March 9, 2017

Exploring Origins: Colombia’s Changing Coffee Industry


Is there any coffee name so well-known as Juan Valdez? And yet Juan Valdez isn’t even real. He’s just a fictional character conjured up by the marketing team of Colombia’s national coffee association, Fedecafé, in the ‘50s.

Yet, at one point in time, coffee was a foreign crop colonizing Colombia’s soil.

Centuries of adaptation, innovation, and respect for the environment have shaped this country’s coffee production, from pest management to the specialty industry. Read on to discover how, and what this means for the future.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Cómo ha Cambiado la Industria Del Café en Colombia?

coffee flower

Coffee flowers blossom in Colombia. Credit: Cafe Nakua

Introducing Colombia’s Coffee

Juan Valdez may have been invented in the ‘50s, when the second wave was in full swing, but he also heralded many elements of specialty coffee. Take the focus on origin, on the seed-to-cup journey, and on production methods: that was all first introduced in those vintage TV ads featuring Juan and his crops.

What’s more, the understanding that coffee doesn’t just taste like “coffee” – that it is, in fact, a fruit – was prompted by Colombia’s claim to produce the “richest” coffee around. It was the seeds of an idea that different coffees actually do taste different.

By the late 1970s, the coffee industry was paying attention to this. Colombia had become a leader in global marketing and education. And it was only 230 years after the crop first appeared in the South American country.

See also: How Colombia’s Natural Diversity Protects Against Coffee Pests

Juan Valdez

Juan Valdez is famous all around the world. Credit: distilleria

When Coffee Was a Foreign Crop

The missionary priest Jose Gumilla witnessed the presence of coffee in Colombia for the first time in 1741.  He wrote about sowing the plant in his book El Orinoco ilustrado y defendido, during its introduction to South America.

Yet Colombia wasn’t called Colombia then: it was a part f the Viceroyalty of New Granada – modern-day Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela – in the Spanish Empire. What’s more, the Gumilla was a Jesuit, underscoring the relationship between Spanish colonization and Arabica.

Coffee was introduced to the Americas through the French colonies, such as Saint Domingue. From there, it made its way to Colombia through Gumilla, who was a Jesuit priest furthering the Spanish Empire. Coffee may be a symbol of Colombia, but in Colombia coffee is a symbol of colonization.

And this is important. As we trace the expansion of the language and religions of colonizers, we can see the development of coffee crops in the Americas. We can see how regions within producing countries – like Tolima, and like the Coffee Triangle – formed.

Coffee farm

Coffee growing in Cundinamarca. Credit: La Palma y El Tucán

Colonization & Colombian Coffee Origins Today

Although coffee arrived in 1741, it took almost a century for it become a commercial crop rather than for personal consumption. It took even longer to become widespread.

The first record of commercially grown coffee in Colombia comes from 1835, and by 1840 it was growing in the Santander region, having come from modern-day Venezuela. In his book Coffee and Colombia, Marco Palacios writes that it slowly substituted “an agrarian economy based in middle size slavery estates that produced cacao”.

In 1870, we start to see the crops in Cundinamarca and Tolima, regions in the southwest of Colombia. This was the first coffee route in a nation that was trying to emerge in the mid-19th century, and it explains why the oldest coffee crops in the country are located at the western branch of the Colombian Andes.

Today, Tolima is one of the most well-known Colombian origins, both among third wave and second wave consumers. Although next to Cundinamarca, the two areas are known for different coffee profiles: Tolima’s tend to be more complex while Cundinamarca’s tend to have more body. But, like all coffee regions, there are exceptions to this.

Later, coffee arrived in the Cordillera Central and the “Colombian Coffee Triangle” was formed. This region is both Colombia’s most famous, and where Juan Valdez is from. It was brought to the area in the Antioquian Colonization, as families from Antioquia headed south in search of new lands and wealth. Inherited farming practices, which shape how coffee is still farmed today, came with them.

Colombian coffee farm

The high mountains of Junín, Cundinamarca. Credit: Herbert Peñaloza via 575 Café

Inherited Agricultural Practices

Colombia has neither the space nor the landscape for large-volume industrial farming such as that you might see in Brazil. Quality is where most Colombian farmers can increase their profits, not quantity.

In the country’s oldest coffee-producing regions, some agricultural practices are still transmitted between generations. Specialty coffee is a relatively recent practice here, and some cases it’s the third or fourth generation producing it.

Some families have found moving into specialty coffee an easy transition, thanks to their deep understanding of the land and climate of the Colombian Andes. Specialty production and processing is a blend of technical innovations and the preservation of traditional culture.

Raised beds may be newer concepts transferred from Africa, but agroforestry goes back generations. Inherited from ancient farmers comes a knowledge of the vital importance of trees, wild animals, insects and microorganisms. We know that cultivating coffee under the shade of banana, orange and tangerine trees creates ideal conditions for the growth of high-quality cherries.

Yet new challenges are also appearing.

Proyecto Cocuyo

In Colombia, bananas are traditionally planted alongside coffee. Credit: Proyecto Cocuyo

Modern Challenges, Traditional Farming Methods

Climate change has become a new risk for agriculture. Diseases and pests that have always existed, like coffee leaf rust (la roya) and coffee berry borer (la broca), have thrived in new climatic conditions. Slowly pests are appearing at higher and higher altitudes, which is often where the best and most vulnerable coffee grows, as the temperatures there increase.

Large and small growers alike are at risk. Traditional methods can sometimes help: encouraging biodiversity can offer protection. Modern innovations, such as cheap broca traps, are also needed.

coffee cherry

Healthy crops are supported by biodiversity. Credit: Proyecto Cocuyo

What Does Coffee Mean For Colombia?

It’s important to remember that it is human hands that plant coffee crops. Colombian coffee describes the life and origin of its people. The human colonization that opened route through uncharted territory was also an agricultural colonization.

Over time, coffee’s role in Colombia has changed, from colonizing crop to global leader to a more complex one. It’s one where producers struggle to face new challenges with a mixture of ancient and modern farming methods. It’s one where more and more producers are farming specialty, something heralded by Juan Valdez but still a modern trend.

We’ll have to see how the country’s position in the global coffee industry changes as it responds to these challenges. But one thing is for sure: coffee will always be deeply connected to the story of Colombia. The introduction of this special plant has shaped the land, population, and economy of the country. And its importance is made apparent by the  respect coffee is shown in Colombian culture.

With thanks to David Ayala for reading the first drafts.

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