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Discovering Some of the World's Best Coffee in Colombia

Follow the footsteps of Juan Valdez through Colombia’s lush mountain valleys, where small, innovative farms are brewing up a fresh coffee culture.

Experimental farm La Palma & El Tucán.

Green acres: Experimental farm La Palma & El Tucán.

It’s already past 11 a.m., and I still haven’t had my caffeine fix. Felipe Sardi, my host and co-owner of La Palma & El Tucán plantation, puts a coffee cherry in my hand, telling me to squeeze it open and give it a taste. I figure he’s teasing me, but I go ahead and suck on the sticky, honey-sweet seeds in hopes of extracting a bit of caffeine. Just as I bite down to start chewing, he spits his out. Oops. We head farther along the leafy trail when he stops and grabs a branch full of cherries growing in tight clusters and small white flowers giving off a jasmine scent. Looking at my dark red nail polish, he places one of my fingers beside a ripe cherry. “At harvest time, the pickers paint one fingernail in the ideal colour so that they pick only the best beans,” he says. I’m imagining all these men getting manicures when we suddenly find ourselves at the home of Faustino Reyes, a neighbouring farmer whose property overlooks shrouded green mountains that trace huge overlapping Vs on the horizon. Soon a steaming cup of coffee, made with beans freshly roasted over the stove by Reyes’ wife, is set down before me.

The Camino Real

History underfoot: The Camino Real dates back to the 16th century.

Located in Zipacón, less than an hour from Bogotá, La Palma & El Tucán is an experimental coffee farm that hosts coffee roasters from around the world as well as coffee geeks like myself. All across the country, next-gen operations are experimenting with new varieties, new terroirs and new cutting-edge methods of extraction, fermentation and drying. It doesn’t take long to understand that in Colombia, coffee is much more than an export product: It has a telenovela, Café con aroma de mujer; a theme park, El Parque del Café; and, of course, a famous ambassador, Juan Valdez. Just as the Valdez character helped to introduce Colombian coffee to North Americans in the 1980s, Sardi – swapping moustache and mule for a three-day beard and an SUV – is attempting to make his homeland a key destination for sourcing specialty coffee beans.

coffee making process

Clockwise from top left: Green shoots in the nursery of La Palma & El Tucán; coffee cherries ripe for the pulping; 100% Colombian; after washing and sorting, beans are dried in their parchments for several days.

I make my way down a steep path, passing by the coffee nursery, where tiny green stems peek out of the soil, and eventually come across the tasting lab, a big mirrored cube built from three shipping containers. The door opens and Carlos Arévalo, the director of innovation, greets me. With his cap, curly hair and hemp bracelets, he looks more like a surfer than an agronomist and certified coffee sommelier. He proffers a Bodum containing a pale brown, almost chestnut-coloured liquid: It’s made with Geisha, a variety cultivated in a micro-lot on the property. I pounce on it like a kid who’s been offered a slice of cake. “The coffee roasters from Cabra, a third-wave café in Copenhagen, told me it was the best Geisha they had ever tasted,” says Sardi, like a proud father. I’m clearly drinking a very special vintage, so when I pour myself a second cup, I enjoy it with a little more restraint.

The green hills of the Quindío

The rolling green hills of the Quindío region are hot to trot.

In Cartagenita, 10 minutes from the farm, time-worn, palm-bordered cobblestones line a stretch of the Camino Real, a road built in the 1500s. In the first half of the 20th century up until about 30 years ago, this region was one of the most economically productive in the country. With the end of rail service, nature (and a more modest way of life) quickly took over. Some sections of the road look as though they were cleared by machete, while others, where several stately country homes still remain, seem freshly mown. “This would make a great cottage,” Sardi laughs, pushing the gate of La Aurora, a wooden colonial-style mansion with a collapsed roof shaded by palm trees. With twisted hanging vines and ivy crawling over cracks in the walls, it looks like a ghostly botanical garden. I’m startled by a loud popping sound. In a nearby dirt courtyard equipped with a decrepit bar, four men in shirtsleeves are playing tejo, a traditional Colombian sport that consists of throwing a metal disc at targets sprinkled with gunpowder and placed in a clay box set at a 45-degree angle. They invite me to give it a try; all I’ve got is beginner’s luck, but at least it earns me a nice cold Aguila beer.

An employee at the plantation stirs the beans in the dryer

Left to right: An employee at the El Carmelo plantation stirs the beans in the dryer; the coffee harvest is still done by hand.

Back at the farm, the table is set for a cupping session: Illuminated by a shaft of warm sunlight, six stations of five bowls each are arranged on fuchsia placemats. Arévalo hands me a piece of paper, a pencil and a detailed cardboard tasting wheel. “Over 800 compounds influence the taste of coffee, compared to only 150 for wine. So the only thing I don’t want to hear is that it tastes like coffee.” To the beat of cumbia music, we fasten our aprons and proceed through the proper sequence, from smelling the aroma of the freshly ground coffee to drinking the brew with a small spoon and letting out a loud slurp (sorry, mom). I like the bouquet of the Red Bourbon at the fifth station so much that I tell Arévalo that he should make a perfume out of it. “Let’s call it Bourbon No. 5!” I joke. After a few tastings, my nose is getting more refined, detecting notes of graham cracker, white pepper and cut hay, while my taste buds pick up notes of tomato and bergamot. Then again, because I refuse to spit out the coffee, it may well be a caffeine high that’s sharpening my olfactory powers.

Cocora Valley

Quindío wax palms reach for the sky in the Cocora Valley.

Hair blowing in the wind, I’m crouched over to avoid overhead branches as the red Jeep barrels through Quindío, the heartland of Colombia, set between the capital and the Pacific coast. In this more traditional coffee country, known as the Coffee Triangle for the enormous quantities of beans it produces, a tour operator called Blue Parallel offers custom stays. And if ever I have a chance of meeting a real-life Juan Valdez, it’s here. After hurtling past workers’ houses and three varieties of avocado tree, two types of mandarin tree, banana trees and plane trees, my guide, Jorge Osorio, ushers me out of the vehicle and into El Carmelo’s drying facilities. An employee in rain boots and a muscle shirt stands at the centre of a tank, stirring moist coffee beans with a neon-green shovel to accelerate the process. Outside, a traditional pulper (a Colombian invention), whose sole purpose is to delicately hull the cherries, looms like an instrument of torture with its gears and cranks.

empanadas at Abasto in Bogotá

The secret’s in the sauce (lulo salsa) served with empanadas at Abasto in Bogotá; Blue Parallel sets you up in a room with a view.

We end the day by venturing down Calle Real in the small town of Salento. The buildings here, with their two storeys all in white and their multicoloured door frames, windows and balconies, would make the perfect backdrop for a carnival. To get my mind off coffee, Osorio offers me a forcha, a drink made of fermented sugar-cane juice that’s so creamy, I can eat it with a spoon; it’s caffeine-free but the pronounced yeast taste is an instant pick-me-up. I awake the next morning to the sound of birds and rise to open the sliding doors in my room at the rear of our hacienda, which reminds me of a Balinese pavilion with its open spaces, dark wood and concrete landings. There’s time for a quick soak in the three-level pool, fed with river water, before another big breakfast of fruit and corn omelette. We’re headed today to the nearby town of Montenegro. At the Plaza de Armas, I stop in front of a rainbow of Willys (the original name for Jeeps) that are so well kept that they look brand new, although they’re actually older than me. After World War II, the vehicles were imported to this area to facilitate travel on rough roads. Able to go anywhere and to haul incredible loads, these mechanical donkeys were motors for the development of the coffee industry. Each October, there’s even an event called Yipao – a parade of Jeeps overflowing with coffee, plantains and other agricultural products.

Jeep Wrangler owners in Montenegro

Jeep Wrangler owners in Montenegro show their true colours; may the forcha be with you.

Osorio leads me through one of the huge wrought-iron doors of a café. “I guarantee you’ve never seen a machine like this,” he says. He’s right. I take a seat near the steampunk metal cylinder, halfway between a locomotive chimney and a manual espresso machine. I order a tinto, the everyday Colombian coffee made from lower-grade beans, and Osorio pushes the sugar toward me. At the tables, men in polos and white hats gesticulate passionately while others watch the flow of passersby. Behind me are the sounds of cups clinking and waitresses shouting out orders from one end of the counter to the other. The scent of toast and chocolate mingles with the moist air. I take a couple of sips and remember the tender coffee sprouts I saw a few days ago. I smile at Osorio. Colombia may well be undergoing a mini coffee revolution, but there’s nothing like a tinto colombiano to remind you where you are.

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