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Colombia’s Coffee Paradox


Colombia is the third largest coffee-producing country and the largest producer of mild coffee in the world. Credit: ColombiaOne

Colombia, a nation synonymous with coffee, boasts a significant presence in the global coffee market. Annually, it produces approximately 14 million 60 kg bags of coffee, of which a staggering 93% is destined for export. This export-centric approach has led to a surprising scenario domestically: the majority of coffee consumed within Colombia, particularly popular brands like “Sello Rojo” and “Colcafé”, is of lower quality. Intriguingly, much of this coffee is not even sourced from within the country, raising questions about the domestic coffee culture in a nation famed for its beans.

Historical roots and modern realities

The journey of coffee in Colombia is deeply intertwined with the nation’s economic history. Coffee emerged as a transformative crop, surpassing older staples like quina and tobacco, and became a cornerstone of the Colombian economy. This success in production did not translate into a culture of high-quality coffee consumption domestically. The reasons for this are deeply rooted in historical decisions and market dynamics that prioritized export over local quality.

The geopolitical influence on coffee quality

The quality of coffee available to Colombian consumers has been significantly shaped by international market forces and geopolitical decisions. During the mid-20th century, global agreements aimed at stabilizing coffee prices led Colombia to make a strategic decision: export the finest beans and leave lower-quality, often imported, beans for domestic consumption. This decision, while stabilizing the industry and ensuring economic viability, inadvertently cultivated a domestic taste for lower-quality coffee, a trend that persists to this day.

Recognizing the gap between the quality of coffee produced and that consumed domestically, recent years have seen concerted efforts to enhance the quality of coffee available to Colombian consumers. Initiatives like the Juan Valdez stores, modeled after international coffeehouse chains, and the “Toma Café Program” (Drink Coffee Program), aimed at promoting higher-quality coffee consumption, have started to make an impact. These efforts have led to a gradual improvement in the quality of coffee available to Colombian consumers. The market still predominantly features lower-quality options, a legacy of past economic strategies and consumer habits formed over decades.

Debunking the myth of the Colombian coffee drinker

The widespread belief that Colombians are innate connoisseurs of their own coffee is a myth that overlooks the complex history and economic factors at play. While Colombia has indeed made a name for itself as a top coffee producer, this status has not been mirrored in the coffee consumption habits of its people. The reality is that for many Colombians, their daily coffee is far from the gourmet beans that the nation exports. This disconnect highlights the nuanced relationship between production and consumption in global commodity markets.

While Colombia maintains a significant position in the global coffee market, its domestic coffee culture presents a contrasting narrative. Historical decisions have influenced modern tastes and preferences in coffee consumption. The journey of Colombian coffee, from cultivation to consumption, both domestically and internationally, continues to reflect the intricate interplay of history, economics and culture.

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