Touring the Coffee Fields with Juan Valdez

by Olee Fowler

Touring the Coffee Fields with Juan Valdez High in the steep mountains of the Antioquia region of Colombia several petite yet deceivingly strong women glide through the trees picking red, cherry-like fruit at amazing speeds. Filling bucket after bucket up with this tart fruit, and all while keeping a composed demeanor and smile on their face.

Looks easy enough, I thought. Let me give it a try, I thought.

Oh how wrong I was.

As someone who attempted this activity for all of five minutes, I can assure you that it is no easy task. In the time they filled up half of a bucket, I managed to successfully pick around five ripe cherries — and fall on my face. Twice. Much to the amusement of those around me.

All of a sudden my appreciation for coffee and all the work that goes into this bean that I rely on heavily for my early morning pick-me-up went through the roof.

You see, the red cherries that these workers are picking are the fruit that the coffee bean is made of. The bean must be picked when it is perfectly red and ripe in order to produce the best bean for roasting coffee.

I learned all of this and more during my trip to Colombia touring the coffee fields with Juan Valdez earlier this month and I don’t think I’ll ever look at coffee the same way again.

During our visit at the farm we saw the whole planting process, explained to us by the farmers themselves. From seedling to time they are ready to be picked by one of these impressively strong and coordinated workers takes about two years, being moved several times in the process.

Once picked, it is taken back down the mountain (which, no, I didn’t even bother to attempt that) where it is weighed and the pickers are paid for the day. It then goes through a machine that takes its red skin off to reveal a seedling, and the skin is discarded to be used as fertilizer.

The seedling is then placed in the sun to dry out, much like a raisin would, for several weeks before being sent to a facility for grading, sorting, polishing, and then eventual exporting. In fact, most Colombians don’t drink much of their homegrown coffee because so much of it is exported.

The coffee that is typically exported is most of the time referred to as “green coffee” since it hasn’t undergone the roasting process yet where it gets its identifiable dark brown color and ultimately gives coffee and the flavor we associate with coffee. Usually that happens when it comes to your favorite local coffee shop or coffee creator, i.e. Folgers, Starbucks, etc.

Behind the production is the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, who represent the 560,000 coffee growers in Colombia. Most of which are small time growers who own less than five acres of land. For them, coffee is a livelihood and the federation is in place to keep it that way as they assist in helping sort, sell and market the beans to the world.

The Federation is also behind the man we quickly associate with coffee: Juan Valdez. The fictional character put Colombian coffee on the world’s radar in the 80s and 90s and now he’s back as the face of the brand and coffee shops with his namesake on it, with the two first stand alone U.S. outposts opening in Miami this Summer and plenty more on the way.

Getting a first hand look of the production of the bean (face plant and all) and how many people are involved in the process along the way was an eye-opening experience, and one that made me enjoy the coffee I drank while writing this piece that much more.

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