Colombia: Land of horrible coffee

BOGOTA, Colombia – In a clever TV spot from the 1980s, a waiter on the Orient Express runs out of coffee. Horrified, he pulls the emergency brake and the train backtracks to Paris to stock up on Colombian coffee.

The ad helped introduce the world to Juan Valdez and to cement Colombia’s image as a coffee-lover’s paradise. The country’s hand-picked beans have made Colombia the world’s No. 3 coffee exporter after Brazil and Vietnam.

So why, then, is it so hard to find a decent cup of coffee in Colombia?

During a recent visit to the Colombian city of Popayan, the well-known French chef Bertrand Esnault complained the coffee served at his hotel tasted like dirty water.

“We are a coffee-producing country,” said Wbeimar Lasso, who was recently named Colombia’s champion coffee taster. “But we have yet to generate a culture of coffee consumption which is why the quality of the coffee we drink is so bad.”

Wbeimar spoke by telephone from the southern city of Pasto where he was attending a seminar. “We’re in one of the best hotels in Pasto,” he said. “And at the intermission, we were served horrible coffee.”

Colombians, who simply don’t drink that much coffee, have yet to become addicted to fancy preparations, like cappuccino or iced latte. Americans and Europeans drink two to three times more coffee than Colombians.

Here, the per capita annual consumption is only about 1.8 kilograms. It's 12 kilograms in Finland, the country that tops the list of per capita coffee consumption.

Instead of coffee for breakfast, many Colombians prefer hot chocolate, juices from an amazing variety of fruits, or a beverage made with a brown-sugar-like substance called panela. And when they do opt for coffee, they often settle for less.

Most of the best coffee is exported. And though high-quality coffee is available in stores, most Colombians can only afford the cheap stuff. Lasso said that some of the beans that go into low-quality supermarket blends should be used for compost, not coffee.

Rather than espresso machines, coffee vendors often use 50-cup urns with cloth filters, which are supposed to be replaced on a regular basis. But the filters are often used and reused for months, which taints the final product.

And if the coffee is not sold immediately, it sits in the hot urn until it's reduced to a bitter sludge.

“It boils and boils and boils,” said Ligia Mora, who runs a coffee stand in north Bogota. “If you drink it, you’ll die of a stomach ache.”

Even going directly to the source can backfire.

Lasso, the coffee taster, spends much of his time visiting coffee farms. But thanks to the watery beverage farmers offer, he now travels with his own French press and a personal supply of beans.

In many rural areas, coffee is automatically mixed with panela. The end result is OK — if you take your coffee cotton-candy sweet.

“I was talking about this phenomenon with my friends,” said Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who recently spent 10 days in the Colombian outback. “The coffee sucked.”

Of course, bad coffee is available everywhere. Anderson was also disappointed with Cuban coffee during a recent trip to Havana. But the savvy marketing campaign, including those Orient Express ads, led people to expect more from Colombia.

To develop a new generation of connoisseurs, the Colombian Coffee Federation, an industry group, has turned to an old friend — the mythical Juan Valdez. A chain of Juan Valdez cafes, which are Starbucks-like stores founded by the federation, now serve Starbucks-strength espresso, latte and cold coffee drinks.

Over the past seven years, 120 Juan Valdez cafes have sprung up in Colombia. Their focus is on younger consumers.

“People are starting to get familiar with drinks like espresso, which is relatively a new drink in Colombia,” said Marcela Jaramillo, a Juan Valdez spokeswoman.

The stores hold workshops for hotel and restaurant workers to teach them how to prepare coffee. Meanwhile the coffee federation sponsors a competition to name the country’s top barista. The winner will compete in London at the 2010 World Barista Championship, which is nearly always won by Americans or Europeans.

Still, the campaign for good coffee has stalled at the city limits.

Nearly all of the Juan Valdez coffee houses are located in upscale neighborhoods of Bogota and other cities. Jaramillo admits the fine art of making frappuccino or a double-shot mocha has yet to take hold in the hinterlands.

“You have to teach people slowly and try to introduce them to new ways of drinking coffee,” she said. “It’s going to happen. But I think it will take some time.”