A few weeks ago, I received an email from a reader who, perhaps rightfully, asked why I hadn't written about coffee in my series of "culinary secrets" posts. This, he thought, was a highly unusual omission on my part. I certainly see his point. The rise of Colombian cycling on the world stage was largely defined by the Cafe De Colombia team, which was itself sponsored by the National Federation of Coffee Growers. For several years at the Tour De France, the King Of The Mountains classification was sponsored by the Federation. At the Vuelta A España, the polka dot jersey was actually redesigned to make the polka dots coffee beans after the Federation of Coffee Growers sponsored that jersey too.
Given that American (and many European) cyclists seem to find such an obvious connection between cycling and coffee, how on earth could it be that I've ignored the beverage that gave rise to Colombians in the European peloton? How could I possibly ignore the beverage that inspired component manufacturer Chris King to make an espresso tamper, USA Cycling to come up with their own brand of coffee, and several cyclists to have their own blends (as you can see here and here). Why would I willingly ignore the fact that even fellow cycling bloggers have their own signature coffees? How could I possibly disregard the union between cycling and coffee, which obviously reached its zenith in Colombia?
The answer is easy. We Colombians don't like coffee. Some of us actually rather dislike it. This is something I've mentioned on the blog before, and it's true.
While it's always risky to make such a sweeping overgeneralization (like when I said that all Spanish cyclists have very pointy sideburns), I can honestly tell you that Colombians, by and large, simply don't care for coffee at all. I certainly don't, and I'm not alone. Here's the data to prove it.
Coffee consumption per capita, top thirty countries
So where does Colombia rank on this list you ask? 55. As you can see, we just don't consume the stuff at all, though I'm open to the fact that some regions enjoy it more than others. But those who do drink coffee, drink very little of it...much in the same way that if Spanish cyclists are going to have sideburns, they're going to have a thin sliver of them.
In Colombia, coffee is usually enjoyed while sitting down in a cafeteria, never on the move, never while driving, and seldom while working, as it's simply not a big or necessary part of our lives. For this reason, coffee is something that Colombians just don't put any thought into. As such, people who obsess over coffee, talk about blends, and own pricey machines to make the stuff are completely and absolutely beyond me. The same can be said for those who believe that there's a link of sorts between coffee and cycling (beyond the sponsorship of a team by Cafe De Colombia).
On the go
A couple of years ago, I took my wife's American family to see Bogota. As Americans, they are coffee drinkers, and were shocked by their inability to get coffee in many places. When they did get coffee, they had to ask for as many as two or three cups of it (due to the tiny servings), and were dismayed by the poor quality (more on that later). Perhaps the most shocking thing for them, was the fact that no one offered to-go cups of any kind. That's because when Colombians drink black coffee, they will often consider it a social event. It's something you sit down to do as you talk with friends, family or business associates. The thought of walking around while drinking coffee seems odd (if not crass) to most of us, and is akin to carrying a thermos of red wine while sipping from it. You can certainly do it, but it's a bit weird and could bring your sanity into question. Come to think of it, the only person I ever remember drinking coffee while walking around when I was a kid was our next door neighbor, and that's not saying much. He was a degenerate gambler who had removed the driver's seat from his Fiat, and replaced it with a wooden chair from his dinning room (after cutting down the legs, in order for it to fit inside the car). So if you want to be seen as a degenerate gambler who would use a dinning chair inside his car while in Colombia, go ahead and drink coffee on the go.
But let's get back to my wife's family visiting Colombia. Some members of her family didn't believe me when I said there was no to-go cups for coffee. They had me ask several store clerks for paper or styrofoam cups on their behalf. Each time I asked, my question was greeted with priceless faces of disbelief by servers, ones that were recognized despite the language barrier by everyone involved. Eventually, they realized I was telling them the truth. In Colombia, you sit, you drink your coffee while having a chat, and then you go.
So Colombians don't drink much coffee at all, many actively dislike it, and if they do drink it, they do so in small quantities. But is the coffee in Colombia good? Is it worth going to one of the biggest and most well-known coffee growing countries in the world for a cup of coffee? The answer is a resounding no.
Anyone who is fond of coffee and has visited Colombia will tell you that the quality of coffee you'll find there can range from poor to horrible. First of all, the beverage is of little importance to us, and the highest grade beans are usually exported anyway (you can read about this here, in a story called "Why does most coffee in Colombia taste like dishwater?"). What's more, most Colombians drink (get ready for it) instant coffee. In fact, the best selling brand of coffee in Colombia is instant, and it's called Colcafé, a blend of the words "Colombia" and "café". Even its name is wonderfully generic (you can buy Colombia's favorite coffee online here.)
If you're a coffee aficionado, you have no doubt gasped while reading this, hearing about the tiny portions of bad (often instant) coffee that Colombians enjoy. You're probably also asking what on earth Colombians drink instead of coffee. Well, the most popular beverages are hot chocolate, aguapanela, and in some cases agua aromatica (hot water with a couple of spearmint or lemmongrass leaves and sugar). By far the most common breakfast beverages are hot chocolate, or fresh fruit juice, not coffee.
A wonderfully informative story about coffee consumption in Colombia, and how little Colombians care about coffee quality, from Public Radio International
When in Colombia...
So if you find yourself in Colombia, is there no hope for finding what you would probably consider to be a good cup of coffee in a portion that approximates what you are used to? Well, a few establishments have slowly started to cater to such needs. Chief among these is the Juan Valdez chain, which actually has several locations outside Colombia (including some in the United States). My wife, who drinks coffee, is very fond of their drinks and dessert-like blends when we are in Bogota. So are many of Colombia's younger and more cosmopolitan set, who will at times even get theirs to go (much to the horror of the older generation). Juan Valdez shop interiors are impeccably designed with a decidedly modern aesthetic.
As wonderful as their stores are, they are still somewhat rare in Colombia. As such, it's safe to say that Colombians will keep drinking coffee as they always have, particularly when compared to those of other nationalities: seldom, in small portions, and fully ignoring the quality of it.
Sign in a typical cafeteria, or tienda, announcing that they sell perico coffee. See below for Colombian terminology relating to coffee.
Cafe con leche
At this point, you may be asking yourself why on earth I wrote this post. The first three parts of this series have been devoted to culinary staples of Colombian life, ones that are inextricably linked to cycling. So why write about coffee? Well, for some bizarre reason, the link between coffee and cycling is strong for many in the United States and Europe. Additionally, Colombia and coffee are sometimes synonymous, particularly in the world of cycling, where many will always remember the Cafe De Colombia team fondly. Regardless of what I may think, Colombia, coffee and cycling seem to go hand in hand. Lastly, I thought it was worth this writing to dispel certain myths about Colombia, and also to teach the world how to drink coffee like a Colombian.
This, I believe, is the most important part of this post. Colombia does consume some coffee after all, so if you're going to drink it, you should at least try to do so in the typically Colombian manner. While black coffee is certainly consumed in Colombia, the kind of coffee you would drink before a ride is often completely different, so let me tell you about it. It's the way that I, and millions of other Colombians drink coffee. It's called cafe con leche, and while some Colombians have it on a daily basis, most will drink it once every few weeks at best. Despite what the name may lead you to believe, cafe con leche is not a café au lait, which is far too strong and too coffee-tasing for our delicate Colombian palates. A cafe con leche is made this way:
Boil one cup of whole milk (or soy milk if you are so inclined)
Add one small spoonful of instant coffee (decaf if you are so inclined). And I mean small.
Add two healthy spoonfuls of sugar. Stir, and enjoy.
Cafe con leche is made exclusively for breakfast. It's small, it's not to-go, and you drink it sitting down. You enjoy it with an arepa, or with french bread rolls with butter and jelly, which are sometimes dipped in the cafe con leche (the second option being more common in colder climates like Bogota).
There you have it. Perfectly Colombian coffee, as preferred by champions who had the Cafe de Colombia logo on their jersey back in the 80s...and Colombians who still race today.
Rigoberto Uran knows the deal. Cafe con leche and an arepa for breakfast. He seems to prefer a large portion of rather dark cafe con leche, but considering his status as a professional, he's allowed to make such choices.
Tinto: Simple black coffee. If not made with instant coffee, it will almost always be served out of a greca, like this one. Visitors who know coffee will often point out that coffee served from grecas in Colombia is often reheated several times, and is thus bitter.
Perico: Black coffee with a healthy splash of whole milk. Be mindful of the fact that "perico" is also the word for scrambled eggs with onions and tomato, particularly outside of Bogota. Jose Beyeart (the French cyclist and first Olympic gold medalist in road cycling) found this out the hard way, when he went to the Colombian coast to greet his French wife who traveled by boat from Europe. Upon her arrival, he took her to a small café, and ordered a "perico" for her, proudly showing off how well versed in Spanish he had become during his time living in Bogota. Imagine Jose's shame when the waiter brought scrambled eggs instead of coffee with milk. So he ordered again, "perico" he said...only to get a second order of scrambled eggs.
Guarulo: Black coffee that is very watered down, then sweetened with aguapanela and sometimes cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks are removed before drinking.