What makes Columbian coffee unique?

columbian coffee plantation

by Matt Gibson and Erin Marissa Russell

The country of Colombia and the coffee industry are inseparable entities. Colombia’s unique geographical area and biologically diverse landscape makes the country well equipped to create some of the most beloved coffee in the world. Colombia’s coffee coalition, the National Federation of Coffee Growers, dubbed the FNC for short, is responsible for a marketing effort that has kept Colombia’s coffee sector in the spotlight of international media since the 1950s. 

Colombia’s coffee industry consists of over 500,000 small farms, which are positioned all across the areas of the country that sit at high elevations in the Andes Mountains. The unique environmental conditions in the mountainous regions of Colombia make the area perfect for creating excellent coffee crops. Considered the “richest and most diverse region on earth,” by Conservation International, it’s no wonder coffee grows so prolifically on the Andes slopes. Today, Colombia ranks third in world coffee production, behind only Vietnam and Brazil. How Colombia’s History Makes Their Coffee Unique

Columbia didn’t start exporting coffee until around 1835, and at that time the majority of the country’s agriculture was in the hands of wealthy plantation owners, not small farms. Early agricultural efforts did not focus solely on coffee, and it wasn’t until 1860 that coffee became the leading export from Colombia. However, the early governmental tariffs imposed on coffee exports made the crop one of the most important sources of governmental funding and a huge part of the country’s economy. 

The early success of coffee exportation has led to the formation of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, and the creation of a fictional character named Juan Valdez,  who would serve as an international spokesman for Colombian coffee, to help spread the word about the incredible coffee coming out of the region. In the early 1900s, a large number of small coffee farms popped up across the country due to small migrant farmers who were formerly employed by large plantations, starting up their own farms and going into business for themselves. This expansion, coupled with the country’s land reform efforts in 1930, has helped to secure Colombia’s hold on the international coffee market. 

Small farms taking over for large plantations, as well as a rise in global coffee prices, has led to a more sustainable agricultural practice for coffee farmers in Columbia. A significant amount of the coffee produced in Colombia stays in the country, but today, Colombian coffee is exported at between 11 and 13 million bags per year. The large amount of small farms has also led to a great diversity of coffee flavors that come from Colombia. 

With over 30 different coffee producing departments within the country, each of the different departments produce a coffee that is different from the next. The coffee produced in the Northernmost regions of the country, such as Santa Marta and Santander, comes from a lower growing altitude that receives hotter temperatures, leading to a coffee with deeper flavors and a more full-bodied finish. In the “coffee belt,” of Central Colombia, the coffee from leading departments tends to have more well-rounded flavors with nutty and chocolatey notes, slight sweetness and mild acidity. In the Southern areas of the country, in the coffee departments of Huila, Cauca, and Nariño, the high elevations lead to a coffee with high acidity, floral notes, and highly complex flavors. 

How the Environment Makes Colombian Coffee Unique

Colombia is a special place that’s especially well suited for growing coffee because of the enormous levels of diversity in the environment. You can taste the differences between coffee beans grown not only from one region to another, but even from one estate to another. For this reason, often Colombian coffee beans are categorized depending on exactly where in Colombia they were grown. 

The coffee farming regions of Colombia can be divided into two main areas. The highest elevations are found in the Sierra Nevada highlands of Santa Marta. Coffee is also commonly ground on the towering slopes of three sections of the Andes Mountains that spread across the entire country of Colombia. You may also hear people refer to coffee as having been grown in the northern region, central region, or southern region of the coffee farming zone. 

Coffee beans grown in the northern region produce a brew that is lighter on acidity but has a fuller body than other Colombian coffees. Coffee beans produced in the central region are known for their balanced flavors, with a medium level of acidity and medium body paired with a full, robust aroma. Coffees from the southern region tend to vary more within the category than coffee grown in the central or northern regions, but despite their variance, they all tend to have higher levels of acidity than coffee beans grown outside the southern region.

Other regions you may hear used to describe Colombian coffees include the eastern region or the coffee growing axis. The eastern region includes a small mountainous zone near the cities of Bucaramanga and Bogotá. The phrase “coffee growing axis” is used to describe the central region, which consists of almost 14,000 square kilometers that encompass the city of Medellin. Both the central and the eastern regions enjoy the ideal coffee farming conditions of high elevation—up to 6,400 feet—and rich volcanic soil to nourish the crops. Most of the coffee farmed in these regions is shade grown, in temperatures between 46 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (or between 8 and 24 degrees Celsius). 

Getting to Know the Different Varieties of Colombian Coffee

The farming conditions in Colombia are optimal for growing premium quality coffee beans with high levels of acidity. Coffee made from beans grown in the central region is prized for its rich flavor, high acidity, and heavy body. Coffee grown in the eastern region near Bogotá is rich and bright like coffee from the central zone, but with a lower level of acidity. Coffee brewed from beans grown in the eastern region nar Bucaramanga often shares the heaviness of body and richness of taste, but has a milder flavor.

Some of the most sought-after coffee varieties from Colombia get their names from the regions where the coffee beans are grown. These varieties are from the farming regions of Armenia, Manizales, and Medellin. These three regions are grouped together in the central coffee farming area of Colombia, and you will sometimes see the three of them referred to collectively with the acronym MAM. Colombian coffees from the MAM region are known for having higher levels of acidity than Colombian coffees from the eastern farming region.

Another popular variety of Colombian coffee comes from the Castillo region. Castillo coffee is unique in that the coffee beans have been bred especially to be resistant to a plant disease called coffee rust. Part of the ancestry of Castillo coffee comes from robusta coffee beans (instead of Arabica beans), which is why some people are hesitant about the level of quality they can expect from Castillo coffee. However, these doubts are soon put to rest upon sampling Castillo coffee. The coffee brewed from Castillo coffee beans is known for its flavorful aroma, smoothness, and bright citric acidity.

Some of the highest quality coffee beans that Colombia produces are Caturra coffee beans. This variety was first grown in Brazilian coffee farms, but Caturra coffee beans are now commonly grown in Colombia. Unlike Castillo coffee beans, however, Caturra coffee beans are susceptible to infection with coffee rust, making them a more vulnerable crop. What makes Caturra coffee unique is its brilliant acidity and the body, which is classified as low to medium.

Tinto coffee is not tied to a particular region where the beans are raised. Instead, Tinto coffee (which, in English, means “inky water”) is the variety most commonly enjoyed by the people of Colombia themselves. This variety of Colombian coffee is not notable for its high quality, but instead for its pervasive presence in Colombian culture. You can find Tinto coffee being sold on practically any city street in Colombia, usually for as little as 10 cents for a small cup. 

How the Taste Makes Colombian Coffee Unique

One of the things that sets Colombian coffee beans apart from all the other types of coffee on the market is how they respond to roasting. Many varieties of coffee beans must be roasted carefully, as they are prone to becoming bitter if they are roasted too dark. However, with Colombian coffee beans, this is not the case. Roasters can let Colombian coffee beans roast until they are as dark as they like, without worrying about the flavor of the coffee becoming bitter. Because they take roasting so well, Colombian coffee beans are especially good to use in espresso or in coffee drinks with espresso as an ingredient. They are also an especially appropriate choice for coffee drinkers who enjoy a dark roast but wish to enjoy their coffee without too much bitterness in the brew.

Coffee made from Colombian coffee beans is prized for its unique, delicious flavor. The taste of Colombian coffee in general is well balanced, clean, and mild, with a silky mouthfeel. The acidity of Colombian coffee ranges from medium to high, depending on the particular variety of Colombian coffee, resulting in coffee that tastes bright and refreshing. Colombian coffee beans are a common ingredient in coffee blends, where it adds a distinctive aroma with notes of citrus, other fruit flavors, and spices. Tasting notes you will find in Colombian coffees include floral flavors, sweetness like that of chocolate or caramel, and fruity flavors including tropical fruit, apples, and red berries.

As you can see, the ideal coffee farming conditions in Colombia have resulted in a wealth of different varieties of Colombian coffee for you to try. Although you can count on Colombian coffee across the board to have a strong aroma, rich flavor, and bright medium to high acidity, there is a great deal of variance from one variety of coffee to another—and even more from one region to another. The best way to get to know Colombian coffee is to try out varieties of coffee beans grown in each region so you can determine which one is best according to your individual palate. With so many unique and diverse coffee varieties to try, you could drink nothing but Colombian coffee for the rest of your coffee-drinking days and never get bored.

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