Coffee Picking in Colombia

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I've made quite a few trips to Colombia now, but this is the first time I've come into contact with something that the country is famous for: coffee.

Colombians don't actually drink as much coffee as you might think ~ the best is exported. People tend to enjoy a lot of natural juices (the range of fruit available is amazing ~ see an example here ~ and hot chocolate is also popular ~ I wrote about that here).

However, coffee is undeniably an important part of Colombian life ~ here's why:

The industry began in 1835 when the first crops were planted in the east of the country, although it wasn't until the second half of the 19th century that coffee began to be exported on a large scale. At that time the product represented 65% of Colombia's exports by value.

The success of the industry continued until 1990, when international price regulation mechanisms caused a sharp decrease in coffee prices. The crisis hit coffee producers hard ~ prices were now below the cost of production. As a result many growers decided to give up on their crops and today coffee exports represent around 10% of Colombia's total exports by value.

For this reason, many coffee plantations now also grow plantain bananas, which are important in the Colombian diet and a popular export.

However, coffee production is still a very important segment of the economy. There are over 500,000 families growing beans on over 800,000 hectares and producing an average of 11 million bags of coffee a year.

So how does it all work? We visited
Recuca (Recorrido de la Cultura Cafetera), in the Coffee Region, to find out...

Coffee plants produce small white flowers...

which when dry produce a hard green bean. The beans grown in Colombia are of the Arabica variety.

The beans slowly turn red, and then they are ready for picking...

And here's where we got busy! After being shown the growing process, we were put to work picking beans on the plantation...

Buckets strapped around our waists, we moved up and down the rows of coffee plants, gathering as many red beans as we could.

It wasn't as easy as it looks ~ a lot of the beans seemed to be half green, half red ~ but we all had great fun: even the youngest member of the family mucked in!

My harvest was a bit on the pathetic side, mainly because I was taking lots of pictures in between picking the beans...

Still, we did get 'paid' for our efforts! We picked around 6kg of beans between about 20 of us in half an hour.

In all seriousness though, it's a pretty tough job. Coffee pickers work all year round, 6 days a week from around 6.30am-4.00pm, earning on average about £300 per month. A good picker will collect around 100kg of beans per day. They are out in the fields in all weathers and often the terrain is steep and awkward to move around. I don't think I'll be giving up my day job!

Back to the coffee-making process... Next the beans are put through a machine which crushes and removes the shells, and then they are dropped into water. 'Good' beans sink, while those of lesser quality float and are removed. This is an example of a manual machine.

The separated beans...

And the discarded shells:

The beans are then dried before they are ready to roast, grind and be mixed with hot water, giving us the coffee we know and love...

I really enjoyed our trip to Recuca. It was so interesting to see the coffee-making process from plant to cup and learn more about this world-famous industry in a country that has become very much a part of my life.

Next up, I'd like to see how tea is grown - a trip to India or China perhaps?!

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