It’s one of the world’s most consumed drugs. It has a lethal dosage intake of 50 percent and withdrawal symptoms can include schizophrenia, anxiety attacks and depression.
Not surprisingly, Colombia is one of the top producers.
The name of the drug?
Caffeine. As found in coffee.
“Cafecito?” asked Ernesto as he hurried towards the cafetière bubbling on the stove. I nodded vigorously, it was 8am and I needed a caffeine hit.
It was why I was in Salento, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee zone, to sample as many copious mugfuls of the caffeine-fuelled drink as my body could take. With a plantation tour planned for the afternoon I was banking on being wired for most of the day.
Salento sits tranquilly in the district of Quindío in central Colombia, one of the four major coffee growing regions. The plant was first cultivated in the country about 150 years ago, the high altitude and climate proving favourable for the arabica variety of beans grown across South and Central America.
Finca Don Eduardo’s coffee plantation is one such farm in Salento. It sits just on the outskirts of the brilliantly coloured village. In the cobbled streets, the aroma of roasted beans drifts through the painted wooden doors. Beyond the plaza’s kaleidoscope facades lie sighing hills, the plantations on their sides breathing life and work into the area.
There are approximately 570,000 coffee producers in Colombia who are responsible for providing more than a quarter of the coffee drinking population with sleepless nights. Currently Colombia ranks as the world’s second largest producer behind Brazil.
According to the International Coffee Organisation the demand for the beverage will continue to grow on the back of last year’s figures. They showed global coffee consumption rose by 2.4 percent to its highest figure of 134 million 60-kilo bags.
At the plantation in Salento, Finca Don Eduardo, I met up with the proprietor. Tim Edwards isn’t your typical Colombian coffee farmer. In fact he isn’t even Colombian. Over a decade ago he emigrated from England and is now the owner of a seven-hectare plantation in Salento.
Shadowed by his main business, a popular backpacker hostel in the town (Plantation House), Tim’s farm has been struggling to make a profit.
“When we bought it several years ago the farm was in dire straits. It took us two years before we could even start producing coffee. We were operating at a loss for a while,” he says.
Now with his staff of five (“a high employee rate in the coffee farm business”) Tim has started to increase revenues to US$22,000 per year.
His crop of bourbon coffee is grown without genetically modified plants and Tim refuses to bow down to ‘modern’ methods.
“I’m a coffee snob. I’m interested in quality not quantity,” he admits, despite owning a farm five hectares larger than the average Colombian plantation. A producer of coffee grown in the orthodox way with natural fertilizer and “a lot of elbow grease”, he’s a self-claimed coffee stickler.
“The ‘purists’ claim that the best coffee comes from traditional techniques. And I’m one of them. Why adapt to new hybrid plants when the richest taste comes from traditional beans? Sure, it’s much easier to grow the modern plants but as I said, I’m a coffee snob!”
However, when the two varieties of arabica beans are harvested and shelled there’s no visible difference between them which forces prices on the coffee market to be equal for both.
Tim pauses so we can sample his work and large cups of café tinto (black coffee) are brought over. “Not too fast! How many of those have you had?” he chuckles, “Coffee
has a lethal dosage intake of 50 percent, which mean if people were to drink over 50 cups a day, 50 percent of the drinkers would die!”
Colombia’s most distinguished brand is Juan Valdez but according to Tim the beans come from the genetically modified crops.
“Juan Valdez is the marketing arm of a consortium of coffee growers from all over Colombia known as the Colombian Coffee Federation (FNC). Membership guarantees you 2,000 free plants. The problem is they’re all the hybrid varieties and unsurprisingly the FNC is the only company where you can buy the specially-made fertilizer for them.
“They weren’t interested when I asked for 2,000 bourbon plants. I can’t use their fertilizer!” he quips.
Not interested in going down the well-marked path of his competitors, he is launching a new online branch in his coffee business, one that he says is unique in the Colombian market.
Coffee connoisseurs will be able to lease a row of plants for a yearly fee and on average each bush yields one pound in weight of roasted beans. Finca Don Eduardo will grow, pick, wash and roast the beans before packaging them and sending the finished product to customers overseas.
“The same idea exists in the wine, whiskey and olive industries, so why not with coffee?
“Prices are still undecided but we’re looking in the region of $700 per 50 plants,” he adds. “The internet is the way forward for niche markets.”
It seems that the Colombian market is about to wake up and smell the coffee.
Fast Coffee Facts – Did You Know?
- The 2010 Coffee Statistics Report claims that more than 400 billion cups are consumed worldwide every year.
- The World Health Organisation says caffeinism is caused by chronic overuse of caffeine (eg. a daily intake of 500 mg or more).
- Symptoms of caffeinism include insomnia, abdominal pain and sometimes exacerbation of pre-existing anxiety attacks, depression, or schizophrenia.
- Over 53 countries grow coffee worldwide, but all of them lie along the equator between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn.
- The world’s largest coffee producer is Brazil with over 3,970 million coffee trees. Colombia comes in second with around two-thirds of Brazil’s production.
- Caffeine only takes 15 to 20 minutes to get into the bloodstream and the caffeine effect lasts for 3.5 hours.
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