Around the world, coffeehouses have been important meeting places for centuries, and Bogota is no exception. Walk around this South American city and you’ll find busy coffee shops and bakeries at any time of day; walk by a Juan Valdez coffeehouse in the morning and you’ll see people doing business over a hot cup of coffee, and in the afternoon you’ll notice whole families gathered at bakeries to leisurely enjoy coffee and snacks during what they call onces, the Colombian version of tea time.
Over the last few years a new wave of coffeehouses has flooded Bogota. In addition to the Juan Valdez stores on nearly every corner of the city, more and more independent coffee shops are opening up, each one offering an in-depth look into coffee farms and farmers as well as the regions where coffee is grown. All of this adds up to tasting experiences you won’t get anywhere else.
Why is Colombian coffee in such demand?
Coffee is grown in Colombia on hundreds of thousands of small family owned farms. Unlike Robusta beans, Arabica beans (the only ones found in Colombia) are grown at high altitudes. Mountainous terrain means that beans are picked in a very labor intensive way (by hand, since machines are useless on those hills) and are often transported off the farm by mule or jeep. This hand picking means just the ripest, deep red cherries – not the green ones, not the slightly pink ones – are chosen. The beans are then sent off to get processed and roasted; freshly roasted coffee should be consumed as quickly as possible to preserve the characteristics of the bean. Of course, all of these factors increase the cost – but they also increase the quality.
And you can see, the process is complex; even within a single farm there can be vast variations in quality and taste. It also means that drinking coffee in Colombia is a different experience than drinking it after it’s been shipped to another country – which can take weeks – and has sat in a warehouse until it’s shipped to a store (where its sits a bit more), a journey that can take months.
Tradition and a new wave
The ironic reality is that the vast majority of coffee produced in Colombia is exported, and the vast majority of coffee consumed in Colombia is low-quality imported coffee. Yes, Colombia imports coffee for Colombians to drink.
For Colombians, the morning typically starts with a tinto, a black coffee that is often bitter and generously sweetened with sugar or panela, and later in the day they will have a café, which in Colombia means coffee with milk.
But now a new wave of coffeehouses has hit cities and farms in Colombia. These places emphasize working directly with coffee farmers to get the best possible coffee, and this is when coffee growing regions become important – where in Colombia the coffee is grown. Think terroir. Yes, as in wine: where the grapes grew, in what soil, and how much sun they received all affect the wine you’ll be sipping. The same is true with coffee. As you taste your coffee, do you feel the notes of wood, caramel, berries, chocolate, rose, citrus? Just like wine, coffee is affected by the soil it’s grown in and how it’s processed, creating subtle and not-so-subtle flavor changes.
So when you go to one of these new wave coffee shops in Bogota, you’ll be able to decide what coffee region you want to try, find out who grows that coffee, and you’ll also be asked what method you want your coffee to be brewed in: French Press, Syphon, or pourover methods like Dripper V60 or Chemex. Sound Greek to you? The baristas will patiently explain the differences, or you can watch these videos to view each method.
Coffeehouses in Bogota
Listing all the coffeehouses in Bogota would be impossible, but here are a few to get you started. Many of these are small, independent growers and roasters who care about more than just the bottom line (or who, at times, completely forget the bottom line to promote certain coffees and farmers). Many have roasting and tasting rituals that get you involved in detecting those subtle flavors in each coffee. And you’ll get a closer look at the deep pride Colombians feel at being a part of the coffee process – whether a farmer, roaster, cupper or barista.
A word of warning, however. These are serious coffee tasters who emphasize experiencing the full flavors in the cup – which means drinking the coffee black, with no sugar added. If that’s not your idea of a good drink, feel free to request a latte or cappuccino and add sugar to taste (you might have to ask for the sugar packets, since they often hide them).