After a fair amount of distinctly average tintos (the ubiquitous small cups of Colombian black coffee – unfortunately most of the best stuff is exported) I was keen to try the real thing, and my stay in Manizales, at the heart of the Zona Cafetera was the perfect opportunity.
The highlands south of Medellin have the perfect conditions for growing coffee, with the lower slopes of the Andes having the ideal soil and climate, producing some of the world’s finest beans (Colombia is unusual in only growing Arabica beans and not the cheaper Robusta ones). Just outside the city of Manizales is the Hacienda Guayabal, a large coffee finca that provides daily tours, and it was a fascinating experience.
Our brilliant guide Diana Carolina took us through every step of the coffee-making process, starting with the seed beds where the seeds are planted, explaining the complex process by which the seedlings are grown and replanted several times before finally being planted on the hillsides to become mature plants (with Diana Carolina taking delight in telling our mostly male group that they mostly plant female trees, as they are bigger, stronger, and make more and better beans than the rather pathetic-looking male trees), taking several years before the first beans are harvested.
We were lucky enough to be there when many of the plants were flowering, meaning the lush green hillsides were interspersed with the beatiful white coffee flowers, and as we wandered round we got to talk to the coffee pickers, who travel from finca to finca picking beans as and when they harvest, something that’s become much more unpredictable in recent years with global warming. The picking process in Colombia is especially labour intensive too, with the pickers picking individual beans at the right stage of ripeness, rather than just stripping the whole branch at once, which would be far easier and quicker but which would result in poorer coffee.
The whole farm was beautiful, with the coffee fields being interspersed with bamboo, red banana trees and Heliconia (Bird of Paradise flower), and with colourful insects and hummingbirds flitting around between the plants.
After seeing the farm itself, we got to see the various stages of the production process, from washing to drying and shelling, with the best beans being separated for export, and the poorer quality ones remaining to be ground up for use in Colombia. Finally back at the finca itself we saw the final stage of roasting and grinding, before getting to taste coffee made with the farm’s own beans, with Diana Carolina expertly describing the correct way to taste coffee, picking out the five key aspects (aroma, body, sourness, bitterness and aftertaste). I’ve never had a single-estate coffee before, and I’m not sure if it was just because I’d had such a perfect day in such a beautiful place, but it was absolutely delicious.
I never had any idea quite how complex and how many stages there were in making coffee, it’s something you just take for granted. It was quite an amazing experience, and if you’re thinking of going to Colombia and have a love of coffee it really is a must-see.
You can see the rest of my photos of the Hacienda Guayabal here