Journey to the source: Colombian coffee
The ultimate treat for coffee lovers is also a relaxing break that leaves you full of beans.
Saturday 05 March 2011
Every day, 1.6 billion cups of coffee are drunk around the world, according to the International Coffee Organisation, the brew's rather grand-sounding trade body. I'm not immune; indeed I took my love affair a step beyond the morning cup and travelled right to the source, to the slopes of the Colombian Andes.
While the idea of a holiday based around a global commodity may not sound promising, coffee production is much more picturesque than, say, cobalt or aluminium. You stay in a gorgeous colonial-style hacienda, for a start. You see, Colombian coffee doesn't grow just anywhere: the heights of the Andes are too cold, and down at sea-level the plants won't survive the withering heat. But these lush mountain slopes, ideally between 1,300 and 1,700 metres altitude, are just right.
I was staying on the family-run coffee plantation Hacienda Venecia, a 20-minute drive from the regional capital, Manizales, in highland Colombia. The hacienda is airy and genteel, with wide mountain views. A veranda runs around the outside, with large hammocks slung at regular intervals.
The best moment was very early morning. I'd like to say that you wake up and smell the coffee, but during harvest you hear it first. At sunrise the pickers are already high up on the hillsides, calling out to each other. There's also the sound of water from the nearby river, and small irrigation streams running all around. All this on top of raucous birdsong, which fades as the day gets hotter.
The humid, tropical slopes of the coffee region are saturated with colour. Layer upon layer of verdant mountains fold away into the distance, the lush green studded with iridescent flowers.
This is one of the most fertile areas on earth, and it teems with life. The ruby-spotted swallowtail butterflies are so big they seem to flap in slow-motion. Glittering dragonflies land on pouting orchids. At night fireflies zip around and frogs boom. Colombia's coffee zone is so fecund that, unlike most producer countries, it has two harvests a year – October to December and February to March.
Juan Pablo Echeverri is a fourth-generation coffee farmer. He runs Hacienda Venecia, and has recently started coffee tours. His enthusiasm is contagious: "We take sunlight, oxygen, energy, thoughts and ideas, and all of those we transform into aromas and flavours for you to drink!"
Our tour began in a sunny room overlooking coffee bushes. Juan Pablo took us briefly through the story of how coffee harvesting began in Ethiopia in the 15th century, spreading all around the world with Arabic traders.
He gave us each a handful of green (unroasted) coffee to sort. This meant choosing the best beans, rejecting any that weren't the perfect colour or shape. The misfits can give an acidic taste, apparently. Then we roasted, ground and "cupped" them. This is as it sounds, brewing up some beans, then tasting. Juan Pablo exalted the aromas of coffee in terms you'd expect of a sommelier. He used a wooden chest of tiny bottles containing essences of a huge range of smells (everything from honey to boiled rice) to help us discern the subtleties emanating from our cups.
After the classroom, we headed outside. The bushes have cherries and blossom at the same time, and the fragrance is heavy, a bit like jasmine. The cherries are sweet and pulpy, and contain a pip that will become the coffee bean. They're not unpleasant to eat, but there is no clue as to their future flavour.
Once picked, the beans go to the beneficiadero, a big shed where they are skinned, de-pulped, dried and put into sacks. It was like a tropical Willy Wonka experience. From here, the coffee is taken away to be roasted and exported.
Enjoying the slight coffee overdose, I walked back to the hacienda to cool down in the pool. An iguana lumbered down from a tree and birds darted around: the yellow and black calandria, the dazzling red titiribi and hummingbirds fighting for their territory.
There's something wholesome in the beauty of this land. Coffee production is largely operated through co-operatives, and unlike the vast industrialised estates in Brazil and Vietnam, Colombians pick by hand on much smaller farms. The coffee is interspersed with papaya, banana, guava and bamboo.
Colombians are proud of their country's biodiversity. I was told that there are at least 116 bird species here; that the landscape nearby swoops from the snow-topped Nevado del Ruiz at 5,000m down to a temperate 1,300m; that there are nearly 3,000 varieties of orchid on these slopes.
It reminds me of when a Colombian friend once told me that the sea around one local island had no fewer than 14 colours. Strange to say, but when you're there, it doesn't seem quite so improbable.
Travel essentials: Colombia
* There are no direct flights between the UK and Colombia. The main approaches are on American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk) via Miami, Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.co.uk) via Paris or Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) via Madrid.
* The low-cost carrier Aires (www.aires.aero) has connections onwards to Manizales for around US$130 (£80) each way.
* Hacienda Venecia (00 57 312 850 9270; haciendavenecia. com) Taza, Manizales. Doubles start at 220,000 pesos (£70), including breakfast. Hostel rooms start at 60,000 pesos (£19), including breakfast. * Coffee tours cost from 30,000 pesos (£9.50) per person.
* Colombia tourism: 00 57 1 427 9000; colombia.travel.
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