I grew up in a house with no coffee. There was no coffee pot on the stove, no coffee maker on the counter. There was no smell of coffee to wake us in the morning and no reason to sit around the kitchen table mid-afternoon. We ate our cookies with milk. And we considered ourselves normal.
I want you to know that I did not feel deprived.
I imagine my father got his coffee fix at the office, and my mom and dad always had coffee on the weekends at the neighborhood diner where we slipped into plastic booths and ordered toast and poached eggs and fluffy pancakes. The coffee was weak and tasteless and drenched with half and half and sugar. It was the United States in the early 1980s, after all, and that was about as fancy as coffee got – at least on the East Coast.
In the late 1980s my dad did a crazy thing. He bought a fancy electric coffee maker and a subscription to receive specialty European coffees every month by mail. It was a ridiculous expense at the time. I mean, it was just coffee – why pay so much? This was back when personal computers were just starting to edge their way into people’s lives, and my father was riding the wave of new technology as a computer programmer (which most of our friends and neighbors had never heard of). So he could afford a bag of specialty coffee every month.
As I teenager I was unimpressed with the coffee maker he bought and the small brown box he received that first month. Inside the box was a brownish gold bag that glowed in the light of the kitchen lamp. My father carefully opened the bag and there it was, filling the house with aromas and a richness I’d never before experienced. Real coffee.
I was hooked.
Coffee became a bond between my father and I. We marveled at the flavors together, relished sharing a cup on the weekends. We knew nothing about coffee but we loved his discovery, and it created a bond between a rebellious teenager and her father, smoothed out the differences and the clashes and gave us something to agree on.
I missed the coffee revolution in the United States. While people back home were discovering tall non-fat extra shot lattes with double foam, I was in South America crossing the Andes Mountains and hanging out in indigenous villages in the jungle.
In fact, the specialty coffee scene never arrived in the country I was living in, so I moved to Colombia. All right, I didn’t move for the coffee, although now it seems I did. Or should have.
On a chilly afternoon in Bogota I sit in a Juan Valdez coffee shop and watch people gather in groups – families, friends, business partners – and listen to their noisy chatter and watch the frantic baristas. And I know I am watching life happen. How did I live without coffee shops for so many years?
My life got a lot more caffeinated when a British publication commissioned me to write a definitive guide to coffee shops in Bogota. I began to spend hours in coffee shops, from the most basic Juan Valdez café to specialty shops tucked away in recycled shipping containers to tiny hole-in-the-wall shops that only the most die-hard coffee fanatics visited. I talked with wiry coffee shop owners. I listened to bearded and bespectacled baristas expound on coffee processing on small farms in remote regions of the country. It slowly dawned on me that there was an exciting universe of coffee in Bogota that I knew nothing about.
I was falling in love.
It wasn’t just the coffee, the liquid in my cup. It goes beyond that. That realization came when I was talking with a twenty-something barista, a handsome young man who had won a national coffee championship. When I asked him why he was so enthusiastic about coffee, his eyes got a far-away look and he said to me:
“My mother is so proud of me.”
Those were the last words I expected to hear from a man that age. Really? You’re doing it for your mother?
“I have been able to travel around Colombia, and I’ve even traveled to other countries, because of coffee. I love what I do. And my mother is proud that I have a profession.”
Ah. Opportunities in a country that lacks them.
That was when I realized that coffee in Colombia is not about the brown beverage you crave on a cold morning. It’s about the people. The baristas from poor neighborhoods who can have a profession they’re proud of, a reason to love their work and feel eager to get up each morning. The women coffee growers and baristas who are changing a macho culture. The earnest young men in the capital who are helping farmers in a country devastated by war, paying them well for their precious aromatic crop. The indigenous groups in remote areas that find a way to survive by cultivating their delicate fruit. It’s about the people who depend on coffee, not for a potent eye opener in the morning, but to be able to feed their families and educate their sons and daughters.
It’s the future. It’s the past snowballing forward with decades of tradition to meet the present with the promise of a better future. It is a complex world that is hidden, with so many stories that should be told. Stories of rebirth, of a nation shaking off 60 years of war, of women shaking of domination, of young people finding a future that matters.
So I wrote my article. But it wasn’t enough to talk about where to drink a nice latte. I wanted people to understand what I’d found. I decided to start a coffee shop tour, to invite groups of foreigners to visit these shops to meet the baristas and owners, to hear the stories for themselves.
The tour is born
Perhaps it was a crazy idea. When I Googled ‘coffee shop tours’ to see who was doing them, I found out they only exist in a few Middle Eastern countries (I won’t count Amsterdam’s coffee shop tours, which are simply a hunt for marijuana). But I didn’t care if it was crazy – people had to know about this.
So my Flavors of Bogota Coffee Shop Tour was born.
What surprises me the most is the Colombian men who do the tour, dragged along by enthusiastic wives. At the beginning of the tour you can see it on their faces. That “Yeah, right” look. That look of resignation, of doing whatever necessary to keep peace with their wives. After all, they’re Colombian; they already know about coffee.
Usually it takes them 15 minutes. That’s how long it takes before their faces begin to change, and they get absorbed in the coffee brewing methods, the science and chemistry of it, the flavors in the cup and the stories they’re hearing. This was all there, right in their own city, and they knew nothing about it. They rediscover their own country, rediscover hope and positivity in Colombia. They discover for the first time hidden flavors in their beloved morning drink. Colombian coffee seen from a new perspective.
My father didn’t live long enough to see me start these tours. Just a few years after he discovered specialty coffees and shared them with me, the doctors discovered the cancer that had spread throughout his body. I rushed up from Latin America to hold his hand in the hospital, and he woke from his coma that day to squeeze my hand and say goodbye.
At that moment I didn’t think about coffee. But coffee had drawn us together; it had softened the rebellious heart of a teenager and gave me memories I could only appreciate later.
Coffee draws people together. Families on small farms in Colombia, fashionable Bogotanos in an upscale café, or a teenager and her father smelling freshly roasted coffee for the first time. The threads start in our hearts but are woven together over a warm mug and an hour or two of life to share.
Want to learn more about specialty coffee in Colombia? Read Permission to Slurp, an easy and quick guide to what coffee means to Colombians and how you can get the most out of your coffee tastings. Download it here on Amazon – it only costs about the price of a cappuccino.