In the mid-1990s, Luis Fernando Vélez was busy selling flowers.
In Colombia that wasn’t uncommon, since the fertile land near Medellin is flower-growing country. In fact, the country is one of the largest producers of flowers in the world. So the next time you receive or send flowers, those gorgeous blossoms might be from Colombia.
You could imagine that those flowers would be from Luis Fernando Vélez’s flower export company. But they won’t be.
You see, Vélez didn’t get that far with selling flowers. The problem was the coffee.
Coffee in Colombia
In Colombia many stores give away free coffee to clients. You go to get your tires changed, and they’ll offer you a tinto (black coffee) while you wait. Go to the bank, and while you wait in the long lines, you may be offered a tinto. I once entered a small store to buy a leather jacket and the store owner put a steaming cup of tinto in my hand.
Vélez also gave away tinto in his store. And people loved it. This tinto wasn’t like the rest – it was full of flavor, with an edge of acidity that gave it a bright personality in among the drab world of tintos.
How did Vélez stumble on this good coffee? A business partner in Europe had introduced him to truly good coffee. You may ask, what could a European teach a Colombian about coffee? The sad truth is that for many decades Colombians have produced an outstanding bean…but simply shipped those unroasted beans out of the country.
While that might sound illogical, back in the day it wasn’t. Roasted coffee couldn’t be shipped by boat on long voyages – it wouldn’t arrive fresh. So Europe and America (both of these regions are the largest importers of coffee) bought green coffee from what’s known as the coffee belt and roasted it on their own facilities to sell fresh. And Colombians readily provided that raw material.
In fact, Colombia got used to shipping all the best coffee overseas. So what did Colombians drink? The little bit of coffee that was left in the country was the very worst, the cheapest. Now, I came of age drinking bad diner coffee in the United States in the 1980s, so I’m not going to criticize Colombians for drinking lower-quality tinto. I’m just stating the facts. Colombian coffee is good: what Colombians drink in Colombia is not.
In the country, people were happy to drink watered down, overly sweetened black coffee. The Colombian tinto.
“Please sell me your coffee”
So now Vélez, armed with this new information (coffee could be good), began to serve real coffee – good coffee – at his gift shop, called Amor Perfeito (the Portuguese word for pansy).
People began to request, not flowers or gifts, but coffee. “Where can I buy this coffee? Sell me your coffee. Please sell me your coffee.”
Perhaps this shift in focus shouldn’t come as a surprise. Coffee wasn’t new to Vélez’s family; on his father’s side, they’d been around the coffee business for some time, as many Colombians near rural mountain areas had been. It was natural for him to move into the coffee selling business. He could have sold bags of green coffee to those coffee experts he knew over in Europe. And he would have done well.
Keep it at home
However, Vélez is not the kind of man that simply goes with what others are doing, or with what’s easy.
Inspiration kicked in. He could do something no one else in Colombia was doing – he could offer specialty coffee in Colombia. That might sound basic, but it was revolutionary. At a time when everyone else was shipping the good coffee far away, he would keep it in the country.
However, back in the late 1990s almost no one was roasting good coffee in Colombia. So Vélez didn’t have a choice. He was going to have to become a coffee expert. He was going to be a barista. He was going to roast his own coffee.
Vélez now had a dream. And if you ever meet him, you’ll understand just what a powerful thing a dream is to a man with an iron will and an open mind.
However, how would he learn to be a coffee expert? He found that in Colombia, even the people who imported coffee machinery and accessories knew little about a truly good cup of coffee.
So he started his own coffee journey. He went to Europe and watched the experts roasting, making coffee, and selling their brews. There, he learned about espresso machines and grinders. He discovered flavors and aromas and roasting recipes.
Back in Colombia, he ordered roasters from Europe. He began to experiment.
“You’re going to serve what?”
Naturally, not everyone understood his dream. His father, for instance, criticized him. Vélez had started out working in the family’s insurance business. Then he’d opened his flower export business – still an honorable way to make a living. But now he had decided to make coffee.
His father was stern. “You’ve got a college education and you’re going to go serve tinto?”
The message was clear. No self-respecting businessman would sell coffee by the cup. That was for the cleaning lady in the office, who comes to your desk with your mid-morning cup of coffee. But his son? Selling cups of coffee? Unthinkable.
And who would buy it? Fancy coffee in Colombia? Impossible.
Keep in mind that this lack of self-esteem in Colombia’s ability to produce specialty coffee wasn’t unique to Vélez’s family. The whole country shared it. The finished product – roasted coffee- simply wouldn’t be good enough for the rest of the world. Colombians could farm, but they couldn’t roast. Period.
And the consumers, it was assumed, felt this way. The feeling then – and it still is the feeling of the majority – was that no Colombian would pay higher prices for coffee roasted in the country. There was no market here for superior coffee.
The problem was a lack of education and tradition. Colombians weren’t used to drinking better coffee. They didn’t see the need to improve their brew. The abundance of cheap coffee – poor quality coffee – didn’t seem like a bad thing.
And to top it off, at the time the National Coffee Federation didn’t allow small roasters to operate.
Colombian coffee education
So how could Vélez educate people? The task was huge. It started with the ones serving coffee. Restaurant and bakery owners needed to experience specialty coffee and understand how to handle and brew it. Then they needed to train their employees, who in turn needed to convince the customers.
It was a complete change from the established norm.
So Vélez started the only way he could: one cup at a time. He learned, he trained his team, and they trained others.
He later opened up his first store, selling coffee that’s freshly roasted, unlike supermarket coffee that has been sitting on the shelves for months. Last year he began to expand to other locations in the city.
Now Vélez offers workshops, courses, and training around the country and region. Over 600 establishments in Colombia sell Amor Perfecto coffee: hotels, bakeries, restaurants, and businesses.
The well-trained baristas at Amor Perfecto have gone on to repeatedly win the country’s National Barista Championships. The brand has started to expand beyond the borders of the country, with plans for North America and Asia.
In time even his father realized he was on to something. Selling cups of coffee did have a future after all.
Visions of Colombian coffee
Vélez now champions towns like Planadas, Tolima, an area that has been trampled on by successive waves of military and guerilla soldiers in Colombia’s long civil conflict. But it’s in small towns like Planadas where excellent coffee is produced, where a three-time Cup of Excellence winner produces coffees that thrill people hundreds of kilometers away in the mountain capital of Bogota.
As Vélez and I sit in his café on a sunny afternoon, the Bogota sunlight slipping in and brightening the already vibrant red sofas, his mind goes back to the dreams he once had. Dreams that are now a reality.
Residents of Bogota, both young and old, stream through the shop. They purchase multiple bags of award-winning coffee. They order brews made in methods like siphon and dripper. And they gush over flavor profiles. Foreigners work on computers and sip a black brew made with beans from a little-known region in the north of Colombia.
A group of hipsters come in, but not to drink coffee. They buy a few bags of whole beans that they don’t even plan on drinking. They’re going to experiment with it. A new craft beer startup, they’re going to use Amor Perfecto coffee for a different kind of brew.
They greet Vélez enthusiastically and leave, carefully carrying their bags of coffee like a delicate prize. They’re holding their future in their hands. It’s a dream similar to Vélez’s back twenty years ago.
It’s a dream based on coffee. Hard work. And a vision no one else in the country had.
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.