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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?

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.”