What Does Columbian Coffee Mean?

columbian coffee plantation

QUESTION: What does Columbian coffee mean? Is it a style of coffee, or what? — Brody F

ANSWER: The main crop grown in the United States is corn. For Columbia, their main crop is coffee. What people mean by Columbian coffee is that it is coffee made with beans that were grown in that country.

Coffee is a $2.2 billion business in Columbia, and there are more than 500,000 families producing coffee within the country, each on small farms with limited acreage. There was a boon in coffee production in the early 20th century because many former migrant workers who had formerly worked for wealthy plantation owners in the past with inhumane working conditions and no form of social security, decided to start coffee farms of their own to improve their position.

The massive growth in farms that resulted has led to Columbia becoming the world’s third largest coffee exporter. Nowadays, twenty-five percent of the country’s rural population, which is over two million Columbians, depend on coffee farming for their livelihood.

How Columbian Coffee Got So Popular

The National Federation of Coffee Growers has been helping coffee drinkers around the world learn about Columbian coffees since the late 1950s. They’re responsible for the marketing campaign using the characters Juan Valdez and his mule Conchita. For a while, Colombian coffees were outsold only by coffee from Brazil, but with more farms offering robusta beans and the addition of Vietnamese coffee to worldwide coffee sales, Colombian coffees now rank third in the world.

The Columbian coffee growers consist mainly of around 500,000 small farms, each with 5 hectares of land or less, in what is called the Zona Cafetera, or the Coffee Zone. It has a total measurement of 940,000 hectares between the elevations of 4,000 and 6,000 feet.

Where Colombian Coffee Is Grown

The Coffee Zone goes by a few other titles in addition to zona cafetera, including the Columbian Coffee Axis and the Eje Cafetero. It’s composed of three departments called Caldas, Quindio, and Risaralda. Living in this region are the Paisas, children of peasant farmers in the Andes Mountains also called Campesinos. They moved into the coffee zone south of the Andes Mountains to escape political turmoil in the Andes. 

The stretch of the Andes Mountains runs south to north across Columbia in three sections of cordilleras, or separate mountain ranges. This region that is three times as large as Montana is where most of the coffee Columbia produces is grown. It’s an exceptionally fertile area with a lot of biodiversity. A region consisting of only one percent of the Andes’ landmass is home to an entire sixth of the plant species across the globe. The microclimates that result from this meeting of diverse ecosystems and the Columbian coast, or Tumbes-Choco, are part of why the soil of Columbian coffee farms is so rich and the coffee beans that are grown there are so delicious. 

Legend has it that Jesuit priests introduced Columbia to coffee beans in the 17th century. The first time Columbian coffee was exported internationally was an American-bound shipment in 1835. The industry grew quickly, and by the year 1860, coffee had become the number one export of the Columbian economy. The profit the Columbian government received from tariffs on the coffee sent on shipments out of the country would become the top source of governmental income. Columian coffee beans consist of 12 percent of all the coffee sold across the globe.

Farmers pick their coffee beans using a technique that contrasts with the coffee farming method called strip picking, when each individual branch of the coffee bean trees is harvested separately, taking all the beans from each branch at one time. Instead, Columbian coffee farmers walk through their trees around every 10 days during their growing period to individually collect each coffee bean, cherry picking the green coffee beans at their own unique stage of ripeness.

What Is Columbian Coffee Like?

The rich volcanic soil in the Columbian Coffee Axis helps nourish the crops of the Columbian coffee farmers, who produce green Arabica coffee beans. Columbian coffee is known for having an acidic brightness and notes of chocolate, botanical herbs, fruit flavors, and citrus. However, the taste of any particular variety of Columbian coffee can vary pretty widely since the farms where these beans are grown come from such a diverse region. The climate and ecosystem, as well as the soil, can change quickly from one farm to another, resulting in nuanced and complex coffees, so you may want to conduct a tasting of a few selected coffees from different farms in the Columbian coffee axis. 

The small coffee bean farms of Columbia come from 22 individual growth regions, which are divided into three categories: Northern, Central, and Southern. You might see references to these regions on the packaging or product descriptions of coffee beans grown in Columbia. Coffee beans from the Northern region are less acidic than other Columbian coffees, with a fuller body and more chocolatey and nutty notes. The coffee beans produced on Central Columbian coffee farms have more herbal botanical notes and fruit flavors. From the Southern Columbian coffee region, you’ll find more acidic and citrusy coffee beans. Remember that Columbia is one of few places in the world that grows only Arabica coffee beans.

You can find Columbian coffee beans from a variety of different sellers and at varying price points, which of course go along with their own spectrum of quality levels. You may wish to avoid buying Columbian coffees at the lower end of the price range, as many times these coffee beans are the cheapest possible from the Columbian market and may not always be fresh. The categorizations of “Supremo” and “Excelso” refer only to the size of the beans and are not a marker of quality, so coffee beans from Columbia that are higher in quality will only occasionally refer to these categories on the packaging. Here are a few Columbian coffee bean varieties you may wish to try instead.

Columbian Peaberry from Volcanica Coffee: The peaberries used in this quality variety consist only of the best five percent of each crop’s harvest. Despite their rarity, they’re an affordable way to try peaberries and are Fair Trade certified. They’re grown at very high elevations and are known for notes of malt, chocolate, cherries, and walnuts. The brewed coffee has a wood-toned finish and chocolatey aftertaste.

Columbian Supremo from Volcanica Coffee: The shady land of the Andeano estate produces these organic, Fair Trade certified coffee beans. They’re known for their floral, fruit-flavored aroma and bright acidity, with a full body and smooth finish. The taste of the coffee is sweet with fruity and nutty flavors. 

Peet’s Columbian Selection: This is an affordable way to try Columbian coffee, with only dark roasts available in a spectrum of grind settings. However, the Columbia Luminosa blend from Peet’s is a lighter roast that pairs Coumbian coffee beans with the floral aroma of Ethiopian beans.

The best way to get to know Columbian coffees on your own is to read the descriptions of the various coffee bean varieties that come from the individual estates and choose a few that you think you will like. Columbian coffees are so diverse that it just doesn’t make sense to try one or two options and decide you must not like Columbian coffees in general. They don’t really offer a homogenous experience across the board. This diversity means that with careful selection and a few tastings, you can be sure to find the Columbian coffee bean variety that makes the perfect cup for you.

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