Tuesday 18 January 2022

A Journey to Colombia’s Coffee Belt, the northern reaches of the Andes

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MILAN – The New York Times has recently featured, in its Travel section, an interesting story, written by Gustave Axelson, about a journey to Colombia’s Coffee Belt. The article describes the everyday life of Colombian campesinos in the northern reaches of the Andes Mountains.

There are more than 20 restaurants and cafes that sell coffee by the cup in the lively pastel-splashed plaza of Jardín, a quaint Colombian pueblo, or village, nestled in the northern reaches of the Andes Mountains.

I chose one and settled in at a streetside table painted bright blue like an Easter egg, and ordered a café tinto — straight black — for 800 pesos, about 25 cents. It was a Monday morning, and the Paisas, as the folks in this region south of Medellín are called, were socializing. Some looked to be friends and family chatting and laughing in the shadow of the double-spired basilica. Some, I was told, were shopkeepers who took the day off after a busy weekend catering to tourists. At the table next to me, a campesino relaxed with his cowboy hat pulled over his face and his chair tilted back against the wall.

Had I been here on a certain day during the harvest season, I might have seen farm owners standing outside the Bancolombia branch with bags of paper cash, surrounded by police officers for security and workers who came to be paid. On Saturday nights, this plaza is a raucous cacophony of pounding discoteca beats and campesinos parading into town astride show horses, but there are still tintos among the cervezas on the trays waitresses carry between tables.

Coffee is at the heart of Jardín, as corn is to small town Iowa: the local economy that forms a cultural identity. When my tinto arrived, it was easy to see why: The flavor, strong and bold, flowed directly from the beans, not a burned layer from roasting. I took another sip from my teacup-size demitasse and noticed that of all the people drinking coffee around me, a travel mug or paper cup was nowhere to be found. No one was taking their coffee to-go. Everyone was sitting, sipping, enjoying.

This was why I had come: to indulge my love of coffee. And Jardín is a perfect place, in the heart of a coffee belt in southwestern Antioquia, the largest-volume coffee producer of Colombia’s 32 departments.

In the 1990s, a collapse in commodity coffee prices hit Colombia hard. Half of its coffee market value vanished, and thousands of families in coffee-growing regions were pushed into poverty. As a strategy for the future, the Colombian government began encouraging and supporting farms to grow higher quality beans that qualify for specialty coffee markets, where prices are higher and more stable.

Jardín embraced the specialty trend with gusto. Most of the beans sold at the town’s coffee cooperative warehouse go straight to Nespresso, the high-end Swiss company selling coffee makers through George Clooney on TV ads. The hills here are bustling with family fincas, or farms, competing with one another to grow the best coffee.

With the help of a hired guide — José Castaño Hernández, himself the son of coffee farmers — I was ready to see where the rich brew in my cup came from, to explore the coffee terroir of the northern Andes.

Tell your relatives that you’re going to Colombia and you may still provoke a shudder and a warning to be careful in a country where there were once rampant drug violence and kidnappings by a rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Last year the government signed a peace deal with FARC to end more than a half-century of bloody conflict. Jardín is in a relatively safe area where the unrest was never as bad, because the many coffee farms grounded the local economy in legitimate commerce.

In the plaza, Mr. Hernández, 41, picked me up in his car and we drove through a military checkpoint just outside of town. After the soldiers waved us through, he told me we would be taking the scenic route to visit a coffee finca above 6,000 feet in elevation. By scenic, he meant a route for equestrians. At the mountain foothills, he parked at the roadside and we met up with another guide who had horses saddled and ready to go. The ride up a cobble-strewed path was a series of pinch-me moments — glorious vistas of the northern Andes, rays of morning sun shooting through fluffy clouds, the occasional ridiculous-beaked toucan flying by.

After a few hours we stopped and tied up the horses, and Mr. Hernández unlocked a gate at a barbed-wire fence. This was the backdoor to the Cueva del Esplendor. The public entrance to this tourist attraction is a parking lot on the other side of the ravine, where people leave their cars and walk a path to the cave. From this side, we rappelled down wire cables into jungle. At the bottom we entered a small cave with a sunlit waterfall shooting through the rock ceiling — another pinch-me moment.

After another hour of scenic equine touring, it was time for lunch at the finca, a simple farmhouse near the mountaintop with white stucco walls and dandy blue trim. That same popping blue accented the pedestal for a shrine to the baby Jesus and also a cross erected at the drop-off to a million-dollar view: more than a dozen Andean peaks rolling out as far as could be seen, with bushy coffee plants climbing up every mountainside.

Three women hustled out to lay the lunch spread on a table on the covered porch: fried eggs with runny yolks, fried plantains two ways — one ripe and sweet and the other not-quite ripe and starchy; red beans; and chicharrón, strips of fried pork rind crunchy on the outside and chewy inside. I piled the beans into a bowl and topped them with an egg and spoonfuls of homemade chunky picante paste. The whole mix was simple and satisfying. Around the corner, the farmworkers and their families sat at another table, a mix of men, women and children all eating beans and eggs and chicharrón. Mr. Hernández had asked for an authentic finca lunch, and so it was.

“Colombians eat a big lunch; it’s their main meal,” he explained when asking what I thought of the food. “It takes a lot of food to work this farm.”

After the empty plates were collected, one woman poured me a cup of the house coffee, served tinto. I smiled and sighed at the pure flavor: so earthy and saturating on my palate, yet exiting cleanly without a trace of aftertaste. Then the farm’s manager, Juan Crisostomo Osorio Marín, beckoned me to follow a dirt path up into the coffee bushes. Mr. Marín runs the farm’s field operations for his father, who is the owner.

We arrived at a spot where bundles of green and bright red coffee berries weighted down seemingly every branch. These are prodigious plants, each one growing the equivalent of a pound of finished, ground coffee. The red coffee berries, resembling cranberries, were ripe and ready to pick. I challenged Mr. Marín to a quick coffee-picking contest, and in 30 seconds I had 50 berries in a basket. Mr. Marín had more than 200. The trick, he showed me, was to move a hand underneath the branch while flicking berries with the thumb. In one sweeping motion he could dislodge 10 or more berries.

During harvest season, Mr. Marín, 40, will haul down several baskets of coffee berries that add up to 500 pounds by the end of the day — this off a ridge so steep I found it somewhat difficult to stand up straight. Other relatives do the same. Last year Mr. Marín’s 62-year-old father picked more than 400 pounds in a day, just after recovering from a broken leg suffered while playing soccer.

Still, the production here pales to the output on corporate coffee plantations. The Marín family emphasizes quality over quantity. Nespresso grades these beans as Triple A, its highest rating for quality and sustainability.

Mr. Marín said three factors favored his coffee: the elevation, which is high enough to keep pestiferous coffee borer bugs at bay; the humidity, which stems from passing clouds that provide a steady stream of moisture; and the red soil.

“Porqué?” I asked: Why is the soil so red? Mr. Hernández told me about Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano in the northern Andes that sprinkled ash across the mountaintops.

“A good thing?” I asked Mr. Marín through Mr. Hernández.

“Sí, claro, claro,” Mr. Marín said, nodding his head. The answer came back through my guide that the ash made these soils rich and fertile: “Like a blessing, the land is better up here.”

Back at the farmhouse, I got a tour of the depulping grinder that expunges beans from the fruit (like extracting pits out of cherries), and the drying rack for beans before they go to the co-op. For 15,000 pesos (about $5), I got a bag of his Triple A coffee and thanked Mr. Marín for his hospitality.

On the ride back to Jardín, Mr. Hernández told me I was only his second coffee tourist in seven years of guiding. All of his other clients are birders, but he would like to do more trips like this, as his grandfather settled and started the coffee farm nearby where he grew up. When the coffee crisis hit, his parents divorced and he left college in Medellín to come home and help his mother climb out of debt. It was during this troubled period that Mr. Hernández sought emotional refuge at a Taoist temple and found his calling in a life of guiding, helping others find meaning in this land he loves. His mother is still on the family finca, but coffee, like all farming, is a tough business, and he isn’t sure she can continue. “The stories in these hills,” he told me while we bumped along a dusty road, “they give me hope.”

Mr. Hernández dropped me off at the inn where I was staying outside of town and told me he would take an afternoon siesta, but he would be back in a few hours. I did likewise and stretched out in the rainbow-colored hammock strung up on the balcony of my second-floor room overlooking Jardín. At 6 p.m. Mr. Hernández retrieved me for dinner at another finca, also up in the hills but shrouded in a forest canopy.

At the farmhouse, a family bustled out of the door — father and mother, flanked by a little boy and a toddler girl — to warmly greet me, the first North American to visit their home. (Swiss men from Nespresso had been there before.) The farm owner, Francisco Javier Angel, grinned and waved us to the dining room table on the open-air porch. A single light bulb on the ceiling attracted moths and other insects from the forest, and they occasionally smacked my head in their orbits around the light. But nothing was biting, no mosquitoes, another advantage of the farm’s elevation.

Mr. Angel, 37, seemed young to own a farm, but he was enterprising. He had worked this farm when a local priest owned it, and the priest, impressed by his work ethic, sold him the land. His wife, Mónica, disappeared into the kitchen and came back bearing glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade sweetened with panela, a form of unrefined sugar. Through Mr. Hernández, Mr. Angel explained that panela can also be used as a sweetener for chaqueta café, “jacket coffee,” served when days turn cold or to give coffee pickers a boost of energy for the fields.

Dinner soon followed, served family-style — beans, plantains and chicharrón, this time accompanied by strips of beef, fresh-off-farm avocado slices and arepas (cornmeal cakes). It was familiar but gratifying, and better than any of the meals I ate at restaurants in town (where the chicharrón can be a chewing marathon). Over dinner, Mr. Angel related through Mr. Hernández how his farm is certified by the Rainforest Alliance and his beans earn specialty grades. The co-op in Jardín has an entire laboratory devoted to cupping and grading beans upon delivery.

As Mrs. Angel collected the plates, I asked whether I could follow her into the kitchen to observe as she prepped the after-dinner coffee. She smiled: “Sí.”

Brewing coffee is a rustic and ritualistic process on a Colombian farm. First, she heated a liter of water in a pot on the gas stove to just near boiling, when bubbles first formed on the bottom. Then she stirred five spoonfuls of grounds from the house coffee into the pot, turned off the gas and let it sit for five minutes. “Silencio,” she said. In the meantime, she rinsed four cups in hot water so a sudden change in temperature — hot coffee hitting a cold cup — wouldn’t shock the coffee. Finally, she poured coffee through a tiny sieve into each cup. It was a gorgeous midnight-black brew with a light brown foam halo on the edges.

Back at the dinner table, I took a sip and was astounded by a simple cup of coffee for the third time today: such force, so rich, yet no hint of bitterness. I asked what made this coffee unique. Mr. Angel and Mr. Hernández exchanged some Spanish, and the back story was relayed to me.

Mr. Angel’s coffee-farming lineage goes back three generations, and he had the idea to grow the same variety of beans his grandfather grew 100 years ago — a heritage coffee, of sorts. But those seeds were nowhere to be found; the co-op sells only modern coffee varieties. So Mr. Angel went treasure hunting in abandoned farms that had been run out by the commodity-price crash. In one he found the old variety of beans from his grandfather’s generation.

Everyone in town thought Mr. Angel was insane for planting beans he scavenged out of fallow fields, but slowly his heritage coffee is winning converts. He sells it under the name Pajarito, or little bird, because he sees lots of birds among the bushes where this coffee grows.

“I see opportunity in coffee,” Mr. Angel told me through Mr. Hernández. That’s a bold statement, given that so many of his fellow coffee farmers throughout Colombia are abandoning farms, jumping off the roller coaster of coffee market prices for jobs in big cities. “It’s the tradition of this family,” Mr. Angel said. “It is what we do.”

Mr. and Mrs. Angel gathered with their children on the porch to wave goodbye as Mr. Hernández and I walked out into the night. The air buzzed with insects whirring a fervent nocturnal chorus. A sea spray of white lights, like twinkling stars, glittered in the dark forest beyond us.

When we had arrived in daylight, the foliage was so thick I couldn’t see beyond the trees. But now I realized those stars were the porch lights of fincas on the next mountain ridge, each light a home like this one.

It was a reminder that coffee here is a family affair. And if you slow down, sip, really savor, you can taste earnest endeavors and lifetimes of devotion.

Gustave Axelson

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