“100% Colombian coffee, the richest in the world.” Remember the smiling and moustachioed Juan Valdez and his mule? At the risk of bursting a few coffee bubbles, ol’ Juan was not a real person. He was actually the clever brain-child of Colombia’s Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC). More on Juan and the FNC later, but first, a bit about how coffee cultivation came to Colombia…
Stories vary, but in most cases, Catholic priests get the credit for introducing coffee seeds to Colombia ca. 1723. One tale has it that a certain Father Romero imposed upon parishioners the penance of planting coffee seeds in their backyards, and soon coffee was growing in a lot of places! What we do know for sure is that the country is rich in all the elements that make it prime coffee-growing territory: volcanic soils, lush climate, and altitude. By the 1870’s, large plantations of coffee began to change commerce in Colombia, and in 1879, the far-sighted Coffee Act (Law 29) began sponsoring coffee cultivation. Within 40 years, coffee production went from 107,000 bags a year to more than 2.4 million, making Colombia second only to Brazil as coffee exporter to the world.
Back to the FNC. Created in 1927 as a private non-profit organization designed to defend the interests of coffee producers, the FNC has been key not only in export-related fields, but also in infrastructure. Juan Valdez and his mule came along as an advertising campaign launched in the 1950’s. Hugely influential, the FNC has become a somewhat unwieldy and sometimes difficult bureaucratic entity that tends to favor coffee quantity over quality yet still has impacted the lives of many subsistence farmers positively over the years. But of course, the specialty coffee world is concerned with quality, and for us, traceability is huge. In Colombia, knowing exactly where a coffee comes from can be challenging and is made more difficult by the official Colombian grading designations. “Supremo” and “Excelso” refer not to quality but size, and sorting for size often obscures the origin of the coffees. Crema.co roasters tend to work directly with larger farmers or farm collectives, as well as with specific importers dedicated to finding and preserving quality microlots.
As a country, Colombia is no stranger to warfare: most recently FARC, a guerilla organization, has run counter to the government for 52 conflict-filled years (a recent peace treaty has yet to be ratified). But long before that, ancient cultures rose to power, flourished, then faded. Now gods and mythical animals hang out in the mountains, stone monuments to a civilization that faded circa 1320 A.D.