Colombian coffee seems almost ubiquitous these days.  Go to any supermarket, browse among the various vacuum-packed selections, and you are sure to see the proud declaration "100% Colombian" displayed on several (often accompanied by the smiling face of Juan Valdez).  This is a wonderful thing for the peasant of the Cordilleras, who counts on coffee sales to keep his family in food and clothing.  It's rather sad, however, for the reputation of Colombian coffee, which, at its best, is one of the finest of the "milds," with a delicate, winey aroma and a perfectly balanced flavor.  If your only experience with "Cafe de Colombia" comes from Harris Teeter, you are missing something truly extraordinary.  As Kenneth Davids says in his book Coffee - A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, Colombian is "...classic coffee, for someone who wants a Rolls but can only afford a BMW."

    Colombian coffee is graded before export, and high-quality coffees will usually be marked with
the  appropriate grade.  The highest grade is Supremo.  The second best is Extra.  Sometimes exporters throw Supremo and Extra beans together and call the resulting mix ExcelsoExcelso can be excellent coffee, or it can be so-so, depending on the mix.

    Region can also be important in evaluating Colombian coffee.  Coffee from Medillin tends to be heavy-bodied, rich, and slightly acidy.  Beans imported from Armenia and Manizales produce a brew that is lighter-bodied and less acid.  The region around Bucaramanga yields a coffee that is heavy and rich, with a low acidity.  Coffee from Bogota resembles Medillin.  Most Colombian coffee comes from the cordillera central, so if your supplier doesn't know the origin of the beans he/she sells you, there's a good chance they came from Medillin, Armenia or Manizales.

    Your best bet for brewing really good Colombian is to locate a reliable supplier and buy a pound of Supremo, preferably from the region whose taste and body sound most appealing to you.  If you like a slightly acidy coffee, go for the Medillin.  If you prefer a rich, low-acid brew, try Bucaramanga.  If your supplier can't tell you the city of origin, at least hold out for Supremo. Most important...look for beans that are light to medium brown in color, with no surface oil.  Avoid dark-roasted Colombian...over roasting turns this coffee bitter, with a burnt aftertaste, and destroys its best feature, which is its mild, well-balanced flavor and aroma.

    So, is there any point in paying a little extra for Colombian coffee in the supermarket?  There is, but the reasons are socio/political rather than flavorful.  Coffee is grown in Colombia on tiny
plots high in the mountains, farmed by small holders who depend on it for their livelihood.  The
steep slopes and thin soil of the cordilleras are largely unsuited for any other form of agriculture.  Coffee allows the small farmer to live independently and provide for his family in one of the most
beautiful spots on God's green earth, away from the squalor of the city barrios.  The banana (plaintain) trees that shelter the coffee provide a staple food crop, and cafeteros are also experimenting with growing beans among the coffee trees during cut-back periods (coffee trees need to be pruned radically every few years).  Juan Valdez may be a public relations creation, but the character he portrays is very real...Colombian coffee really is hand-picked by peasant farmers just like Juan.  If you must buy supermarket coffee, choosing Colombian makes a positive social statement.

NEXT WEEK:  Colombian Coffee Part II -- Visit Colombia's Codillera Central with Erbie, Werepoodle, and the Cafeteros de Colombia.