February 8, 2021

A guide to coffee culture in Medellín

Located in a narrow valley between two Andean mountain ridges, the Colombian city of Medellín is a thriving metropolis that is home to more than two and a half million people. Thanks to its temperate, pleasant climate, it is also known across Colombia as la ciudad de eterna primavera, or the City of Eternal Spring.

Like many cities across Colombia, Medellín has a strong coffee culture, from the bitter, intense tinto served on street corners to its rapidly-growing range of specialty coffee shops. Yet for the people of Medellín, coffee is much more than just a drink; it’s a way of life, linked to production in the wider region of Antioquia and consumption in the city itself.

So, to find out more about Medellín coffee culture, I spoke with coffee shop owners across the city. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our guide to coffee culture in Miami.

A brief history of coffee in Medellín

Thanks to the area’s good climate and nearby fertile mountainous terrain, coffee has had a long and successful history in Medellín and the broader region of Antioquia.

At the turn of the 20th century, Antioquia overtook the region of Caldas as the leading coffee-growing region in Colombia. Soon, it became recognised for providing consistently high quality beans. Alongside gold mining, the production of coffee dramatically contributed to the region’s growth throughout the century.

Pedro Echavarria is the owner of Pergamino Cafe in the El Poblado neighbourhood of Medellín. He tells me that, in the eyes of many Colombians, Medellín has always been a coffee capital. 

“Coffee-producing expertise and entrepreneurial spirit have driven the rapid development of coffee culture in Medellín, as well as the emergence of several roasteries and cafés,” Pedro says.

“There are lots of coffee farms in the region, which means that it’s easy [for anyone looking to set up shop] to get access to quality coffee. This includes those who want to export.”

Every year, Colombia produces more than 13 million 60kg bags of coffee, making up some 10% of all global coffee production (according to 2019 figures). Yet despite producing and exporting at scale, coffee consumption has been a different story in Colombia (as with many other producing countries) at an average of around 2kg per capita. 

However, in recent years, thanks in part to events and initiatives supported by the FNC, coffee consumption has started to grow.

Ilse Geyskens, the owner of Cafe Velvet in El Poblado, says that the Antioquia region’s strong history of coffee production has played a key part in driving coffee consumption in Medellín.

Ilse says: “Having spent time in Europe and the US, I’ve never seen such a deep understanding of coffee production among baristas as I have here.

“I believe the history and knowledge people have lends itself exceedingly well to the café experience, and has subsequently had a strong impact on the development of coffee culture in Medellín.”

Over time, Colombia has gained a reputation for producing some of the world’s highest quality coffee and exporting it in great volumes. After Brazil, it is the largest coffee producer in Latin America, and the third-largest in the world. 

Antioquian coffee producers are typically smallholder farmers who grow coffee at high altitudes and relatively low temperatures, which are both perfect for quality arabica production. These conditions cause cherries to ripen more slowly, producing full-bodied flavours and distinctive aromas.

However, despite the fact that Colombian coffee has historically been marketed as high-quality to consuming markets around the world, Colombians do not traditionally drink specialty coffee. 

This is partially down to the country’s quality standards for export. Coffee beans above a certain quality standard are marked for export, while anything below is kept for domestic use.

As a result, it has historically been difficult for Colombians to get access to high-quality coffee, whether at coffee shops or for at-home consumption.

Coffee in the country has historically been consumed as tinto, a thick, concentrated coffee typically sold on street corners from heated flasks. Tinto is usually prepared with low-quality coffee retained for internal consumption, and sugar is often added to mask its intense, bitter flavour. 

Joan Molina is the owner of Rituales Café and La Fabrica Coffee Roasters in Medellín. “It’s typical for Colombians to work a lot so they often don’t find the time to prepare good quality coffee,” he says. “Because of this, tinto and instant coffee have always been the most accessible ways of drinking coffee.”

But coffee culture in Colombia is changing. While Bogotá is the capital and most populated city with over seven million inhabitants, many people in Medellín believe their city has a unique opportunity to lead the development of specialty coffee culture across the country.

Manuela Córdoba is in charge of operations at the Museo de Cafe Yipao, a popular meeting place among Medellín’s younger coffee drinkers. She tells me how young people in the city and Colombia more widely are leading a notable change in the domestic consumption of coffee. However, she also believes that high-quality coffee needs to be promoted among the wider population. 

“Colombia produces very high-quality coffee, with a process that’s very ‘artisan’,” she says. “To create a strong coffee culture, Colombian coffee drinkers need to value and appreciate this.”

As well as young people, Medellín’s large community of expats has also driven a wider, greater appreciation for specialty coffee in the city. Since overcoming the various crises it faced through the 1980s and 1990s, Medellín has also become one of the most popular cities in the country for foreign retirees. This is partially because its good infrastructure and stable economy have made it an attractive place to settle.

“Medellín has a huge expat community and these are people who are looking for good atmosphere and a nice cup of coffee,” Pedro explains. “When we created Pergamino, we were aiming for a balance between attracting expats and appealing to the local market who were curious to know more about specialty coffee.”

Medellín specialty coffee: Creating an experience

Like any other city, Medellín is split into a number of unique neighbourhoods. Each has its own distinct personality and character, which lends itself to the unique coffee culture the city has today.

While El Poblado and Laureles are the most popular neighbourhoods for specialty coffee shops, Comuna 13 also has plenty to offer. Once considered the most dangerous neighbourhood in the whole country, Comuna 13’s specialty coffee scene is growing. Today, it is broadly recognised as a place where good quality coffee is becoming accessible to both tourists and locals.

For specialty coffee shops in the city, preferences and trends are similar to those found in majority coffee consuming countries, while still being rooted in an appreciation for good, local coffee. Many in the city pride themselves on offering high-quality Colombian coffee to celebrate the work of the country’s coffee producers.

“Our customers in Medellín usually prefer filter coffees brewed with a V60, Chemex, or Aeropress,” Ilse tells me. “They appreciate the acidity and complexity that comes from Colombian coffee.”

Pedro’s approach is similar. He tells me how Pergamino roasts and brews its coffees in a way that recognises and celebrates local coffee culture. 

“We light roast our coffees to bring out the distinct flavours in each cup,” he tells me. “But we’ve also created a menu that caters to people who enjoy some sweetness in their coffee.

“We welcome all people, regardless of taste, but ensure that every coffee we serve has a local touch.”

Other experiences are grounded in using coffee to promote other local businesses. For example, Joan tells me about La Fabrica’s co-roasting space and how it aligns perfectly with Medellín’s thriving specialty coffee culture.

“La Fabrica will hopefully encourage other coffee brands and local urban coffee businesses to use these kinds of facilities to collaborate and help their communities improve.”

Ultimately, at the heart of the Medellín coffee experience there is the simple appreciation for a well-made beverage. This is something that resonates with broader global specialty and third wave coffee culture. 

Despite barriers related to affordability and historically low levels of internal consumption, coffee culture in Medellín is changing quickly. 

Its deep-rooted links to coffee production position it well to embrace the ideals of third wave coffee and specialty coffee culture, which include a focus on knowledge, traceability, and quality. However, coffee consumption in all its various forms has long since been a part of life in the city, and it seems unlikely this will change any time soon.

Enjoyed this? Then read Colombia Has a New Goal: Sustainable Coffee by 2027

Photo credits: Cafe Velvet, Nick Castellano, Mateo Soto

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!