Selja Tiilikainen

Behind the Colombian Coffee Bean

Most Colombian coffee producers work on farms that are a few hectares in size. These farmers are craftspeople not afraid of trying out new things and proud of what they do.

A warm and humid wind blows over the lush hills of the Andes. For a brief period of time each year, the white blossoms of the coffee plant release a heady jasmine-like fragrance that fills the streets of the small mountain villages. It is not raining, but people are wearing umbrellas in the street because the Colombian sun is bright and hot. At coffee farms in particular, located more than two kilometres above sea level, it is easy to get sunburnt if you forget to cover up. There are 12 hours of sunlight around the year, so people working here must protect themselves with long sleeves and hats.

Coffee farms are often run by the same family for decades and decades. As a general rule, Colombian coffee is grown at small farms spanning a few hectares. Yet coffee farming in Colombia is in no way stuck in the past. Instead, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) is determined to achieve development. It has pledged to make all of the farms it represents sustainability certified by 2027. This is a big deal as Colombia is the world’s third-biggest coffee exporter, and the work of almost two million people in the nation of 50 million is in some way related to coffee. At the turn of the year, the FNC is due to publish a concrete code of conduct to reach this goal.

Experts in coffee: Colombian farmers

Individual farmers are also keen to develop the industry and are continuously looking for new production methods and cultivars with export company agronomists touring the farms. Development work is interactive, because coffee farming requires a great deal of knowhow and experience in the specific microclimate of each geographical area.

In Colombia, coffee grows on the slopes of the Andes almost throughout the entire length of the country. The coffee plant likes intraday variation in temperature and, the higher you get on the mountains, the larger the temperature range gets. But at the same time the thinner air at the higher altitudes makes the sun merciless. The delicate coffee tree cannot cope with direct sun and must therefore be intercropped with, for example, banana trees to provide shade. On the other hand, in the northern parts of the country the daily temperatures range from +30 degrees during the day to +10 degrees at night, but the conditions in the north are also more barren, making it more difficult to grow shade-providing plants. Farmers must also decide whether or not to prune their coffee trees and, if so, how to do it because a cut plant may not yield anything the next year while potentially producing a much bigger yield for the three years following that.

The farmer’s income is dependent on the world market price of coffee as well as the value of the Colombian peso. Sustainability certification makes sense for farmers as they get a slightly better price for certified coffee. Although the production of uncertified coffee has also been financially viable in Colombia for several years, profitable coffee farming takes a lot of working hours and competence.

From bean to cup

Individual farmers can seek to increase their farm's profitability through various coffee exporters' sustainability programmes and by improving their yields through training and tips provided by agronomists. Together with coffee exporters’ agronomists, farmers plan how their yields and quality could be improved.

Farmers know their coffee inside out but from a totally different perspective than end users up here in Northern Europe. Whereas the consumer is mainly interested in what the coffee tastes like and, for example, whether the roast is light or dark, the farmer does not know the cup profile of the end product. The farmer is interested in the coffee plant’s resistance, productivity and ease of picking. This is why the new low-growing and high-yielding Cenicafé 1 variety is expected to be a big success in Colombia.

The coffee that remains in local distribution is bitter, with off-tastes not uncommon, so the taste is rounded off with a lot of sugar. When a farmer heads for the village on a market day and orders a coffee at the local bar, they typically receive their coffee made with a French press-type plunger, have it very short and perhaps also with plenty of milk.

Coffee carnival starts the journey

The interest in what coffee brewed from the nation’s beans tastes like is increasing in Colombia. Coffee farmers are also often prepared to experiment open-mindedly with new coffees and farming methods. Coffee farming in Colombia still primarily remains a manual process but, despite the long days and the physical intensity of the work, Colombian coffee farmers are proud of their work.

During harvest season, farmers work pretty much around the clock. That is also when there is a carnival atmosphere in the Saturday market days when farmers bring their coffee to the village on mule- or donkeyback or in their jeep and the amount may range from one plastic bag to several sacks of fermented and dried coffee beans. They are ready to embark on their long and multi-stage journey into consumers’ coffee cups around the world.

Andras Paulig

This article is based on an interview with Paulig Senior Sourcing Manager András Koroknay-Pál, who visited Colombian coffee farms over four months in early 2017. ”One of the by far most rewarding moments during my trip was to see the expression on a farmer’s face when I gave him a packet of Paulig coffee and said that it contained coffee farmed by him. I believe every one of us wants to see the outcome of our work so, for a farmer living far from the city on the remote mountains, the best feedback on their successful work is to show and tell where the coffee farmed by them ends up in.”