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Colombia: Land of horrible coffee

Colombia is the home of Juan Valdez. So how can it be so hard to find a decent cup of coffee?

Carlos Castaneda, 39, who was named Colombia's new Juan Valdez, poses with "Conchita" during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia, June 29, 2006. (Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

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.”