The History of Coffee in Colombia, Part 3: Present Day
January 28, 2019
Colombia is regarded as one of the finest producers of coffee on the planet. Currently the third most prolific coffee exporter, 2018 estimates suggest 13.3 million bags of coffee are to be shipped over the course of the year. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) states that the standard coffee sack weighs 60 kg (132 lbs), which puts the predicted Colombian coffee output for the year at 798 million kilos (1.76 billion pounds). Only Brazil and Vietnam produce more coffee for the caffeine fanatics across the world.
The 600,000 coffee growers in Colombia carefully cultivate over 12% of the world’s Arabica coffee, and are enjoying a recent resurgence, after climate change hit the community hard. In the mid-2000’s, Colombia was easily turning out 12 million bags per year, but difficulty in coping with the poor conditions saw this drop below 9 million bags in 2010. Climatic changes can cause some severe difficulties when growing coffee, as the Coffea Arabica species requires rather specific conditions to flourish. With a 25% increase in precipitation and steadily rising temperatures over the last four decades, the local producers must learn to adapt and protect their precious crops.
Behind mineral fuels, such as oil and petroleum, coffee is the largest export commodity for the Colombian state. The legendary bean accounts for 7% of all exports. The biggest customer is, unsurprisingly, the United States of America (43%), with Japan, Germany, Belgium & Canada taking a further 31% of Colombian coffee between them. So business is good, right?
Yes, the $2.5 billion coffee industry is a success, but Colombia is still far from the dizzying heights of 1992, when 17,000,000 bags were exported in a record year. This significant drop has allowed the Vietnamese market to overtake Colombia for the first time, but it will take something drastic for the Asian nation to gain the reputation for quality that the South Americans enjoy.
Knocking back your favorite gourmet coffee may seem like second nature to you, and it does for millions of caffeine drinkers around the world, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, you could say that the discovery of coffee wasn’t a human endeavor at all. That accolade goes to Capra Aegagrus Hircus, also known as the domesticated goat.
Okay, maybe we pushed it a little far there, because while a goat could probably grind beans down with its hooves, they haven’t quite mastered the rest of the coffee making process just yet. No, as legend has it, a young Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi (or Khalid) noticed some of his goats were feasting on the berries of a particular tree type, on his native Ethiopian plateau. Kaldi was the first to observe the stimulating properties of coffee in 850 AD, when his coffee cherry munching goats maintained a level of energy that prevented them from sleeping.
Kaldi was standing on a world changing discovery in the ancient coffee forests of east Africa. This was a familiar place to him, but little did he know that these trees did not grow anywhere else on the planet. Smart enough to see the invigorating effects on his animals, he tried them himself and could feel a similar effect rising within him. Kaldi approached the abbot of the local monastery in Kaffa, who despite initially laughing off his claims and throwing the cherries into a fire, was soon overcome by the glorious scent of roasting coffee. The abbot and his fellow monks scrambled to rescue the charred cherries from the glowing embers, and took a moment to bask in the divine aroma that captivates us to this very day.
Back in those days, monks were master beverage manufacturers, with monasteries producing beer as far back as the 5th century. It didn’t take much to realise that Kaldi was on to something, and before long, they were infusing the coffee cherries into water. The resulting brew kept the pious preachers up well past evening prayer, and along with it, the exciting news of this discovery began to spread towards the Arabian Peninsula.
Variations of this tale are widely quoted as the beginning of the human obsession with coffee, but the earliest written form of Kaldi’s legend didn’t arrive until the 17th Century! So while it makes for a nice story, the chances are that it may just be a bit of fun that was passed down the generations. That said, elements of the story certainly draw from solid evidence.
We know for sure that the ancient forests of Ethiopia were the only place to get access to coffee trees. Tribes in other areas of the country, such as the Galla, were mixing the berries with other products soon after Kaldi’s Kaffa revelation. They weren’t making coffee though, instead they produced the 9th Century equivalent of a ‘power bar’. By mixing the cherries with a clarified butter substance called Ghee, the Galla tribe would seek a boost by chewing on the set mixture. In the present day, this snacking tradition continues with the descendants of the tribe taking advantage of coffees ‘medicinal’ properties.
Other legends exist regarding the origin of coffee, but rarely hold as much weight as the Kaldi story. This is mainly because they contain historical fallacies, such as the discovery of coffee trees in Yemen, which have been debunked based on the age of cultivated coffee in the country. The most interesting version, involves a Sufi exile named Sheikh Omar, who was sent to live in a cave after upsetting everyone during a period of ‘moral transgression’. This time, instead of goats, the coffee was energizing birds and Omar decided to try the coffee cherries out for himself. He found them bitter to taste, so intentionally roasted them. He still couldn’t chew them properly after this, so he tried boiling them to soften them up, and there it was, the first cup of coffee.
Shortly after the ensuing eureka moment, Omar was ordered back to the people who kicked him out of his home city, Mocha. Not only did they love the coffee, but they lifted his exile as a reward. They didn’t stop there either, Omar was soon accredited with supplying a miracle and was declared a saint! It’s a bit of a rags-to-riches story, and working out that a flock of birds is more energetic than normal is beyond my expertise, but a good story nonetheless.
Yemeni legends generally agree that the coffee tree itself originated in Ethiopia. While the Kaldi story claims the first discovery took place in 9th Century, some claim Yemen was cultivating coffee in the 6th Century. It is hard to substantiate any of those claims fully, as the first concrete evidence of a coffee trade doesn’t appear until mid-15th Century Yemen.
Two things are for sure though. Ethiopia was home to the original coffee trees and Yemen was the birthplace of the $100 billion dollar coffee industry we have today. Sadly, in modern times these two ancient giants have fallen by the wayside, as the coffee revolution eventually went global.
While Ethiopian coffee regularly champions gourmet varietals at world tasting festivals, lack of investment had dwindled competition against the advanced industrialization of other countries. That is not necessarily a bad thing for the coffee drinker though, as the Ethiopian farmers use more traditional methods and maintain their artisanal flair. Times are changing though, with a 54% increase in exports since 2013, making them the 11th most prolific coffee exporter in the world. As the biggest producer on the continent, the Amharic nation currently turns out $938 million (2017) of coffee every year.
Over in Yemen, the troubled Middle Eastern state is the poorest in the region. While the oil trade is just about keeping them afloat, the coffee industry brings in just $18.1 million (2017) per year. That’s $5 million less than the Republic of Ireland! The history of Yemen is steeped in coffee folklore, but it hasn’t been maintained in order to keep up with the new Latin American superpowers. In comparison, Brazil and Colombia hold a combined share of $7.1 billion dollars, controlling a staggering 22% of the entire world coffee trade.
Next, we will take a look at the spread of the coffee trade and how it revolutionized the world economy.
The History of Coffee in Colombia, Part 1: 1499-1902
January 28, 2019
The classic sweet, medium-bodied coffee produced in Colombia takes its place among the most recognisable flavors in the world. Generations of hardworking growers, reaching back to the colonization of Latin America, point to this crop as their sole source of income. Without coffee, a huge portion of the nation would be unable to survive. That said, Colombia’s miracle tree did not catch on as quickly as you may think. Let’s take a look at how the Spanish forefathers of modern day Colombia began one of the biggest coffee exportation empires on the planet.
The Missionary Origins of Coffee in Colombia
Much like the origins of coffee in Ethiopia and Yemen, the arrival of coffee in Colombia is surrounded by legend and uncertainty. The land was inhabited by hundreds of agriculturally skilled tribes, such as the Muisca and Taironas, who numbered as many as 2 million people. When the first Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1499, there began an era of transition with the first permanent European settlements being set up in the thirty years that followed. Jesuit priests had great influence at the time, and are often credited with introducing coffee seeds to the land after visiting Guyana and Venezuela. However, estimates of when that actually was range wildly from the mid-1500’s to the 1730’s.
The leaders of the fledgling state, then called New Granada, tried to encourage the farming communities in the east of the country to take on coffee as a staple crop. This was met with much consternation, when the growers learned that it could take up to five years before they would reap the benefits of their first harvest. As legend would have it, a village priest by the name of Francesco Romero saw an opportunity to use the church as a perfect coffee marketing tool. Through God’s word, Romero urged his congregation to plant 3 or 4 coffee plants each, instead of their usual penance of gold and silver. The scheme worked magnificently in the community of Salazar de la Palmas, and Romero shared the good news with the Archbishop of New Granada. The Archbishop saw a great opportunity and ordered all priests to make the same request of their local faithful. Soon, coffee was well on its way to becoming a crucial building block in the future Colombian society.
The first literary mention of coffee in Colombia, and the first time we can confirm the presence of coffee, was José Gumilla’s 1741 tome El Orinoco ilustrado, y defendido (known in the English speaking world as The Orinoco Illustrated). The Jesuit missionary from Valencia documented his journey along the Orinoco river and its many tributaries, describing the indigenous cultures, flora, and fauna that formed alongside the fourth largest river in the world. His study took much of the 1730’s to produce, and became a document of huge historical significance, thanks to his meticulous chronicle.
Always Bet On Black: Taking A Chance On Coffee
As the presence of coffee spread from the east to the northern lands of Santander, the inaugural exportation of Colombian coffee took place in 1835. Approximately 2,500 sacks of coffee were sent to the United States from the eastern port of Cúcuta, close to what are now the Venezuelan borderlands. As the international commodities market exploded, coffee production spread to the center and western departments, such as Cundinamarca and the north-westerly Antioquia region, home to the Finca Naya estate.
The world economy was entering the biggest boom to date in 1850-1857, and the wealthiest landowners of the Republic of New Granada knew they had to be quick to take advantage of the wide open market. In a rather speculative approach, many took a risk on which commodities would be the most lucrative. Tobacco & quinine were early favourites, bringing riches to those who believed in them, and soon fine leathers and livestock also enabled huge growth in the country. Everything was fine for a time, but the unconsolidated nature of investment led to an unstable agricultural industry, in hindsight, making the eventual collapse inevitable. International prices dropped, and production in these industry sectors slumped.
After its foundation in 1863, the Republic of Colombia’s coffee market grew in much the same way, with wild speculation fuelling growth in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Unlike the preceding fad crops of the 1850’s, coffee had become a reliable long crop, allowing for sustained rises in export revenue. The quicker turnaround in other crops made them ubiquitous on the international market, but coffee was still a sought after commodity, and the slower production rate meant less competition from other nations on the market. By the start of the 20th Century, the republic was exporting 600,000 bags of coffee per annum, charting a 900% increase in less than 25 years. This surge was initially fuelled by the emergence of large plantations, owned by wealthy individuals with connections to Bogotá, and subsequently, the lucrative international banking circuit. Coffee was now the most important resource in Colombia, and at the heart of geopolitical stability in the region.
This Means War
Colombia had been fraught with political troubles throughout the 1800’s, from achieving their independence from Spain in 1819 and culminating in the Thousand Days War. The 1899-1902 conflict claimed over 120,000 lives, overshadowing the dawn of a new era, with coffee playing a key role in the hostilities.
After accusations of corruption tarnished the ruling Conservative party, it became clear that the intended democratic processes had failed. The Liberal party was incensed after losing power and so began an angry confrontation. As the fourth civil war in 100 years broke out, the Colombian lands descended into crisis once again, leaving the large coffee estate owners in a perilous position. Before the conflict, these landowners had literally plowed their fortunes into coffee production, but during the war, they were unable to maintain the land to the same standards. They lost access to the foreign finance that gave them a monopoly, and with it, their longstanding advantage over impoverished smallholder farmers. As the large landowners could no longer afford to keep their plantations in good order, the Santander and North Santander regions fell into crisis, soon to be followed by Antioquia and Cundinamarca.
The growth of the smallholder coffee farmers had begun in the mid-1870’s, largely as part of a focus on self-sufficiency. Traditional farming methods had left much of the land unable to sustain crops year after year, due to the overuse of slash-and-burn farming. Coffee provided an attractive and intensive agricultural alternative. As the smallholders transferred to coffee, the effect of the burgeoning international market gave hope to a new age of prosperity. The composition of the rural social identity was about to change forever, as the economy received a colossal boost in trade, which then drove up the value of the land. Small businesses began to develop at an unprecedented rate, and with it, a newly acquired social status for independent farmers. Suddenly, the foreign-funded landowners found their influence dwindling, and by the time violence broke out in 1899, they were entombed in export taxes and the devaluation of their crop. Coffee prices dropped significantly, and would not recover entirely until 1910. This period had a limited effect on the smallholders, as they were experiencing a sudden step up from peasantry. Even these historically low coffee prices were a vast improvement on their previous average incomes.
While the old capitalists of the New Granada era fell, the agglomeration of smallholders allowed the coffee economy to spread into newly colonized mountainous lands in the western portion of Colombia. This gave small farmers the opportunity to unify as a profession and social class, building their futures on the perfect landscape for coffee cultivation. Marco Palacios, celebrated historian and author of El café en Colombia, 1850-1970: una historia económica, social y política, stated that this was not an “assault on the camp of the capitalists”, but instead a reorganisation of the social and economic structure of the entire state. This view is a respected one and has been reiterated by academics across the fields of history, agriculture, and more specifically, coffee production. Particularly, the “peaceful coexistence of multiple systems of appropriation and distribution” (Fernando Estrada, 2011, The Paths of Coffee: A brief economic history of coffee in Colombia) were finally made possible, after years of domination by those with strong links to Bogotá.
During a period of severe unrest, the country had been renamed seven times in 67 years, the agricultural gambles had destroyed much of the old wealth and the population had rocketed from 2 to 5 million people. Throughout these tumultuous times, coffee became a symbol of survival, a crop that would reward the devoted growers for years to come.
The evolution of the coffee trade in Colombia between 1730 and 1902 would influence huge transformations as the troubled country faced an uncertain 20th Century. While the future would be changeable, coffee was to establish itself as a crucial instigator in the economic development of the world’s second biggest coffee producer.
Read about the coffee history of 20th Century Colombia, in The History of Coffee in Colombia, Part 2.