Coffee and Colombia and offices
Coffee and Colombia. Half of the people I know can’t properly function without it. Be it a simple cup to start your day or a quick espresso right after lunch to keep you from dosing off during a meeting, many of us are fond of this dark brew. It changes us, mostly for the better.
But I’m not going to list the health benefits of coffee (or downsides): I’m here to file an office complaint and de-mystify a little of Colombia’s relationship to this Arabic cherry.
Because I simply love coffee (with a vengeance) and would like more people to appreciate it for a little more than the need-to-stay-awake drink that it certainly is. It is also delicious.
And from where I stand (really, sit [while drinking coffee]) I should be drinking amazing coffee every day, right? Isn’t Colombia supposed to have some of the best berries and beans in the world? Shouldn’t my office coffee be a cup of joy every day?
Well, yes and no.
First, no: office coffee is always terrible. You can blame the cheap machines’ subpar brew-time and extraction in relation to the grind that is available. Or the filters, sure. Or Laura right across the desk who always seems to drink a cup too many and leaves you with a horrible sediment-filled sludge. But the main culprit is cheap, low-quality coffee grind from your local supermarket and constant – sinful – microwave reheating. Ugh.
Never. Reheat. Coffee. Specially in a microwave.
It really ruins it: breaking down any taste that it ever had by destroying coffee aroma and making it stale. Aroma in coffee is like its smell – or fragrance – but weirdly in relation to coffee taste. It is not only the smell of freshly brewed coffee, but the sensation of taste-with-smell. Ever wondered why food tastes bland when you have a stuffy nose? We need our nose.
We even use our nose for coffee aftertaste with retro-nasal olfaction… which is just fancy-speak for smells rising from your mouth to your nasal cavity. It’s a thing.
So do yourself a favor and don’t reheat coffee in a microwave. And if you certainly must, under threat of death, use a stove in a low heat setting and avoid boiling it. Patience brews perfection. (Except when reheating).
But, in the end, it all comes down to the coffee grind. No expensive, high-tech, intelligent, Wi-Fi enabled machine is going to transform that cheap, dirt-like powder into a cup of magical wonder and wakefulness. Somethings technology just can’t fix.
Let’s start by saying that yes: Colombia has amazing coffee. We are the third largest coffee producer in the world (behind Brazil and Vietnam) and ours is ranked among the best. We grow several varieties thanks to our varied biomes, and any coffee taster worth their salt can find all kinds of complex coffee tasting experiences in coffee cups from neighboring plantations. Balanced, bitter, sweet, aromatic, fruity, citrusy, chocolatey; you name it: there is a coffee for everyone. The European Union even granted Colombian’s coffee a protected designation of origin (PDO) status in 2007 – not as fancy as an appellation, but almost as good.
So, why do we get watered-down dirt-water in planes, offices, “coffee-shops” and restaurants?
Well, it’s a compound answer: not all coffee is grown equal and despite being a coffee-producing country with a whole region called the “Coffee growing axis”, our coffee-consumption culture is… not what you’d expect.
You might not know this but most of the good quality coffee, the good-enough-to-export-internationally kind of coffee, rarely makes it inside a regular Colombian’s shopping cart. You could say great coffee is “export only”, but that’s a little disingenuous: the market for quality coffee inside the country is certainly smaller than outside, but not non-existent.
But good coffee is expensive and appreciation of identifiable quality traits is not somethings that comes easily. It is acquired, learned: there is an education behind tasting for quality. And it is an education that we are lacking, so: why buy something expensive that is hard to appreciate when you can still get the effects from the cheap stuff?
This takes us to the second point: coffee drinking culture in Colombia.
Most Colombian’s coffee drinking experience orbits around drinking tinto: a cheap, watered-down brew; or perico, which is just tinto with milk. Its sold everywhere: supermarkets, restaurants, grocery shops, the street, you name it; and it is also what most people call what they brew home in regular coffee machines. The fancy Italian denominations of coffee preparations (espresso, Americano, cappuccino, mochaccino, etc.) are not exactly new, but didn’t became “popular” until fairly recently.
I am not old, but I certainly remember there not being a Starbucks-like coffee shop until I was in my teens. I would order “Italian” coffee at restaurants, sure, but never in carton cups to-go.
I guess you could safely assume that with Juan Valdés interest in coffee spiked. They certainly pushed the brand around to become part of current consumer culture and slowly caught on to the idea of making coffee shops meeting spots for social interaction (though I insist they mostly made a McDonald’s of coffee). This nonetheless opened the playing field for other coffee-oriented experiences to pop-up.
Today we have Starbucks – and a weird, living-room/library inspired one – and several independent and artisanal coffee shops that cater to this very come-sit-down-and-have-a-coffee-while-you-use-our-Wifi kind of place. With these two – which surprised me of Starbucks – we have also had consumer access to new brewing techniques (cold brews, longer decantation, better machines) and people are slowly but surely catching on an interesting coffee hype that values the drink for a bit more than its immediate effects.
This has opened the country to a more educated – odd word – coffee culture and experience, but tinto is not going anywhere. So don’t be surprised if plane coffee is terrible and stale or if you have an after lunch cup at your new Colombian friend’s house and you don’t get amazing coffee. You would only be setting yourself up for disappointment.
I would encourage you not to go to the very obvious consumer-friendly coffee experience that feels like a McDonald’s drive-thru, and rather look for the more hipster-y coffee shops that tell you the grind is fresh (it makes a huge difference) and are buying coffee from small, local farmers instead of mass-produced plantations. It is the better coffee and it is 100% Colombian.
PS: Adding sugar to coffee is another sin. Good coffee doesn’t need sugar. Stop. Please. Stop. Or don’t. I’m not your boss.
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