripe (Colombian beans are yellow), make up ~80% of the coffee grown at Finca Don Elias near Salento.
When people think of Colombia, one of the first things that comes to mind is probably coffee. Okay, for some, it may be conflict and drugs, but let’s stay positive here. While my time in Colombia did not, thankfully, bring experience with the latter, I was able to sample coffee from various parts of the country and to visit Eje Cafetero, the coffee zone. I assure you that I enjoyed every minute…and sip of it.
In Cartagena, small cups of tinto and tea are sold on the streets by vendors carrying (left) or pushing carts (right) with color coded thermoses.
Regardless of what town I visited in Colombia, but particularly on the coast, it was not uncommon to hear “Tinto” being yelled from men on the streets. When I first arrived, I wondered what everyone was drinking out of shot-sized Solo cups. It was black coffee, or tinto. Soon I became accustomed to the vendors in different cities, selling tasty coffee and tea from thermoses that they either carried in small boxes or pushed along in carts.
Café Jesús Martin in Salento serves a rich and pretty cappuccino.
I like my coffee with milk and a touch of sweet (usually honey) when I have a choice. But in Colombia I learned to appreciate it black as well. Yes, I still had my cappuccinos and cafes con leche, but there were days when I chose to take in the full flavors of the dark drink before me. Now I’m more apt to have my coffee with milk but leave the sugar out. It is still far from being a purist, but one step closer anyway.
Jairo Loaiza prepares cafe con leche for a table of customers using a 110-year-old coffee machine at Bar Danubio in Salento
Salento is a sweet little town in Eje Cafetero. It’s situated in the midst of some incredibly beautiful landscapes (more on that to come in another post) and is a bustling town that thrives on tourism and coffee. There are numerous cafes in town that have large coffee machines with multiple valves and pipes used to prepare the perfect cup of coffee. Some are newer and fancier models, but the machine in the Bar Danubio, however, is the real deal. Jairo Loaiza, the bar’s proprietor proudly pointed to a portrait of his father on the wall when I asked him about the machine and the bar that serves up coffee, beer, and billiards. His father opened the bar and brought in this machine to Salento 110 years ago. Half of the room is filled with tables of people drinking coffee. The other half has half a dozen billiard tables with where local men play throughout the day. These men are dressed as you see them in Juan Valdez commercials, with the straw hats and striped ponchos draped over their shoulders. It’s how they’ve dressed in this area for generations, and while much of the younger generation dons sneakers and t-shirts, there are still a lot of men who carry on this fashionable tradition.
Coffee beans at Finca Don Elias are dried for 8-25 days in a greenhouse (left). The pale colored beans are transformed to deep brown color after they have been roasted over a fire for an hour (right).
A few miles outside of Salento is Finca Don Elias, a family run organic coffee farm (or finca). Don Elias bought the farm twenty years ago and has hopes that his grandchildren will carry on with the business once he is gone. All that is here, he planted. Since it is an organic operation, the coffee plants are among other plants that provide shade, water reserves, and pest control, such as banana, plantain, avocado, yucca, pineapple, and various herbaceous species. It’s a small operation and while some is roasted off-site for export, the coffee that is served and sold at the finca never leaves the property before it is served to visitors. Seeds are removed from their pods, fermented, rinsed, and dried for eight days to a month in a greenhouse before they are dehusked and roasted over a wood fire for an hour. It was a treat to see people connected to their land and to the process of delivering a high quality product to their family and visitors of the farm.
Don Elias (left) drinks six cups of coffee a day. He says he can sleep well as long as his last cup is before 6pm. His grandson Karloss (right) works on the finca and may some day take over production of the farm.
At one point I thought it would be nice to have an extra bag just to carry home coffee from different fincas in the region. For better or worse, that was not realistic for this trip. So while I will be savoring only a small batch of the flavors of Colombian brew once I return home, the rich aromas of this place will continue dance in my memories with those of green hillsides and the people that I encountered along the way.
Coffee fincas line the hillsides outside the village of Salento.