Find out where you drink the best coffee
Colombia is the third biggest coffee producing country in world, after Vietnam (number 2) and Brazil. No wonder, you would say, it is easy to find a good cuppa Joe. However, until a couple of years ago this wasn’t the case. Colombians drank their café tinto, made from second-rate beans. The best ones were exported. Things have changed. Over the past years hip coffee shops that often do their own roasting, have sprouted in all major cities. Some are outlets for boutique coffee producers somewhere in the Andes, others buy their beans from all over the country and do their own roasting. Even Colombia’s main chain of coffee shops, Juan Valdez, brews you a good shot. Far better than its American rival.
But what is a good cup of coffee? For me personally, it always was a classic espresso or cappuccino. Of course I knew there were hundreds of modern coffee joints between Basel and the Bay Area, buying their own beans, doing their own roasting and selling cold drips, French press, Chemex coffees and what not. And to be fair, I did try several other cups of coffee than the classic espresso, but somehow it never caught on. It simply had too little bite. It lacked the intense, creamy, bitter flavor. However, my visit to Colombia changed things drastically. The enthusiasm of the coffee shop owners, the willingness of their staff to explain and demonstrate, the superior quality of their beans and their brewing skills converted me. I am not saying I won’t drink cappuccinos any longer, but I will now regularly trade it in for a small pot of V60 dripper Gesha coffee or some other brew.
Here are the places in Colombia where I had my best cups of the stimulating black liquid.
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva
This quaint colonial town three hours north of Bogotá counts many bars and restaurants. Most of them are typical tourists joints. Sybarita is the exception. Just off the immense main square, one of the biggest in Colombia, it serves all you wish for, from espressos to Chemex and V60 Dripper coffee. Our waiter patiently told us about their coffees (produced by Café 18) and finally recommended to take a French press with coffee from Tolima, which he then meticulously prepared at our table. We spotted many local aficionados.
Sybarita in Villa de Leyva
If you think Villa de Leyva is too touristy, don’t go to Salento. But if you are on your way to see the tall wax palms, symbol of Colombia, you should stop for a coffee at Bernabé or Jesús Martín, two excellent coffee shops, in this otherwise somewhat overrated gateway to the Valle del Cocora.
Café Bernabé, tucked away in a small dead end street off the main shopping drag, is run by Felipe, a real coffee lover. Unlike his counterpart at Sybarita, he is not a great fan of the French press (too bitter), but he adores the dripper. Both his espresso and his dripper convinced us.
Camillo preparing coffee at Jesús Martín, Salento
Since we were getting more and more inspired by the Colombian coffee culture, we decided to check out Jesús Martín too. This café serves coffees from beans of their own estate Santa Ana. Camillo demonstrated us how to brew a small pot of Gesha (also spelled as Geisha), the nec plus ultra of Colombian coffees. Originating from Ethopia and grown up in Panama, it has now also found a home in Colombia. Everybody we spoke to admitted, with a barely suppressed little sigh, that Gesha is the most delicate coffee around, the sigh indicating it was not within many people’s financial reach to have it. After weighing the right amount of coffee, warming the pot and boiling the water, Camillo poured a thimble of water in the filter holder to soak the ground beans for precisely three minutes. He then disposed of the first drops of the brew – supposedly a tad too acidic -, after which he gradually poured exactly the right amount of water onto the ground coffee to find the perfect balance between soft and acid. While he stirred the brew in the filter a couple of time, the coffee dripped down in the preheated pot. Gesha beans give a relatively light brew and can have many different flavors, from lemon to mild spices, and reminded us somehow of herbal tea.
Right in the heart of town, overlooking the main square with several chunky Botero sculptures, we had coffee at El Laboratorio de Café. When we walked onto the square towards the Museum of Antioquia that houses a big Botero collection, a young guy who gave a percolator demo to a small group of Colombians, attracted my attention. We couldn’t just pass by, and instead sat down and ordered our own specialty coffees. We had been walking around town for about two hours and were ready for a good shot and didn’t regret choosing El Laboratorio. Great terrace for watching the world go by too!
Museo de Antioquia
When in Medellín, you will sooner or later end up in the Zona Rosa, the city’s answer to Greenwich Village or Chelsea in New York: small boutiques, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. My choice for a good cuppa would be Belgian inspired café Velvet. It has a branch in Brussels, and yes, it sells chocolates too. But that is probably about it. Baristas, all wearing beanies – how appropriate –, served us a soft, fruity and mildly acidic coffee from finca La Susana in the nearby town of Angelópolis.
Shopping around in this vibrant city on the Caribbean Sea is easy. The old walled town is full of coffee bars. Two recommendable ones are San Alberto, the outlet for the eponymous estate, and the cosy café cum bookshop Ábaco.
Hands down our favorite coffee joint was Época. The owner, Julian Gutierrez, and his girlfriend Nikol Cobo also run the neighboring hotel Casa del Arzobispado. The breakfast room, with a long counter and prominent shelves with bright yellow backlights, now doubles up as a café where Julian roasts his beans from time to time. Smiley and approachable he demonstrated the process of roasting. With experienced and self-assured gestures he put the raw beans into the roasting drum, monitored the temperature, checked the changing color of the beans and opened the valve to let steam escape, all the while taking notes of the temperature and the passed time. He says he is still learning, but that seems to be underplaying himself. We couldn’t try the just roasted coffee beans – they have to rest for 72 hours before their ready for consumption -, but our Chemex coffees, from another batch, were perfect.
Colombia made a quantum leap into the 21st century when it comes to coffee culture. So did I.
Julian Gutierrez (left) and his coffee roaster
Villa de Leyva
Sybarita Caffe – Carrera 9 11—88
Café Jesús Martín – Carrera 6 # 6-14
Café Bernabé – Carrera 6 con Calle 3 N° 6-03
Café San Alberto – Calle de Los Santos de Piedra 3-86 / Cra. 4 #34-1 a 34-91
Ábaco libros y café – corner Calle de La Iglesia con Calle de La Mantilla
Época – Calle del Arzobispado No. 34-52