In Colombia, Coffee Is King

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.

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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.

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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss

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