After having seen both some of Colombia’s brighter and darker sides in Bogota, I was quite happy to move on and had pretty high expectations when I touched down in Medellin, the City of Eternal Spring. I had heard plenty of rumours about Medellin, it’s tumultuous past, it’s beautiful women and the hospitality of it’s people, the Paisa. My earliest memories of anything I can recall and link to Colombia, would be either football related, Carlos Valderrama’s hair and Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick, or of course associated with coffee and “Cafe de Colombia”. I decided to focus on the latter, and try to deepen my knowledge about Colombian coffee. After having already been in Bogota, it would have been difficult to have not acknowledged the presence of Juan Valdez Cafe, a Colombian multinational coffeehouse chain, which I guess could be seen as a Colombian Starbucks. On my travels I got to see plenty more of these outlets, also on my next stop in Panama.
Similar to me rigorously avoiding Starbucks, the big American baddy, I also chose to avoid Juan Valdez as much as possible. Lucky for me, I was staying near the Toucan Cafe, which secured the quality of my daily caffeine intake whilst in Medellin. However the Toucan Cafe is more than just a coffee shop. They also offer coffee tasting, barista courses and tours in and around Medellin, including a coffee farm tour. I can highly recommend the coffee farm tour as well as the coffee tasting experience, where I got to meet Juan (Cano, not Valdez) who taught us about the meaning of coffee for Colombia, the effort, passion and time involved in the bean to cup journey, the flavours & aromas that exist in different coffees and how to differentiate between the good, the bad and the ugly coffee.
Juan was certainly one of the most inspiring and passionate “coffee people” I met whilst traveling around parts of South and Central America, and lucky for me, and maybe also for you, he took some time to talk to me. With Juan being involved in the coffee industry as a coffee hunter at Mercanta – The Coffee Hunters, teaching people like me about coffee at the Toucan Cafe and also having his own coffee blog, Coffee IQ, there are plenty of ways you can find out more about what he does. To give you a visual impression of Juan in his work setting, I would like to thank photographer Joel Duncan.
Juan, first of all, how did you end up working in the coffee business? What’s your actual background if you haven’t always worked in the coffee industry?
I have a long history with coffee, however I never really had an interest in it up until 3 years ago. My dad is a coffee producer and my mom has worked in the commercial side of coffee for 40+ years, but I was never curious about it.
Through a good friend of mine, I had the opportunity to taste a very fine coffee from Guatemala and this spurred my interest in the subject. From there I started learning and it became my passion. After a while, busines opportunities started appearing and I just went with them.
Before this, I was managing a real estate agency. I did this for 5 years and my background is sales and customer service for the most part.
How did you learn about coffee, and what made you want to work in the coffee industry?
Initially, I started researching and buying equipment and learning from other people. I also took a couple of courses (one of them at the London School of Coffee) to hone some skills. Through my current job with Mercanta, I continue to learn a lot every single day.
Working with coffee is not your normal 9-5 job, locked in an office seeing the same people every day.
Coffee is fun, far from monotonous and there is a great deal of passion involved in it. These are some of the things that made me want to work in this industry.
You teach people about coffee at Toucan Cafe, you have your own blog with Coffee IQ, you are involved with Mercanta coffee hunters. Can you tell us a bit about your different projects and what you like most about them?
They are all very different from one another and all equally enjoyable. With Toucan, the goal is to teach people where coffee comes from and beyond that, to show them what has to happen so coffee (and good coffee) can be produced and enjoyed by people around the world every day. They learn to look at it in a different way and appreciate it much more.
With Mercanta I do the sourcing of coffee in Colombia, among other different managerial activities. This is the project I like the most: I get to visit farms, meet new people everyday, and obviously I get to cup and drink LOTs of coffee! It doesn’t get any better! lol
The blog is just an extension of what I do. It forces me to learn more about what I do and become more professional, while I share information and contribute with the culture and education about coffee.
How familar are you with the global coffee scene? What are your impressions of Colombia’s coffee scene, both from the perspective of growing coffee as well as from how it’s consumed, especially compared to the U.S. or Europe?
Because of what I do, I have to be aware of the local and global coffee scene. There is a lot to be said about what’s currently happening in Colombia. For one, Colombia is finally updating it’s coffee comercializing policies. Since Colombia started exporting coffee and the brand “Cafe de Colombia” was created, the country has only been exporting washed arabicas, and only top quality. Now, finally, the door is open for us to start exporting second grade coffee (pasilla) and natural and honey coffees alike.
We actually do export these types of coffees, only that they don’t go out with the brand “Cafe de Colombia” and soon enough we will see Colombian Robustas in the market.
On the other hand, Colombia, like many other countries, produces a great deal of undifferenciated coffee which ultimately depends on the market price, and for which no premium is paid. With high production costs and the current climatic conditions, the coffee growers, especifically the small producers which are the bulk in the country, are barely making ends meet. Some argue that for this situation to change we should produce less, better quality coffee as this will improve the economy of the coffee growers. But at the same time, the FNC is aiming to produce 14.1 million sacks this year, up from 13.3 that were produced in the 2014/2015 period. Nowadays more and more producers are turning to specialty coffee, but it is a small percentage of the 600.000+ coffee growers we have in the country.
As for consumption, it is notoriously increasing. Naturally it is not at the same level as consumption in developed economies but Colombia, along with other developing economies, is drinking more and better quality coffee. It is easier to find good coffee than it was 2 years ago and coffee brands and coffee shops are popping up left, right and centre. It’s definitely a good moment for local consumption and projects alongs those lines.
A lot of Colombians seem to be proud of their coffee and “Cafe de Colombia”. Can you tell us anything about “Cafe de Colombia” and what makes Colombian cofffee so special?
There are many things that make Colombian coffee good and diverse. The type of soil, different micro climates, our location with respect to the equator, temperature, sun radiation and rainfall all contribute to the coffee being superior. We have, what we could call, a priviledged location for coffee cultivation.
Colombian coffee is also reliable and is available year round. These are the main things but there are plenty more.
How do you brew your coffee at home? Why?
Well, for me making coffee is a rigorous process. I first decide on the strength of the coffee (or water to coffee ratio) depending on the coffee I have or how I am feeling that particular day. Then I weigh out the coffee and grind it according to the method I will be using. Aeropress and V60 are the ones I normally use. Next I boil water up to 94 celcius degrees (I have a thermometer at home), and then I pour an exact amount of water in an exact time period.
If I have time to spare, I weigh out the brewed liquid and measure the TDS (total dissolved solids) to check on my extraction and be sure I am extracting 19% to 22% of the coffee.
Geeky stuff… I know, but I truly believe that a GREAT cup of coffee is a MUST every single day.
Do you have any exciting plans for the future to do with coffee?
Well, yes. Revamping my blog, I want to radically change the way I blog to make it more appealing for my audience and bring more value, to not continue to blog about what every other coffee blogger is talking about: 10 things you didnt know about coffee, here is how you can use spent coffee grounds, 10 health benefits of coffee, etc, etc, etc. lol
Plus this year I will be attending the WBC (World Barista Championship) in Dublin, so I’m quite excited about that!
What about coffee inspires you? Where does your passion come from and what keeps it going?
It is hard to mention only one thing. Visiting farms and hearing the stories of the producers, seeing how they work and live and what they go through to produce what we drink every day inspires me a lot. These people really struggle sometimes, but still do their Jobs with a lot of passion and dedication.
So finding those great coffees and paying premium for them, thus contributing a little, so that they can have a better quality of life is really satisfying.
And cupping. I love cupping. I could do this all day, every day. Discovering all those different nuances and flavours in coffee is something I really enjoy!
For anyone reading this, it will be hard to not see your passion and dedication to Colombian coffee! Good luck with your projects and thanks Juan, for educating me about coffee and your insight into the Colombian coffee industry.
For anyone visiting Medellin, in need of a good coffee, wanting to learn the ABC of coffee or expand their already existing coffee knowledge, a visit to the Toucan Cafe, and a chat with Juan is well worth your time.
Toucan Cafe – www.toucancafe.co
Coffee IQ blog (in Spanish) – www.coffeeiq.co
MERCANTA – The Coffee Hunters – www.coffeehunter.com
Joel Duncan, photographer – www.joelduncanphotography.com