Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coffee and Colombia

Starbucks in the SF financial district.
If there is one thing San Francisco has plenty of—besides seismic activity—it’s coffee shops.

They’re everywhere. 

Last year when I worked in the San Francisco financial district, I often spent my lunch breaks meandering Market Street. Amidst my strolls, I marveled at the sheer number of coffee shops concentrated in such a small area. I found it a miracle that so many could stay in business—one could literally stand in front of one Starbucks and see another Starbucks less than a hop, skip and a jump away.

And that’s not even counting the innumerable Tully’s and Peet’s Coffees sprinkled in between.

I often wondered where all that coffee came from.

A year later I would have my answer…

Riding in the jeep.
Riding in the back of a modified old Jeep Wrangler, I sat hunched over as far as possible to prevent my head from smacking into the support bars as the vehicle attacked the uneven road.

We were just outside Manizales, navigating a rugged dirt road through a sparsely populated, rural and hilly area. The locals waved at us as we passed country homes on our way to Hacienda Venecia.

We arrived at the coffee farm just before midday and entered the hacienda’s main reception building, where a group of guests had already begun to gather. The hacienda people told us there would be two tour groups—one in English and one in Spanish. Although I probably could have survived in the Spanish group, I knew I would learn more listening to my native tongue, so I went with the former.

Coffee plant berries.
The hacienda’s manager led the English tour and took us into a small room to give us a crash course in all things coffee.

Here a summary of what we learned:

Coffee originated in Ethiopia and was brought to South America by Jesuits around 1730 C.E. Due to Colombia’s ideal climate for coffee cultivation, it became a natural cash crop after the expansion of the world economy during the latter half of the 19th century. Eventually, the United States became the most important consumer of Colombian coffee in the world, with Germany and France becoming the most important markets in Europe.  

The bad beans float while the good ones sink.
Most coffee beans in the world come from two species of coffee: Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. More than 75% of the coffee beans in the world are a variety of Coffea arabica, while most of the remainder is Coffea robusta. Colombia almost exclusively grows the popular Coffea arabica species.

Colombian coffee fields.
The process of growing coffee is both simple and incredibly particular. First, coffee plants must be sown during the rainy season, as they require a steady supply of rain to thrive (hence why coffee can only be grown near the equator). Since Colombia has alternating wet seasons, it is one of the few places where coffee can be grown year-round. Once the coffee plants mature, they bear green coffee berries, which are later picked. A majority of the coffee berries pass through machines to remove their skins, revealing the coffee bean; however, for high-end coffee products, the coffee berries are digested and pooped out by some kind of special cat. The coffee beans then pass through a tank designed to separate the good beans from the bad—the bad ones float while the good sink to the bottom. The result is silos filled with raw, green coffee beans. Colombia usually sells coffee beans in their raw form because once roasted, coffee has a short shelf life.

After giving us the coffee-growing lowdown, the hacienda manager took us for a walking tour of the coffee fields. The coffee plants grew in long, straight rows on flat and steep terrain alike. We crossed a small river to visit the coffee processing facility that housed all of the equipment necessary for taking coffee berries and turning them into raw coffee beans ready for shipment.

The final product- raw coffee beans.
As far as I could tell, there were no coffee-bean-pooping cats on the premises.

So next time you enter a Starbucks and order your ritualistic latte, be sure to say, “Thank you, Colombia.”

Because if it weren’t for Colombia, your caffeine addiction could never be satiated.   


  1. Hey Mike, I came across your blog via the Little Colombian Obeservationist's. Great to read about your adventures. Funny thing, I live in Oakland and I'm taking an open-ended trip to Bogotá in July! I've never been to Colombia before, but can already tell I'm never going to want to leave.

    I'm also working on a blog for my trip, but it's not quite done yet. I'd love to keep in touch though, nothin like a Bay Area meet-up in Bogotá I'm sure =)

    Cheers, and happy teaching,

  2. Hi Jenna,

    That's great you will be coming to Colombia! I will be here in July, so we should definitely meet up. I would be happy to show you around the city (it can be a little overwhelming at first). Email me at when you get here and we can go from there!


  3. Wow Mike, I am impressed. Truely amazing,. I've never seen anyone speaking of my Country with such pleasure, not even Colombians do that.
    I love my country and it's great to see someone is having a good time in it.
    If you ever want to come back to Manizales, you know you're welcome. Have fun!

  4. Thanks for your comment Juanita! I'm glad you enjoy the blog. Colombia is a beautiful and complex place, and I hope my blog helps people get a better understanding of this truly dynamic country!

  5. I am an American, lived all my life in the Northeast. I am retired and will be moving to the coffee growing region of Colombia in a few months to live there. I find your observations interesting and helpful. I spent a month in the country in 2009 and found the people very friendly and welcoming.

  6. Your blog is awesome! It may be easier to read if you make the background lighter and the text black.