This is going to get a little coffee-nerdy as we learned more than we needed to on the coffee tour. The tl;dr version is: coffee growing is an impractical, unsustainable, labour-intense endeavour and we should be paying more for it. It appears to be made by people who love to struggle, love coffee and love the land, like the people who took us on the Hacienda Combia’s entertaining coffee tour.
The Hacienda Combia and its traditional finca style
“The experience of going to a finca,” Lily said, “is exactly what I wanted to give you. But then we came to Hacienda Combia.” I don’t think we should be too damning of the place, but although the coffee was delicious and the tour was surprisingly good, the rooms were average and the food was abysmal. Perhaps a good way of describing the hotel’s aesthetic is that it was sufficiently picturesque without managing to inspire.
There were gringos in the swimming pool. There was a lovely view, spoiled by the continual sound of passing 18-wheel trucks on the nearby road. Despite the building’s rustic charm, the restaurant mimicked every other hotel restaurant in the world, complete with the terrible, overpriced food warned on Trip Advisor. It also had a spa where we got massages our first night. Getting mosquito bites massaged is truly delightful.
And even though the Hacienda Combia makes a rather forlorn attempt to appeal to American middle-class expectations, their coffee tour was one of the finest things we did in on the trip.
What follows is a ton of information about coffee that you may or may not find interesting, skip if you like.
Learning how to drink coffee (and what to look for)
First, you explore coffee itself, compare three grades of bean (from horrible, acrid, burned beans to Combia’s best stuff), and learn about the smells and tastes you should be looking for – peas, leather, vanilla, rubber, apricot, chillies, nuts, lemon, cloves, mould and so on. Sometimes coffee growers will set fires in the fields to create a smoky flavour. They’ll also plant different types of trees that soak up things like acidity in the soil to change the taste. It’s as much a science as wine.
Next, we were taught how to make a traditional baskets out of strips of bamboo. Our teacher came from three generations of bamboo weavers. This coffee tour is the only place that she gets to practice her knowledge, as their traditional pickers’ baskets have been entirely replaced by plastic sacks. She said it’s a shame, because bamboo is an incredible resource – it grows twelve meters in three months (12 cm a day), lasts 100 years and when you chop it down, three or four offshoots take its place. It is invasive, a weed, but has another huge benefit. Bamboo fills with 12 litres of water every morning, putting it back in the soil in the evening, meaning that it’s a difficult-to-control but super useful water management system.
Bamboo, showing why it’s so good at cropping up elsewhere when it’s been chopped down.
As we were lead through the coffee plantation, our guide broke down the coffee itself. There are two varieties: arabica, which accounts for about 75% of global production, and canephora, mainly grown in Vietnam. Arabica is smoother to taste, has less caffeine and is therefore not as popular with Europeans or Americans. Apparently we like a bit of bitterness and strength to our coffee.
These plants need sun beams to produce a lot of coffee, but the sun also needs to be regulated – too much sun make the beans ripen too quickly, limiting the time they have to produce enough flavour. Coffee grown at this altitude tends to have some cloud cover, so the coffee takes more time to grow. This creates a more balanced coffee acquiring all the right aromas and acidity from the volcanic soil.
As you can see above, coffee beans ripen at different times, so they each have to be picked by hand (no shaking the tree)
The Hacienda Combia also plants guanabanas, plantains and several other fruits among the coffee plants. Polycultivation (multicropping) increases biodiversity, reduces incidents of disease and lowers the need for pesticides. That’s huge, because Arabica plants are highly susceptible to infections. Among all the coffee plants, this 36 hectare plantation has 31,000 other trees growing on it to keep the soil good. They even build fake habitats for honey bees, which eat an insect that feeds on coffee plants.
The eggs of the insect are in the flesh, the insect itself you can see on his thumb
Talking of other plants, our guide showed us a special weed called a “black heart”, which indigenous people found a clever use for. Its heart-shaped waterproof leaves tesselate well and they are covered with a natural waterproofing, so they’d lay the leaves out to form irrigation channels.
Water regulation on coffee plantations is important and difficult to manage. The steep slopes of the Andes help water run off the soil, meaning both that in times of huge rains the plants don’t die, but they also need to use bamboo and tall trees to try to conserve water in dryer spells. This entire ecosystem is heavily regulated, but with natural means wherever possible.
The coffee plants flower, the flowers die and then where the flowers were budding a fruit grows in their place. Those fruits look like green grapes, but within their flesh the coffee seeds grow (coffee beans aren’t beans, they’re seeds). These green fruits grow in their hundreds on each plant, reddening and sweetening as they ripen. As the fruit becomes a cherry red, the beans lose some of their caffeine content but become more flavourful. By the time the fruit’s a deep, dark red, the beans have brought on sweet caramel notes. Perhaps the best part of the coffee tour was the simplest; picking a coffee fruit of the tree, squishing it open and eating its sweet, juicy flesh.
The “parchment” (skin), pulp and bean, out of focus because I’m an idiot
Coffee pickers can’t just pull on the fruits, they have to squeeze and twist the flesh so as not to damage the plant. They drop the fruits into sacks, put the sacks on a cart, and then donkeys pull the sacks to the finca. The bags are then inspected for green fruits. If a picker has put in too many unripe green beans they get fired.
The fruit is then squished in a hand-cranked machine. The “pulp”, the juicy, fleshy part of the fruit and the “parchment”, the skin, falls out one side of the machine and the beans fall out the other. The pulp is composted back onto the land and the parchment is dried then burned for biofuel to power the coffee drying machines. The beans themselves are dried out, bagged and sold in bulk.
The hand-cranked bean separator
All of the above is pointless information. You neither need to care nor remember any of that. But, what you should keep in mind next time you’re sipping down an artisinal, single-origin high-altitude coffee from a small Colombian finca, is just how absurd it all is. First of all, the scope is staggering.
These are not “fields” as you know them, there are no rolling hills or orderly plains here. The coffee plantations in Colombia are on the Central Andes mountain range on a clutter of swells and chasms. The slopes are inhospitably steep, meaning that the neatly-ordered and evenly spaced coffee plants create a patchwork of straight lines on otherwise sharp, oscillating, heaving mountainsides. These plantations seem like an ill-conceived attempt to monetise a stretch of land that should have been left to mountain goats.
These are by no means the steepest plantations we saw. But, imagine this plantation spread out over 36 hectares, and all those little beans picked by hand…
Dig a little deeper into the economics, and it begins to look downright stupid. No large machinery could traverse such a landscape. But it wouldn’t matter anyway – the fruits on arabica plants ripen at different times, so you can’t just shake or squish a tree and collect everything on it. Each berry has to be individually chosen and picked by hand.
By hand. Remember that. Then try to picture (and it’s impossible to picture) that 852 million kilograms of coffee were picked by hand in Colombia in 2015. At roughly 8,800 beans per kilo, this means Colombian coffee pickers scrambling over the Andes picked roughly 3.7 trillion fruits. Again, that’s by hand. If every single one of Colombia’s 48 million inhabitants were out picking coffee last year, they’d each have picked 76,500 fruits. Or, that’s 528 fruits for every person on the planet.
The Hacienda Combia employs three better-paid pickers to pick the best beans and to manage the other employees. We saw a few on the coffee tour, and unsurprisingly they look like a hardy bunch.
At the height of picking season the Hacienda employs 70 pickers, at low times around 8 to 15. The pickers are paid about 500 pesos per kilo – roughly £0.11. That sounds like a pittance for picking over 8,000 beans, but if they manage to pick 80kg a day, they’ll pull in a monthly salary of about $1.7m COP (£382). That’s more than twice Colombian minimum wage.
The cost of labour in picking a sack of coffee (60kg) is 30,000 pesos. They’ll sell a sack of good beans for 60,000 pesos, meaning that even ignoring all other costs (pesticides, planting, transporting, processing, drying and the amount lost to disease and insect damage), the finca’s making only £6.50 profit on 60 kilos of coffee. And that’s for the good beans. A sack of bad beans – old beans, damaged beans or those that weren’t quite ripe when picked – sells for just 10,000 pesos, at a £4.30 loss.
So. Our finca has 36 hectares of land, and sells 7,000 high quality sacks of beans each year and 14,000 sacks of low quality beans. By my maths, that means they’re losing money, and that’s only if you’re counting the pickers’ wages. Add all the other costs, and it’s no wonder that the Hacienda Combia has moved over to the tourism industry. They’ve done it well, too, as this coffee tour is supposed to be the best in the region. It’s the only one we did, but I believe it.
Part of the reason why there’s so little money in coffee growing is that the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) sets all the prices, the rules over how to grow plants and how to manage the plantations. The FNC stamp of approval is good for your reputation, makes transporting the coffee easier and has tax benefits, but they take a cut of the profits and standardise practices based on profit, not on ecological sense.
Fincas struggle to abide by the FNC’s rules and to keep their farms running in the long term (although apparently the FNC is getting better). Various coffee producers we met on this trip mentioned that in October last year the sugar industry cartel was fined $115m USD for bad business practices. Many hope the FNC is next.
Highly addictive, highly sought after worldwide, almost worthless.
Okay. Enough with the stats. Forget the rest of the coffee tour. The useful information you can take with you is this:
If you want to buy good home coffee, buy in beans, not blends. This means you have to read the packet. If all you read on the packet is a description of the flavour, not the origin, then it’s probably a blend, created with medium or low quality beans. That said, if the writing on the packet talks about the coffee flavour with similar terminology and style to you’re used to seeing on a wine bottle, that’s a good start.
What you’re really looking for is a description of the coffee that focuses more on the finca where the coffee was grown. If it’s that specific, it suggests that the coffee has been cared for by individuals who’ve intentionally created a specific flavour (like a cheesemaker would), rather than a mix of beans from all over the place.
Also, don’t be fooled by the ads. Starbucks, Illy, Lavazzo, Nespresso – they all use lower grade coffee beans. They may change the roast technique, or collect from different places, but the beans they use aren’t the best. What you’re paying for is branding, not quality.