Coffee Production: Perspectives from Colombian Farms ‘The Plantation House’ and ‘El Ocaso’

After hiking the Valle de Cocora, next up on my must-do list for my visit to Salento was a visit to a coffee farm. I did both a 3 hour tour at The Plantation House and a 1 hour tour at El Ocaso, and here is what I learned:
  • There are two main types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica originated in Ethiopia is the preferred for taste over Robusta. Robusta beans contain more caffeine, and although they have less flavor, they are cheaper and easier to grow than Arabica plants.
  • Colombia is currently the country with the 4th greatest coffee production globally. Brazil consistently produces the most coffee in the world, followed by Vietnam. Indonesia is currently in 3rd place, but depending on the yield of a harvest season, Colombia and Indonesia switch places every several years or so. Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia, however, mainly grow Robusta plants, meaning Colombia produces the most Arabica, high grade coffee.
    • At this time, no Robusta coffee is grown in Colombia for commercial purposes. This is a source of pride for many Colombian coffee farmers, but there have also been proposals in the last few years to introduce the cheaper and easier to grow Robusta plants so that more can enter the coffee farming industry. There has been a massive pushback against these efforts, but as the country aims to expand its agricultural sector, it is likely Robusta will be introduced.
    • Generally, some Robusta coffee beans are added as cheap filler to Arabica beans for coffee that is marketed commercially. This sacrifices some of the flavor in comparison to coffee of purely Arabica beans, but is a fairly common tactic to lower the price of bulk coffee sold globally. If your package doesn’t explicitly state that you have “100% washed Arabica beans” then it’s safe to assume there are some Robusta beans mixed in there. Blends of multiple varieties (meaning beans from several varieties of Arabica plants would be mixed) of coffee are also common. Such blends muddy the distinct flavors of individual varieties, thus, lowering quality. Highest grade coffee beans typically come from a single variety of Arabica plant (e.g. Geisha coffee that typically goes for around $20 USD a cup!). If your package has the word “blend” than lower grade varieties have been mixed in.
  • There are two main types of coffee plants, traditional and modern. Traditional coffee plants must be planted with more space in between and require other plants nearby (e.g. fruit trees) for adequate shade. Modern plants do not grow as wide, so they can be planted more closely together
    • Regardless of whether a farm has only traditional, only modern, or a mix of the two, it is always best for the soil for there to be a variety of plants grown on the farm. Monoculture strips soil of nutrients over time, and some believe that there are additional benefits of specific plants growing beside coffee plants (e.g. some contend that coffee plants growing very near to fruit trees have additional, richer flavor).
    • In Colombia, traditional plants are slowly being phased out. The corporation of coffee growers provides members with up to 4,000 plants to renew coffee plants, but they only give modern plants, so farmers who want to maintain traditional farms (like Don Eduardo’s farm at The Plantation House) must buy new traditional plants when it is time to replace old coffee plants.
    • Traditional and modern plants also have slightly different lifetimes. Most plants have lifetimes of between 20 and 40 years, if they are cut to a height of 3cm at the proper time in their life cycle.
  • The coffee process from seed to cup is lengthy, requiring many steps, and the more care taken during these steps, the higher grade the resulting coffee.
    • Seeds are first planted in sand. Next they are moved as small sprigs to plastic bags with soil. Eventually they are planted in the ground, after which point they grow. They will bud and form flowers which last for a few days and then transition to form green buds that redden. Once grown, they usually have 5-15 years of good production. After this period, they must be cut. Then they will take some time to grow again and have another productive period of 5-15 years.
    • Buds should be picked at the proper time, when they have reddened. Some varieties a fully ripe and ready to be picked when orange, rather than red.
    • Once picked from the tree, the red or orange outer peel is removed using a mechanical grinding device. The resulting beans (two per bud is the norm) are then soaked in water. This serves two purposes: 1) the soaking for 20-72 hours removes a sweet goo that is coating the beans that if left on the beans results in a lower grade of coffee with less flavor, and 2) the soaking also reveals which beans have imperfections that cannot be detected by sight, since beans with flaws that would affect flavor float and can be easily skimmed off the surface of the water so as to not lower the quality of the batch.
    • There are also occasional funny shaped beans after removing the red or orange peel. If bud contains one larger bean and one smaller bean, then the larger ones can be hand picked and then sold as a fancy specialty coffee.
    • After the washing, coffee beans are dried. This is best done in the sun and can take several weeks. When done in an oven, there is the possibility that some beans will begin the roasting process prematurely.
    • Once dried, the coffee beans are in the form in which they could be planted to generate new coffee plants or they could be processed more to be prepared for roasting and consumption. At this green bean stage, the shells on the dried beans are removed by another mechanical grinding device. The resulting light colored beans are then ready to be roasted or shipped to a location closer to their final destination where they will be roasted.

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