Coffee has been the dominant crop in Colombia since the late 1800s, but until recently, it was nearly impossible to get a coffee-snob-approved cup in Bogotá’s cafes. Even though roughly 95 percent of Colombia’s coffee farms are small, family-owned affairs, the country’s most renowned agricultural product has long been destined for export, not local consumption. Left behind for Colombians was pasilla, the dregs of the coffee industry.
Pasilla is the basis for the traditional Colombian eye-opener, called tinto.Cheap and readily available, this simple black coffee is often heavily sweetened and sipped throughout the day and into the night. Later in the day, a morning (medias nueves) or afternoon snack (las onces) might be accompanied by a café, which comes with lots of milk — far more milk than coffee, in fact. And in some areas of the country, Colombians developed the habit of making tinto more palatable by mixing it with panela (raw cane sugar), spices, and sometimes even fruit.
But over the last 10 years, as coffee consumption in Colombia has risen dramatically, the face of the coffee scene in major cities has transformed as well, with a new generation of enthusiastic, hard-working baristas dedicated to highlighting local farms, educating customers, and meticulously preparing coffee. Light roasts, the de facto style of specialty coffee, have slowly started to take over. And in cities like Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena, specialty coffee shops that would feel familiar to anyone from Los Angeles or New York have blossomed, most selling directly from Colombian growers and roasted in-house — a feat that few other places can replicate.