The 400 milliliter Chemex at Azahar Cafe is worth the wait.(Steve Dolinsky / Chicago Tribune)
The group of well-dressed professionals had several options for their midafternoon coffee break: espresso, Chemex, French press or vacuum. And these only referred to the type of extraction they wanted. Additional decisions still had to be made with regard to the origin, elevation and length of roast the beans had endured.
The specificity and commitment to high-quality coffee isn’t surprising here, just a few hours from the verdant rolling hills that supply the world’s best baristas with their caffeinated ammunition. What is surprising — to locals at least — is the newfound appreciation for the indigenous crop.
“It’s not easy for us to believe in ourselves,” said Cristina Botero, executive director of Alimentarte, a 3-year-old gastronomic conference revolving around Colombian traditions and innovations. “There was very little pride. All of the coffee here used to come from Italy. It was nothing but percolated; Bogotanos were used to bad quality and bad processes.”
Over the past few years, however, the coffee culture in Bogota has exploded like artisan pickling in Brooklyn. Since I was attending the conference and had a few days in the perennially traffic-choked city, I decided to see (and taste) for myself at a handful of cafes referred to me by coffee pros in the States as well as Colombia.
Turns out Juan Valdez, like the World’s Most Interesting Man, is simply a marketing tool. The fictitious character has appeared in ads for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia since the late ‘50s. There is, however, a Starbucks-like chain here called Juan Valdez, and as I enter the three-story, sunlight-filled cafe in the Zone G area (the G stands for Gourmet), a barista is busy showing customers how to brew using the vacuum method, which looks like a chemistry experiment involving a two-chambered vessel that uses vapor pressure to produce coffee. That’s not something I’m used to seeing in my neighborhood coffee shop.
A few blocks away, millennials sit at their laptops sipping cups of black coffee, while a worker tests beans in a glass-walled lab at Amor Perfecto (www.cafeamorperfecto.com/en). Luis Fernando Velez, 59, is the founder of the coffee roaster and is considered a pioneer, having launched the brand nearly 20 years ago. He said the local coffee scene began to pick up steam after 2003. That’s when the laws changed, allowing roasters to buy high-quality green coffee and roast it themselves.
“It liberated the green coffee market,” Velez said. “Up until then, the country needed external currencies, so we had to export as much as we could. At some point, it created a lack of self-esteem because we were not allowed to taste our jewel of a product.”
Velez competed in the World Barista Championship that year (he came in 18th out of 26), but three years later, in 2006, he started a National Barista Championship in Colombia to help promote the brand and educate consumers. Amor has won six of the last 10 competitions. A simple espresso, consumed while standing at the Zone G location, reveals why: An even crema, or golden froth, stretches across the top; the shot needs little — if any — sugar, as it goes down much smoother than the Italian beans I’m used to.
Velez credits the geography, of course — elevation and microclimates produce unique beans — but also the beneficio, or everything that happens after the beans are picked: selecting for ripeness, removing the seeds, fermenting them, washing, drying (sun vs. mechanical) and then milling. The roasting adds depth and character.
Sitting along a high counter at Azahar Cafe (www.azaharcoffee.com), a converted shipping container next to a parking lot in the Chico Norte section of Bogota, I notice those well-dressed office workers on their breaks, enjoying black coffee and lattes. There is no island here full of metallic containers of cream, half and half, almond milk, sugar, simple syrup, agave nectar and stirrers. You simply order your preferred method (espresso, French press, vacuum or Chemex, a pour-over method using an hourglass-shaped glass flask) and then wait. It takes a full eight minutes for my 400 milliliter Chemex to arrive, but the payoff is remarkable. There is absolutely no bitterness; it’s completely smooth, with just the slightest hint of fruitiness, and I can see why adding cream or sugar would be akin to dumping ketchup all over a hot dog.
Back in Zone G, yet another converted shipping container with a large porthole has become a must-stop for coffee fanatics. Like Azahar, Cafe Cultor (www.cafecultor.co) sells its beans to stores around the city, but it has just two locations. The lime green store, tucked away on a brick-lined patio, has a single Simonelli espresso machine. On the front counter, glass bottles are filled with several varieties of beans, such as Minga Caucana from Cauca, picked at an elevation of nearly 5,900 feet. Again, the aromas are more reminiscent of fruit or even caramel, rather than tobacco, and the taste is smooth and slightly fruity, instead of bitter and dark.
Velez said consumers should think about coffee like they would a single malt scotch or a pinot noir. There is acidity, sweetness and aftertaste, which is why his four Amor Perfecto stores offer cuppings (tastings) and flights of three single malts with three Colombian coffees to show the similarities between the two beverages.
My final stop is in the Usaquen section on the north side of town. The up-and-coming area has cool restaurants and quaint shops with street vendors scattered throughout. Just up a steep hill from an art house theater and across the street from a tiny park is Catacion Publica (www.catacionpublica.co), a narrow space with a large roasting and testing lab in the back. Three types of beans are offered for an espresso, with two dozen more jars on the counter for a drip, French press or pour-over.
I start with an espresso made from beans originating in the Mistrato Municipio (city) in the Risaralda Departamento (state). It’s made on a shiny new Synesso machine and served in a beautiful earthenware cup; the taste is earthy, nutty and deeply satisfying.
Then I order a French press and get the full treatment: First, I select the beans; then the barista presents them freshly ground for another whiff, like a sommelier waiting for the go-ahead to pour a majestic Bordeaux; finally, into a green Bodum press where hot water is poured over the grounds, the top is placed on and a timer is set to four minutes. My job is to press down on the grounds and pour myself a cup.
By now, I know what’s coming. The coffee is completely rounded and full. There is no bitterness whatsoever — just the slightest hint of sweetness at the end of a long finish that almost tastes of ripe berries.
Cream or sugar? Are you kidding me?
Steve Dolinsky is a freelance writer.
Colombian coffee in Chicago
If a trip to Bogota isn’t in the cards, here are a few spots in Chicago to try single-origin Colombian coffee.
Bow Truss: www.bowtruss.com
Metric Coffee: www.metriccoffee.com
Bridgeport Coffee: www.bridgeportcoffee.net
Groundswell Coffee Roasters: www.groundswellcoffeeroasters.com
Gaslight Coffee Roasters: www.gaslightcoffeeroasters.com
La Colombe: www.lacolombe.com