We left Salento on a rainy Friday afternoon, joining the “Highway Of Coffee” headed north through Pereira up to Manizales. The highlight of our brief visit in Manizales was undoubtedly the dinner we prepared for ourselves. Yes, Lex and I ate the first entirely raw, unpeeled, lettuce-included salad since our days in Argentina. We also drank water not from a plastic bottle but straight from the tap. Sure, we were a bit apprehensive to be eating raw greens, but at a certain point, desire overcomes caution and the vegetables simply must be set free. I figure, if you can drink the water, you can eat the greens and that is exactly what we did, in epic proportions.
Saturday morning, we were picked up bright and early by a jeep sent by the Hacienda Venecia. We were off to the coffee-carpeted hills outside Manizales for a visit to an old-school Colombian coffee hacienda. As you can see from the pictures, we are talking coffee on a large scale. Nearly all the slopes in the valley pictured to the side are covered with coffee plants.
We toured the grounds (no pun intended!) with a small, motley group of visitors including Colombian, Mexican, French and German nationals. Once again, I shall link back to the Cafe Munaypata post for a refresher on the basics of coffee production. Although small by Colombian standards, Venecia is considerably larger than the parcels and cooperatives we encountered in the Bolivian Yungas. Coffee is big business in this part of Colombia, thanks in no small part to the ideal growing conditions and a unique climate that provides for two annual harvests. Many of the production techniques and, indeed, most of the machines used in the industry throughout the Americas, were designed and developed here in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region.
An interesting factoid that we learned in Ecuador is that caffeine content is largely a product of growing conditions. Caffeine is a stress-response produced by the coffee plant. An excess of heat or shortage of water can stress the plant, hence, raising the amount of caffeine in your coffee. Roasting technique does not make any difference. In this part of Colombia, where there is little shade cover, I have noticed a comparatively higher caffeine content to the coffee than the shade-grown, smaller-scale plots in Bolivia. I have to say, it is pretty cool visiting and trying small-batch coffee at the source.
Venecia produces several different grades of coffee, reflecting the reality that nothing here gets discarded. The picture you see on the side is of essentially rotted or otherwise malformed beans that are nevertheless roasted using waste-heat from the primary gas-fired driers and blended into a Nescafe-like product popular throughout the Americas. The vast majority of the higher-grade beans are exported to Japan, Europe, Canada and the States, while a small percentage are marketed internally under Hacienda Venecia’s own brand. We sampled more than a few cups during our stay. They produce a quality product at Venecia, though not quite equal to the fine Jesus Martin espresso you see us enjoying below while in Salento.
Perhaps the most interesting part of our tour was a reasonably thorough explanation of the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) system for identifying different taste and aroma profiles. Pictured in the gallery below are a few of the visual diagrams and also a bottle of scented tincture used to educate professionals learning the art of “aroma perception” in roasted coffee. The SCAA tasting system was developed with funding provided by the The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, whose product is known the world over, thanks to the creation of the Juan Valdez branding logo.
Although the growers here are working on a large scale, many of them voluntarily conform to a baseline of environmental and labor standards. If you ever see the “UTZ” label on a bag of coffee, it is not quite a parallel for a direct-trade or organic type certification, but at least you know they are making a legitimate effort and are not employing any of the more dubious practices that can be found in the hinterlands.
After our tour concluded and lunch was served, the rest of our group departed on the return jeep to Manizales. Lex and I were left to enjoy a tranquil evening in the company of our guide for the day and one other person who sticks around in the evening to keep a watch on the guest house. The following morning we had the opportunity to meet Juan Pablo Echeverri, the acting manager of Hacienda Venecia’s operations. Venecia is a family business, now into its forth generation. Juan invited us to return to Venecia to spend some time with him personally in order to learn more about their process and the business in general. He and his father both came across as very kind people and, most certainly, quite knowledgeable on all things coffee-related.
Earlier today, we packed our bags once more and headed north for the grand city of Medellin in order to stock up on worldly goods before taking refuge in the mountain hideaway of Guatape for a week. Back in Salento, we met a great guy from Australia named David who, over coffee on the porch at the Plantation House, described the rather blissful week he spent in Guatape. There’s an old ANTM dot com adage that we use around these parts: “The best travel guide will always be your fellow traveler.” Throw in a few of David’s pictures of the resident house-cat who looks like a younger, thinner version of a certain black & white furry guy back home in New York, and we were sold.
Captivating. Can’t wait to see some of this stuff first hand! Also relieved to hear there’s quality espresso in Salento. Is it me, or is there a notable reduction in The Beard in the above photo? Did it become a tripping hazard on your hikes?
Striking how brightly painted is the external woodwork in Colombian structures: balustrades, columns, shutters, all engagingly colored. A certain joie de vivre? Look forward to NYC market map for the various coffees.