The bright Sunday began on a bus weaving through the luscious green mountains of Colombia’s Eje Cafetero, also known as the coffee region. Coffee farm tours are easy to find in the area, but most focus on the production process, not the roasting, brewing, and sipping. However, there is one tour offering all of the above: Juan Carlos Ortega’s El Placer Coffee Cupping Tour in Santa Rosa (a small town between Manizales and Pereira), Colombia. In his words, Colombians are experts at growing coffee, but they don’t know how to drink it. It’s true - most coffee found here won’t impress connoisseurs. It’s usually full of panela, unrefined whole cane sugar, and sadly, most of the best Colombian coffee is exported, leaving locals with the leftovers. But Juan Carlos is trying to change that one cup of a coffee at a time.
Juan Carlos and Adriana, our interpreter, met my friend and I in El Lembo. As we drove up to Juan Carlos’ farm, El Placer, he pointed out the traditional architecture of the farm houses and explained that the farm had been in his family for generations. Because of this region’s unique climate, the Eje Cafetero is a perfect place to grow not only commercial grade coffee but also specialty coffee. Juan Carlos grows organic and specialty coffee, a growing market in the country. He offers 4-hour informational cupping (or tasting) tours. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the art of growing, roasting, and tasting coffee. I’m one of those people who cannot function without coffee; you can’t tell the difference between me without coffee and the zombies from The Walking Dead. I also love Michael Pollan’s recommendation to always, “shake the hand that feeds you.” The importance of understanding the impact of your own consumption cannot be understated in today’s food industry. And more than just shake Juan Carlos’ hand...I settled in to listen.
The tour started with a brief explanation of the process of growing the beans and the two different coffee plants - Arabica and Robusta. Only 20% of the world’s coffee is Arabica, and that is what is grown on this farm. Coffee plants take two years to produce which helps explain the “tranquila” and patient pace of life here in the Eje Cafetero. Our guide also explained that his coffee pickers earn around $550,000 COP per kilogram, but it is very demanding work: the steep inclines and high-altitude sun are only two of the challenges, and most commercial pickers are paid a lot less.
We had the chance to pick our own coffee berries and learned that the berry only grows after flowering. We were instructed to chose only the deepest and ripest red berries. Next, we squeezed the beans outside of the berries and tasted the raw beans which have a sweet layer of sugar over them. Usually this layer is washed off, but “honey” coffee beans are dried with this sweet layer on; it was a more complicated process, but Juan Carlos roasts his own honey beans by hand. We then took turns roasting the beans and saw the different levels of roasting. Finally, we waited for the beans to cool while we took a walk around the property.
On the walk, we saw and smelled mandarina and plantain trees, lemongrass, and mint. Everything that grows around the coffee influences its taste, so it was the perfect warm up of our senses for the tasting to come. After the walk, we hurried back to ground our beans. As Juan Carlos ground the beans, there was an explosion of fragrance in the room. It faded within minutes and was a great reminder of why to freshly grind your coffee before enjoying.
He showed us his preferred method of manually brewing using a Hario V60 dripper with passion and precision. He explained to first enjoy the aroma of the coffee, and then to sip and enjoy the body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. His cup of coffee was a work of art, and each step was thoughtfully considered and executed.
As we sipped on our coffee together, Juan Carlos shared some insights into the coffee industry in Colombia. He explained that Juan Valdez coffee was all marketing and no substance, and how the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation was more concerned with lining politicians’ pockets than protecting the growers. As we finished our last sips of coffee, we signed his guestbook full of messages of gratitude from visitors from all over the world.
In the end, I warmly shook Juan Carlos’ hand and had a sense of hope that more and more people were asking questions about the origin of their food and drink and seeking these hands-on learning experiences. But more importantly, I also had five bags of his specialty coffee in my backpack to bring home for the many more cups to come.
The El Placer Coffee Cupping Tour can be arranged through Colombia Eco Travel. Interpreters available upon request.