Colombia’s new coffee scene

As people were sitting down to lunch on Monday 25 January, 1999, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck 20 kilometres from Armenia, one of Colombia’s largest cities.

The quake and aftershocks that followed flattened more than half the city and several nearby towns. The effects were felt in several municipalities, with the most severely hit being the Quindio department – the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.

More than 1000 people were killed and homes and businesses were destroyed. The collapse of Armenia’s fire station crippled the emergency service. Nine officers died and 14 vehicles, the entire fleet, were flattened. An inmate was killed and most of the city’s prisoners escaped when the jail went down. A graveyard was upturned in neighbouring Cajamarca, scattering corpses around the streets.

It is estimated that about 8000 coffee farms were completely or partially destroyed in what is recorded as one of Colombia’s worst-ever natural disasters. Residents of the tiny town of Pijao remember the horror of that day.

“A lot of shops and homes came down and the church came down,” says Pijao’s first Civil Mayor Weis Edwardo Martino Elina. “Eventually the government helped us to rebuild, but they were difficult times.”

In the aftermath many of the injured were shipped to the Colombian cities of Bogota, Cali, and Medellin to receive medical treatment. While some returned to access government support and rebuild, many traumatised Colombians stayed in the cities, taking valuable skills away from farms.

“A lot of farmers came to Pijao from other regions in the early 90s, but after the earthquake they were scared it would happen again, so they left,” says Weis. “In the 90s the population of farmers was around 1400, now there is about half that amount.”

Pijao is named after the indigenous people who first arrived in the area in the 1890s. Many of the original settlers were radical Liberal guerrillas, fleeing reprisals from the conservative regime governing at the time.

Like much of Colombia, over the years Pijao residents have experienced bouts of violence from what is now the world’s longest-running war.

Since 1948, the Colombian government has fought guerrilla groups attempting to take control of the country. Many of these groups use drug trafficking to fund their campaigns. In some regions coffee farmers have occasionally been forced off their land, or coerced into replacing crops with coca – the plant used in the production of cocaine.

While a military presence is still visible on the streets of Pijao today, violence is rarely a problem.

“About eight years ago the guerrillas were here but thank god that is no longer the case,” says Weis Edwardo. “Things have been in peace for the past six or seven years.”

Nestled among the Andes Mountains, Pijao, the winner of the 1985 Most Beautiful Town in the region, is surrounded by green coffee crops and banana plantations. A new church, resurrected after the quake, and buildings with bright blue, yellow, and pink doors, balconies, and window ledges frame the town square.

“There are cranes in the area which sit on the back of the cows catching the insects,” says Weis. “In the afternoon thousands of them fly down and settle in the trees – it is very beautiful.”

Neither an earthquake nor guerrilla warfare has been enough to drive all the generational farmers away.

In fact, Pijao gives the impression that the past problems have had the opposite effect, that both at home and internationally adversity has reinforced the importance of coffee to the region.

In 2011, Colombia successfully bid to have the six farming landscapes, which include 18 urban centres on the foothills of the western and central ranges of the Andes Mountains, protected on the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage List. Encompassing six different farming landscapes, the area is included for its unique coffee growing tradition.

At the base of the mountain, in Pijao, one of the busiest buildings in the square is the Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation (FNC) Local Committee building. The FNC is a publicly and privately funded non-profit organisation established in 1927 to represent Colombia’s coffee farmers.

In addition to an extensive research and crop rejuvenation program, selling Colombia’s coffee to the world and providing farmers with financial security through a promise to buy their beans at market prices, the FNC were instrumental in lobbying the UNESCO to protect the region as a cultural landscape of significance.

“Coffee is part of the identity of the region,” says FNC Chief Communications Officer Luis F. Samper. “Yes it is an incredibly beautiful location, but that’s not enough. There are a lot of scenically beautiful locations around the world. For it to be UNESCO listed it had to be more than beautiful.”

UNESCO noted the farmers resilience in adapting to treacherous terrain, and capacity to cultivate crops on steep hillsides at high altitudes.

“To be included on the list we had to demonstrate that the coffee tradition is ingrained in the area’s unique culture,” Luis says. “You will find throughout the Departmento del Quindio everything has a coffee surname. There are not just highways there is highway-café – the Spanish word for coffee.”

Many of the farmhouses are built into the hills with sliding roofs for drying the beans.

“The homes are specific just to the region,” Luis says. “Because they are in the middle of Colombia they often get afternoon rain. The sliding roofs mean farmers can act fast to cover and protect their drying beans. In this climate it is also important to make the most of the sunlight. This way they can open the roofs up again quickly when the sun comes out.”

Luis says UNESCO thought it unique the way social capital is intrinsically linked to coffee production.

“Every Saturday in Pijao farmers from all around meet in our Local Committee building to receive training from our team,” Luis says. “It also gives the farmers a chance to come together as a community.”

Luis says that conserving tradition was one reason Colombia fought to have the region included on the UN list. Which raises the question, how will farmers navigate new methods and a new market, while preserving important customs?

“There will always be tension between moving into the modern world and maintaining tradition,” Luis says. “But this change doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

Luis says technology versus tradition is a necessary discussion, and one the FNC is engaged in with farmers.

“When you’re talking about cultural landscapes there has to be economic viability,” he says. “To ensure coffee farming is economically viable adopting new methods is a necessity. When it comes to our research we take into account the sensitivity of the culture, we don’t want to suggest ideas that will be rejected by farmers.”

But it’s not just growing techniques changing in Colombia. Even in the tiny town of Pijao, the movement into specialty coffee consumption has begun.

Victor Hugo Grisales Gutierrez owns a farm seven kilometres out of town. Monkeys, squirrels, and iguanas live among the 2000 coffee trees he inherited from his father. Fresh water flows through the irrigation system Victor’s father designed and built to water his crops.

In the centre of town, directly across from the FNC building, Victor runs a small, open-wall café. It is called Los Pinaos Café – the name the Spanish gave to the town when they struggled to pronounce Pijao.

Pijao is home to an eight-year-old chess champion who is making her way to Bolivia this year to compete against other champions. Across the road from Los Pinaos Café lives the chess master she learns from.

“The children go there to learn chess and their parents come here to drink and hopefully learn about coffee,” Victor says.

Victor rents the café space from the government, which offered him the location after observing him selling his coffee in the streets.

“The governor came right up to my cart and said: ‘You are giving hope to humanity, what is your dream?’ I said: ‘My dream is to own a coffee shop.’ A few weeks later I moved in beside the square.” Victor’s vision was not born completely from the romance often associated with owning a café.

“For years I was separating the best quality beans from the worst to ensure I was producing quality coffee,” Victor says. “I was then finding that the buyers were combining the lesser and higher grade beans anyway. My time was being wasted – so I needed to commercialise.”

With the help of his 19-year-old son who is studying on a soccer scholarship in New York, Victor established a digital presence through Facebook and a website. He is a grower, roaster, and barista whose personalised cappuccinos have earned him international attention.

“People see my coffees on Facebook with visitors names drawn on the top,” he says. “So they come to Los Pinaos Café to get their own and I tell them about growing coffee.”

Not content only educating the tourists about production, Victor is on a mission to educate the locals about consumption. “One day I invited all the old grandpas from the nursing home to come to my café and try my coffee,” he says. “I hired a band to play in the plaza and gave them all samples of my coffee.”

Victor is not alone on his quest The FNC is undergoing a campaign to encourage a move from the traditional tinto coffee – a filter brew often served in plastic cups from a huge urn on the street – and to increase consumption as a whole.

In the capital city of Bogota at least, it appears the campaign has found its legs.

In the city of 8 million, specialty coffee shops serving a variety of brewing methods are popping up with increasing frequency.

“Specialty coffee consumption is happening even in the rural areas,” says FNC’s Luis. “In the bigger cities it is happening quickly. We have producers roasting their own coffee, local shops buying directly from farmers, it is moving. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like, but it is definitely happening.”

Of Colombia’s 200 Juan Valdez Cafés, the local specialty chain which now has a presence in 14 countries, around 100 are in Bogota.

Baristas like Ivan Lopez from Amor Perfecto demonstrate different brew methods, talk about the importance of highlighting coffee’s journey and sum up the new consumer perfectly.

“A Colombian hipster is the same as a hipster anywhere,” he says. “They have beards and glasses and come in all the time – they love their soy and almond milk lattes.”

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