“You don’t drink much coffee? Well, don’t worry: that means you’re like a true Colombian.”
Juan Pablo Echeverri pats me reassuringly on the shoulder as he says this. The manager of the Hacienda Venecia coffee finca and I are in the plantation’s silo area, standing amidst hills of dried beans.
“It’s strange, but there you have it,” shrugs the Panama-hatted patrón. “Colombia has some of the best coffee in the world, but the people drink it much less than in other countries. Most of the high-quality beans are reserved for export.”
Can that be true? Colombians not coffee fanatics?
But yes, a cursory glance on my phone at stats from Euromonitor, a global market-research firm, shows me that citizens of the land of Shakira massively trail other countries in their consumption of the national beverage: just 1.4 kg per capita per year. That’s way behind caffeine-addicted Finland (9.6 kg), Austria (5.5 kg), even the U.S. (3.1 kg).
The top coffee-chuggers in Latin America? Those would be Brazilians, Colombia’s biggest coffee-producing rival, at 4.8 kg per year.
Looks like my visit to this 500-acre plantation is going to be veritably percolating with surprises.
Admittedly that’s to be expected, given my level of non-expertise upon arriving at Echeverri’s homestead. When I timorously confessed my coffee cluelessness to my host, who represents the fourth generation in his family of coffee growers, I braced myself for grimaces of disappointment. Now, however, I find my chagrin morphing into eagerness—eagerness to be schooled in the minutia of cafetology by this master planter.
Schooling, it turns out, is a big part of what Hacienda Venecia does. Situated some few miles outside the city of Manizales, in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera or Coffee Triangle, the plantation has long had for its mission, not just the production of top-quality beans, but education. Who are the educatees? First off, Colombians themselves, who generally know little about their country’s iconic industry. And second, the international public, who are typically keen to learn the complex backstory of those rich-smelling grounds they use to jumpstart their day.
This means, practically, teaching visitors to the finca about all steps of the coffee-production process. Picking, washing, drying, toasting, packing.
It’s an irresistibly aromatic apprenticeship, even for non-coffeeholics like myself.
“The hope is, tourists will appreciate how much goes into each cup of coffee,” Echeverri says. “That way, the next time he drinks it in his house, in his office, or in the street, he’s reminded of what he saw in Colombia. And that makes him enjoy it even more.”
Into the Fields
The Willys jeep I’m in jounces as Echeverri and I amble down the rutted lane. All around us, dense rows of towering coffee plants. My guide points off to the right.
“See those green and red berries, growing together? The ripe and the unripe? That’s because of the overlapping seasons, rainy and dry. You won’t see that in a country like Brazil. But here in Colombia, it’s possible.”
Possible. The word swells as I breathe in the fresh mountain air. Given the glorious green swales unrolling below us, combined with the blue of the sky, I’d say my sense of possibility has already expanded considerably, here in the north Andes.
Our jeep rounds a curve, causing a slope to heave into view. Scattered all across it are men in caps or bandanas bent amidst the brush, each with his large plastic pail. The andariegos. Coffee pickers.
“These men really are the backbone of this enterprise, since we can’t use machines,” Echeverri says, slowing the Willys to a crawl. “Here, due to the ruggedness of the mountain terrain, the combine harvesters used in Brazil and elsewhere are impossible.” Hacienda Venecia, in other words, is still a place where things are done in the ancestral way: by hand.
It shows. Since arriving in the fields, I’ve sensed that this is a place where everyone takes a bit more time with each moment’s task. Where despite the plantation’s size and modernity, things still run on a slightly slower clock than the rest of the world. The patient, distilling ooze of tradition, hour by precious hour.
Our jeep halts. We get out, to exult in the dark-green lushness of the hillside.
Entering the rows, my host twists off a coffee cherry. His skilled fingers pop open the skin.
“Here you can see the bean,” he says, indicating two peanut-shaped hemispheres. Both are apple-green, and moist. “The rest is the pulp, to be recycled as compost.”
I pull out the bean and suck. It’s sweet, honey-sweet. Almost syrupy.
“Mucilage, we call it. But it doesn’t add to the coffee quality. So it has to be washed off. The flavor, though, it’s native to this region, and it’s what makes Colombian coffee special.”
Echeverri explains how three factors make Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, the rough triangle south of Medellín comprising the departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío, one of the planet’s best coffee terroirs. Those factors are moisture, soil, and altitude. The first comes from the tatters of low-hanging clouds that creep through the vegetation in the morning and late afternoon; the second has been enriched to a deep, nutrient-rich red by ash from local volcanoes; and the third ensures just the right temperature for cultivating the arábica beans that are the country’s forte.
“To produce arábica, the finest species of coffee, you need rich soil. That, plus a narrow window of altitude, between 900 and 2,000 meters. For that, these hills are ideal.”
Here my host stoops, rummaging in the brush. I crouch too, to see what’s got him so animated. He points: a tiny shoot, with newly spreading leaves. A chapola, it’s called. Delicate and haiku-like, it’s at the heart of the coffee-grower’s enterprise.
“We cultivate these shoots in a special area on the finca, selecting only the best ones for the fields.”
It’s further proof that Hacienda Venecia’s bigness is really rooted in a smallness. A million smallnesses, all tended to with care by hands honed by long custom.
“[Cultivation] is a process that unites the people with the country, with the land, and produces this wonderful fruit,” he explains. “The union of all this—with contributions from humans, the soil, the environment—produces a drink that’s truly magical.”
A Hill of Beans
I’m standing on an outdoor deck, stirring a cast-iron skillet of gourmet dark roast. Beans jump and click, like popcorn. The heavenly aroma floats skyward—leading me to reconsider my aloofness regarding Hacienda Venecia’s signature beverage.
“This is where it all comes together,” says Echevarri. “The toasting. It produces all the aromas we coffee growers strive for.”
We’re sampling three different preparations of those coffee cherries we saw out in the fields: the untoasted green bean, the medium roast, and the dark French roast. Hacienda Venecia farms out most of its toasting to other firms, but some of it is still done on the premises for the benefit of visitors.
My sampling of the unroasted bean is anticlimactic: it’s grassy, slightly bitter. If this is how the raw product tastes, it’s a miracle anyone ever thought of making it into a beverage.
Then my host holds out a steaming demitasse of the medium brew.
“Smell,” he orders.
I sniff. It’s fruity, even citrus-like. I take a sip to confirm. No sugar’s been added, but it’s still sweet. With no aftertaste.
“The sweetness or mild quality is the result of the long process we do here, including the roasting. That’s what gives the coffee its smoothness, so you can easily drink it without adding sugar, milk—none of that.”
The process Echevarri refers to has been the subject of my tour since our arrival back in the plant. It involves peeling, washing, drying—sometimes in huge vats, or rooms full of spreading trays, or chugging de-shelling machines. But never sacrificing the hand-crafted attention to detail learned from the cafecultor’s ancestors.
The result? A pile of sweet-smelling, uniformly-colored grains next to the finca’s coffee silos, waiting to be packed in 40-kilogram sacks. A hill of beans, all for sale in the upscale markets in Europe and America.
I, a non-coffee drinker, finish my cup. The sun is declining. Echeverri suggests we head up to the long verandah of the hacienda’s main house, where I’ll be spending the night. For Hacienda Venecia also doubles as a hotel, for those seeking the full homestead experience.
We cross the richly turfed lawn. A phosphorescent-blue peacock struts by, near the flashing pool.
When we reach the porch, one of the employees brings us bowls of ajiaco, Colombia’s ubiquitous chicken-and-potato soup. A hearty end to a brimming day.
Seated looking out over the grounds, his hat tipped casually back, Echeverri is telling me how he started offering homestays at the hacienda around ten years ago. The coffee industry was down, due to the global economic crisis, so he aimed to diversify by opening his doors to agro-tourists curious about his country. Today, the red-tile-roofed, hammock-filled ancestral house receives some 1,000 guests per year.
“The idea is to connect the finca with the world, and the world with the finca.”
And what role does he see for himself, in this inter-cultural educational exchange?
He pauses, reflectively massaging his day’s-growth beard. His lips form a wry smile.
“Bueno, I guess you could say I’d like for my people and my culture to be understood in a single cup of coffee.”
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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin America Confidential.