In Pereira, Getting High on Colombian Coffee

by Simon Willis  |  Published December 14, 2014

Colombia’s famed coffee region seduces visitors every year with its dramatic mountainous beauty, friendly residents and the finest Arabica beans on the planet. At Its heart is Pereira, where connoisseurs, and those just dipping their toe in, can drop by local farms for a lesson in the art of coffee making.

Landscape in the Coffee Triangle. (Photo: via Flickr)

Landscape in the Coffee Triangle. (Photo: via Flickr)

“I’m actually more of a tea drinker.”

Hector and his wife fell silent. Two bright yellow birds stopped pecking the edge of the table and stared at me, as if to say “take that back!”

“I mean I like coffee too, it’s just that being English I’m more used to tea.”

Fortunately Hector took no offence and slid a cup of steaming coffee under my nose. “Just try this,” he said with a knowing smile.

It was mid-September and I was in Pereira, the capital city of Risaralda and the heart of Colombia’s coffee country (Zona Cafetera), learning why Arabica coffee beans here are the finest in the world.

Hector, mid-60s with a portly belly and a slick hairdo, was my guide; I had come to his coffee farm Don Manolo, located up in the mountains just outside the city, for a one-on-one lesson.

The tour began at 9am, among the 7,000 waist-high coffee plants, which led from behind his two-story colonial house down the steep mountainside below. From the top you could see other tile-roofed farm houses dotted among the dense green vegetation splaying up the rolling mountains. Coffee plants lay in endless rows like perfectly pruned cornrows. The sun battered everything.

“We have the perfect weather for making coffee here in Pereria,” Hector said as we brushed through the thick plants. “The right amount of sun and enough rain. The slope, as you can see here, is at the perfect angle to get the sunlight.”

We ducked under a large tent in the middle of his garden, where underneath there were three trays of white beans. I was about to delve my hands into the tray like an eager child, when a rugged man in wellington boots entered. He smiled and began spreading the beans out with a large wooden rake.

“This is how we dry the beans.” Hector said picking a few up and rubbing them together. “All by hand, which takes eight days. Big companies have machines, but we are a small family business and more traditional.”

As the worker left, Hector pulled another tray from a shelf below. “These are our golden beans, cultivated in honey to sweeten the taste,” he said, flashing his white teeth smile. “Here, feel some.” The beans trickled through my fingers like beads from a snapped necklace.

The next stage of production involved shelling 20% off the beans and then separating, again by hand, the suitable ones from the inadequate ones. For this we wandered over to a small workshop at the front of his house. Hector pulled the metal shutter up, yanked plastic covering off a few machines, and switched on a small light illuminating some purple packs of Don Manolo coffee on a shelf.

He then grabbed a handful of coffee beans from a brown sack next to a gleaming silver machine, and threw them into the depths of its grrring belly. Of the shelled beans that emerged only the best ones could be used.

Fourteen different types of defects can deem a bean unsuitable for production, including one wherein a tiny insect buries inside and remorselessly lays up to 30 eggs. You wouldn’t get this with tea, I thought. Hector held one bean up to the light and pointed out a tiny dark spot – a tell-tale sign of insect infiltration.

The suitable ones were then toasted in another incredibly shiny silver machine with a wide funnel at the top. Hector roared it up and shouted over the rumbling mechanism. “The aim is to toast the bean into the ideal color which for us is a dark, not black, brown shade.” He held up a flip chart showing the different colored beans. “After cooling, they are ground down and packaged into bags and prepared for sale.”

Hector prides himself on hand-made quality and unique products, such as his honey coffee, sweet jams and marmalades (casquitos de café) he makes from the skin of the bean. Don Manolo mainly trades to independent retailers in Medellin, Bogota and Barranquilla, as well as passing tourists such as me.

Other tourist farms here in the region of Risaralda, and in neighboring Caldas and Quindío (The Coffee Triangle) offer similar experiences. Visitors can learn about the coffee process while staying overnight in these farms, while also enjoying the scenery via horseback or Jeep tours.

It was almost 11am; Hector deemed it time for me to sample the goods.

We headed through a red-tiled porch, ducking under hanging plant baskets and passing a wall covered with red, yellow and orange handprints and footprints. “They are from all our friends and family who visit,” Hector said, leading me to a big wooden table.

Then the smell hit me. A rich, deep aroma whirled up through my mouth and into my eyes. My pupils widened and I jolted forward.

Esperanza, his wife, emerged from the open tiled kitchen with a tray containing a kettle, two cups, a cafetiera and two small cakes. Hector sat opposite and placed the apparatuses delicately into position. He then demonstrated how to make the perfect cup of coffee.

After initially blurting out my preference for tea I took a swig of coffee, and another, then it was gone. Whether it was a ploy to get me hooked on his product, I wasn’t too sure. What I do know is that I left with as much coffee as I could possibly carry.