In Colombia, there is an export grown that is prized the world over for its quality and energizing properties. That crop is, of course, coffee.
Coffee has been thought to have been grown in the mountainous South American country since the early 1700s, when Jesuits brought coffee seeds with them. The first recorded commercial production of the beans was in 1836. Since then, coffee has grown to be a major source of income for the country, with about $900 million worth exported to the United States in 2013, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
Arabica coffee is grown throughout the Colombia Andean region, with the beans valued for their high acidity, medium body, and fruity notes. According to the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, about half a million families grow coffee on small farms, most of which have less than working five acres. The growers have combined buying power through the above-mentioned Federation, through which they sell their beans at contracted rates that fluctuate with the commodities exchange.
Indeed, the coffee culture is seen everywhere in the country. Coffee shops, both elaborate and humble, are on nearly every street corner, sharing real estate with Dolce & Gabbana and Tiffany in upscale malls in Bogota and in town squares in small villages hours from the nearest city. During a visit to Colombia, I was invited to take a tour of a coffee farm about two hours from Medellin in Antioquia. Driving out of the capital city, known for its flowers and Botero statues, the cityscape quickly turns rural and a 50 kilometer trip takes hours as the roads wind up, down, and around mountains. It is that terrain that makes this part of Colombia perfect for growing coffee.
Though Colombia has seen many technological advances, along with most parts of the world, very little has changed for coffee growers. Each coffee tree must be planted by hand and nurtured for about four years before the first cherries can be harvested -- again, by hand. Wearing buckets strapped to their bodies with harnesses, the chapoleras, mostly women, deftly work their way through the coffee trees, picking only the red cherries and leaving the green ones to ripen over time. Since the trees are grown on the sides of mountains, the women must not only be fast with their hands, they must be sure footed.
At day's end, the coffee is weighed and the women are paid accordingly. The coffee is then sorted for quality and dried in the sun for on long concrete patios, while constantly raked or turned by hand to ensure even drying and prevent mildew. The drying process can take weeks, depending on weather.
The dried cherries are then hulled and the beans bagged for transport to one of the dozens of local coffee buyers. Usually the bags are carried by truck, but it's not unusual to see mules being used, especially in the more rural areas.
The Compra de Cafes, are cooperatives that guaranty prices based on commodity contract pricing, with higher rates for premium coffees including fair trade, rainforest, and UTZ certified coffees. Inside the buying office, the beans are weighed and checked randomly for quality. Once a price is agreed upon, the farmer is cut a check for the transaction.
The unroasted beans are then checked once again at the point of export for quality before being shipped off. Some stay in Colombia, to be roasted and sold at Juan Valdez coffee shops. The shops, named after the fictional coffee grower, were created by Colombia's National Federation of Coffee Growers. Currently there are about 200 Juan Valdez shops in Colombia alone. The shops range from small stands at movie theaters to grand cafes that sell everything from lattes spiked with whiskey to branded sweatshirts and locally crafted mochila bags.
Not only is the coffee industry a cash crop for Colombia, it's a source of national pride in a country that's working hard to polish an image tarnished for years by crime and political unrest. It's working, with visits to coffee farms becoming an increasingly popular day trip for tourists who want to experience a day in the life of a chapolera.
Indeed, there's a certain love affair with Colombia and Colombian coffee, as evidenced by people's fascination with Juan Valdez, a fictional character created by New York ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (the real Mad Men) in the late 1950's.
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Valdez is now portrayed by Carlos Castañeda, a real life Colombian coffee grower with movie-star looks, who travels the world portraying the romantic image of the proud farm owner who rises early to grow the coffee that fuels our day.