The home of perfect coffee, but they can't make a decent cup

A coffee plantation in Colombia's World Heritage-listed coffee triangle.
A coffee plantation in Colombia's World Heritage-listed coffee triangle. Photo: Andrew Bain

In Colombia, coffee is a precious resource. An industry that employs half a million people, it accounts for approximately 16 per cent of the country's GDP.

The country's oldest and most highly regarded coffee region has been World Heritage listed by Unesco, and all of its beans are hand picked, with Colombia's steep and rugged terrain resisting mechanisation. 

Across the world, Colombian coffee is regarded as among the smoothest and finest on the market.

Coffee culture ... barista Daniel Maya at Cafe Jesus Martin in Salento.
Coffee culture ... barista Daniel Maya at Cafe Jesus Martin in Salento. Photo: Andrew Bain

Everything about it is perfection ... at least until you drink it in Colombia.

Almost universally, the coffee you're served in Colombia is bland, overly bitter or overpowered by milk.

If you come to the world's fourth-largest coffee producer for the java, you invariably leave disappointed, unless you travel to Salento.

The oldest town in the World Heritage-listed 'coffee triangle', Salento began inauspiciously in the 1840s as a gaol, isolated in jungle, growing into a town as prisoners' families moved to be near their imprisoned loved ones.

Draped across a broad green ridge above the entrance to the Cocora Valley (home to the world's tallest palm tree, the endemic wax palm, growing to 50 metres in height), Salento is today a major tourist stop for those who venture west from Bogota. 

People visit the town for its colours - its homes could make a bird of paradise feel anaemic - but it's also at the heart of the coffee triangle.

Beyond, usually in the clouds, rise the five volcanoes that have created the region's fertile soils.

The highest of the volcanoes, Nevado del Ruiz, erupted in 1985, killing 25,000 people in the deadliest lahar (volcanic mud flow) ever recorded. 

In Salento, buildings of almost every colour and shade frame the streets.

Red homes sit next to blue stores; yellow homes stare across at green homes.

The whole effect is like strolling through a happy children's party.

Walk a few steps from the main plaza, however, and you need to step inside one of the town's more nondescript buildings to find Cafe Jesus Martin.

All of Jesus Martin's colour is inside.

A bicycle hangs from the ceiling, and photos of coffee beans and plantations decorate a ruby-red wall.

A psychedelic mural swirls across another wall. It feels alive and vibrant, and it's at the vanguard of change in the Colombian coffee experience.

Jesus Martin has been producing coffee in the triangle for 80 years, and five years ago opened its Salento cafe.

Two more cafes have since followed: one in the Cocora Valley and one in the nearby city of Armenia.

The cafe's mission isn't simply to serve coffee.

Using beans from its own plantation as well as those from other small producers, it's creating what it calls 'latte art' to bridge the divide between Colombian coffee and, well, Colombian coffee. 

"It's not just serving coffee, it's getting people to see and understand," says Jesus Martin barista Daniel Maya.

"In Colombia we produce very good coffee but we don't know much about its preparation. 

"The idea is to share the cafe's ideas and knowledge because we have long experience. We want to share that knowledge with visitors and also educate Colombians to know that coffee isn't just this bitter drink." 

Latte art begins with aroma. Maya places two bowls of ground coffee on the counter before me and tells me to breathe them in. As I inhale the bouquet like an oenophile, Maya begins to tell me the story and paradox of Colombian coffee.

At the end of last century, Colombia was the world's second-largest coffee producer, but the ravages of an insect plague saw it slip behind Vietnam and Indonesia.

In 2011 the country still shipped out 468,000 tonnes of beans, a number that is also the crux of the domestic coffee problem. 

In Colombia, coffee is foremost an export product, with the average Colombian drinking little more than half the volume of coffee as the average Australian.

Premium beans are bagged and shipped across the world, leaving residual, damaged and even fermented beans for domestic consumption.

Jesus Martin now holds onto some premium beans for its cafe, where they're medium roasted for around 16 minutes.

One of the bowls Maya has placed in front of me contains the grounds of the premium beans, while the other holds the more typical domestic coffee.

I haven't yet been told which is which.

When Maya takes back the bowls, he pours a coffee using the grounds from each.

Again I'm asked to take in the aromas before sipping from each cup, holding the coffee in my mouth for 10 seconds. 

I no longer need Maya to tell me which drink has been made from the premium beans.

One of the drinks is all bitterness, and the other is like velvet in comparison. It's one of the finest and smoothest coffees I've ever drunk. It is art and it is good. 

The writer travelled courtesy of South America Travel Centre.

Fast Facts

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six one-stop flights per week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Bogota, Colombia and beyond to Pereira in the coffee triangle.

LAN also offers three nonstop flights per week from Sydney to Santiago in a code-share partnership with Qantas: lam.com.

Travelling there: South America Travel Centre organises personalised itineraries for travel in Colombia, including the coffee triangle; southamericatravelcentre.com.au.

Staying there: Hacienda San Jose, just outside of Pereira, offers a plantation-style stay in easy reach of Salento.

The property is one of the oldest haciendas in the region, and rooms are large and atmospheric: haciendahotelsanjose.com.

Comments