For many people the start of each morning begins with a steaming cup of coffee in hand. From espresso to cappuccino, to double double and café tinto, thousands of pounds of coffee beans are brewed fresh each day. As the world’s third largest producer of coffee behind only Brazil and Costa Rica, Colombia offers visitors a chance to learn about this important industry and what goes into making a good cup of coffee.
I had the good fortune to visit the lovely town of Salento in the heart of the Colombia’s coffee growing region and stay at the Plantation House Hostel, which offers daily coffee tours to the organic coffee farm just next door.
The owner of both the hostel and the farm, Timothy Edward Harbour, greets you upon arrival to the tour and escorts you over to his farm where over the course of two hours he’ll give you an inside look at the workings of a plantation farm. I won’t attempt to try to go over all of the details with the same enthusiasm or humour as Mr. Harbour, for that you’ll have to visit yourself. Instead I’ve summarized the basic steps to get from bean to cup below:
- Growing: Coffee is best grown in the tropical regions around the equator and usually at altitudes of up to 1000 meters or higher above sea level. Most beans are planted into little pods that grow into saplings and are then transplanted into the ground after several months. The coffee plants then take another 3-4 years to start to develop coffee cherries that will be ready to harvest.
- Harvesting: Beans are picked by hand in the rainy season. Colombia is fortunate to have two rainy seasons, a longer season in the fall and a shorter season in the spring allowing for two harvest periods. A typically plantation worker will pick over a hundred pounds of coffee beans each day in the harvest season.
- Processing: With an abundance of fresh water, Colombia employs the wet method of processing. First the beans are run through a hopper that peels away the skin of the cherry and pops out the beans on the other side. Next the beans are soaked in water and allowed to ferment. The heavier, ripe beans will sink to the bottom and any unripe lighter beans will float to the top and be skimmed off.
- Drying: After fermentation, the beans will be rinsed and are ready to be dried. During the harvest season, every square inch of concrete in Salento is covered with drying coffee beans. The beans are regularly raked to ensure they dry evenly.
- Milling and Grading: A fine parchment paper is left on the outside off the dried coffee beans which is now removed by machine. The beans are then graded on size and weight and are ready for export or roasting.
- Roasting & Grinding: There are many methods for roasting coffee depending on the blend of beans and the strength of coffee desired. We got to watch and smell first hand as the freshly dried beans were roasted up in a frying pan on the stove and then run through a hand crank to grind them into freshly pressed coffee. This is where the magic starts to happen and the colours and smells of coffee come to life.
- Tasting: Finally the best part! While I can’t call myself much of a coffee connoisseur as I’ve only recently started drinking coffee, I’m pretty sure this is some of the best coffee I’ve sampled. Mind you I had to add a heaping spoonful of sugar much to the dismay of the coffee workers who all drink the coffee black.
Afterwards, I was able to interview Timothy Harbour and learn a bit about the back story on how with no experience in either running hostels or growing coffee he came to own Plantation House and the coffee farm:
JK: Where are you from?
TH: Born in England, but grew up in Australia.
JK: When did you move to Colombia?
TH: I was first in Colombia in 2003. . . .my wife is from here, we met in Bogota
JK: Why did you decide to move to Colombia?
TH: I was just travelling around and sort of got stuck.
JK: What inspired you to move to Salento and buy the farm (literally)?
TH: I was staying in Bogota in a hostel called Platypus House which doesn’t exist anymore and this English guy rocked up one day and he actually owned Plantation House. It was his country estate, he lived in Armenia. We were talking about hostels and he said, “I have a place that would be perfect for a hostel” And I said, “Where’s that?” And he said, “Salento” And I said, “Where’s that?” He said, “I’ll show you on a map” so we went to go have a look on a map and it wasn’t there, so that wasn’t a good start. So after he left I had a word with the owner of Platypus House and he said Salento is very, very special, you should check it out. So I came up here, had a look at the place and never really got around to leaving.
JK: How did you get into the coffee farming business?
TH: Basically we were coming out of our house and there was a little old lady walking past who owned this place (the farm), and she said, “Have you bought that house?” and I said, “yes I have, why?” she said, “Why didn’t you buy my coffee farm?” and I said, “I didn’t know your coffee farm was for sale”, so we went down to have a look at it and it took me a while, but I finally convinced my wife that we should buy the farm.
So there you have it. With no prior experience fate and chance lead Timothy to own and operate his own coffee plantation in Colombia. For a truly personalized coffee experience you can even buy your own row of coffee plants that are grown and harvested to your specifications and then shipped direct to your home anywhere in the world. Learn more at: www.yourowncoffeefarm.com.