Inside Bogotá’s Burgeoning Café Culture
Coffee-loving visitors to Colombia's capital are discovering a city that increasingly knows its beans. Find out what's behind the buzz.
Colombia’s coffee has long set the standard for quality, since the first beans were planted in the 16th century and exports began in the 1800s. But until recently, it was nearly impossible to get a good cup in Bogotá.
Lately, Colombia’s capital city has experienced exponential growth, sparking a cultural revitalisation. Experimental theatres, art galleries, restaurants, nightclubs and trendy boutiques began percolating in neighbourhoods like the fine-dining Zona G, the nightlife-filled Zona Rosa and the upscale 93 Parque. And that growth is now expanding to coffee shops, vibrant new spots to fuel up for deep conversation or a night on the town. Finally, it’s possible to find excellent Colombian coffee – in Colombia. Why did it take so long?
The problem was everyone else’s love for the country’s coffee: Nearly 90 percent of Colombia’s beans were being exported. From October 2013 to October 2014, more than 10.8 million 60-kilo bags were consumed outside Colombia, of a total production of 12.1 million bags.
The beans left behind were of the poorest quality. And the traditional method of brewing didn’t help – scalding the beans with too-hot water until all that’s left is a burnt, watery brown liquid often called tinto. On Bogotá streets, coffee vendors sell small plastic cups of this brew, heavily sugared, for around 1,000 pesos (US$0.35).
A new roast
Happily for locals and visitors alike, things are changing fast. First, in 2002, came the Juan Valdez Café coffee shops, which are to Colombia what Starbucks is to the U.S. – a chain of cafés serving perfectly acceptable coffee that raised the bar on tinto.
Then, to target an emerging new breed of higher-end coffee drinker, the company opened Orígenes de Juan Valdez Café, a high-design concept café. Patrons take a seat on the rooftop deck and order a Sierra Nevada French press whilst gazing down at Zona G. The area’s couple of square blocks are packed with popular restaurants such as El Cielo (molecular gastronomy), Bruto (Spanish Basque cuisine) and Criterión (Colombian ingredients meet French techniques).
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And now, more-creative spots are eclipsing chain shops. Walk around Bogotá today to find a handful of standout independent cafés where devotees handcraft long blacks and lattes that rival the best coffee houses in New York or London. With their modern design, rows of AeroPresses and bearded baristas, these places may look as if they’ve been transplanted from Brooklyn.
But there’s a distinction that makes the experience here even better: The beans are exclusively Colombian, steeped in Bogotá’s heritage and sourced from micro-lots all over the country.
Cafés in Bogotá
In the 93 Parque neighbourhood, a great place to grab lunch and people-watch, a shipping container painted slate grey now houses Azahar, one of the rising stars of this new Colombian coffee movement. Nearby you’ll find a variety of boutiques such as local jewellery designer Mercedes Salazar, and an independent theatre, Cinemanía.
Bourbon Coffee Roasters
Bourbon Coffee Roasters, owned by Paola Laguna and Jose Alberto Rosero, is a sleek wood and glass café with a peaceful enclosed garden. It’s located in Quinta Camacho, a hub of trendy shops and restaurants that draws some of the city’s chicest for live music and multi-course meals.
On busy Carrera 7, Devoción – which recently opened an outpost in Brooklyn, a true sign that a “scene” has emerged – sports marble countertops and antique bottles on wooden shelves. It also produces world-class coffee, made in Kyoto-style cold slow-drippers and siphons.
Your coffee tour of Bogota
The best part? Each of these cafes are within a quick walk or ride of Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina Bogota and the soon-to-debut Four Seasons Hotel Bogota.
Bourbon buys from micro-lots in different areas of Colombia, such as Santander, Huila, Nariño and Cundinamarca. Varieties include Caturra and Castillo, and the beans are roasted on site.
Devoción buys directly from micro-lots in every coffee zone in Colombia. In 2014 alone, Azahar sourced coffee from more than 420 different Colombian farmers, all of whom processed the beans on their own land: de-pulping them, fermenting them overnight and drying them on wood beds.
These carefully farmed beans generally score above 86 points – a classification of excellent – on the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) “cupping” scale. They are noticeably sweet, clean and juicy, exhibiting unique terroir. Most of them, grown in partial or full shade, come from farms above 1,700 metres. (Higher altitudes usually yield better beans.)
It’s this attention to buying distinctive beans from small-holder farms – under 5 hectares (12 acres) of land – that characterises this new third wave of Colombian coffee.
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Behind the trend
What led to the demand that’s allowing a greater share of the best beans to remain in country? In recent years, more Colombians have travelled abroad and returned with a taste for fine espressos and lattes. Knowledge about roasting, brewing and barista techniques is a big part of this growth.
Joshua Maidan, co-owner of Devoción, and Bourbon’s Laguna both give some credit to Starbucks for educating travelling Colombians and promoting a coffee culture. Another factor is the positive impact the new cafés have on farmers. Coffee farmers are largely at the mercy of the “C” market (coffee priced as a commodity), which almost all exporters and importers use to determine what farmers are paid. This number, however, has almost no relation to the actual costs of production. Being able to sell more coffee locally means less reliance on the international price.
“We can offer farmers stable prices that allow them to make a living and maintain the quality of their product,” Tyler Youngblood, co-founder of Azahar says. And with lower transportation costs, plus the benefit of fresher beans, consumers benefit as well.
A local movement
“The domestic consumption of Colombian coffee is on the rise, in large part spearheaded by specialty roasters,” Youngblood says. “Regular roasted coffee sales are the highest in over a decade, and premium coffee sales have been growing by as much as 10 percent. Growth as high as 20 percent is expected for specialty coffee retail, as more and more people here are drinking coffee away from home.”
This means that locals are filling the new breed of cafés. Youngblood says that just 10 percent of Azahar’s customers are foreigners. “Often the coffee or farm names on chalkboards in cafés in the United States, Europe or Asia are so foreign to your average customer that they don’t really mean much to them,” he says.
“In Colombia, it’s not that way at all. People are really moved when they discover that the coffee they’re drinking comes from an individual farmer in a part of the country they’re familiar with. There’s a growing pride in Colombian beans.”