One Bean, Four Flavors
Colombia's Coffee Triangle is a small stretch of mountains in the center of the country. Arabica beans originally from Ethiopia have been cultivated there to near-mythic status for their rich, sweet flavor.
Far from Colombia's biggest cities, the region is a caffeine-driven pilgrimage for devout coffee fans. It feels like the surreal landscape lost in time from 100 Years of Solitude, especially on Hacienda Venecia, a quiet six-room family-owned-and-operated coffee farm and bed-and-breakfast. It's been in Juan Pablo Echeverri's family for over a century, and he opened it to guests eight years ago. Before, this area was alternately too remote to garner much interest from tourists, as it was either crawling with guerrillas or under control of the narcos.
Riding the wave of European and American demand for Colombian arabica beans, Echeverri's great grandfather began the farm, and it has remained a family institution to this day. He keeps it decorated as it was when his great aunts and uncles used to live there—there are old photos, diplomas, books and 19th- and 20th-century Colombian ephemera. The kitchen churns out proper Colombian home cooking like ajiaco, a delicious chicken and potato soup flavored with Galinsoga parviflora herb (it's called guasca in Colombia).
It's the kind of dreamy place you go to read all day and drink great coffee, but it's also a great place to learn a little. You might expect to pick up some fun facts about the beans, but during our visit, Echeverri wanted to show us something a little more poignant to today: how different brewing methods can change the flavor of his coffee beans.
Echeverri, a colorful man in his late 40s, called us over to a handsomely appointed, open-air room with white walls and wood trim. In front of him were a Chemex, French press, Bialetti stovetop espresso maker and siphon (plus a drip coffee maker, a true espresso maker and an AeroPress, but we didn't have the time to try those).
It's easy to look at all those contraptions and roll your eyes—there are almost more ways to make coffee than there are to prepare kale—but there is a method to the mayhem. Playing with how the grains make contact with the water and the method of coffee filtration had the effect of showcasing certain characteristics of a bean you might not otherwise notice. "It's not just a trend," he said. And it's more than just the difference between a light- and full-bodied cup. The same bean became unrecognizable each time it was prepared differently, from caramel-y to fruity to honey-like.
Echeverri placed a pile of medium-roast arabica beans in front of us. "These are typically what you would think of as being on the sweeter side," he said. From there, he ground the beans according to which was the most beneficial to each process and made four cups of coffee, each highlighting a different flavor found in the bean. Here's the breakdown:
What is it? The granddaddy of pour-over coffee makers.
The grind: Medium coarse
The paper filter removes a lot of the coffee's oils that provide the drink's signature bitter taste, Echeverri said. The result was a sweet caramel-like flavor that didn't need sugar, maybe just a little cream. Chemex is known to use the thickest filters, allowing the sweetest notes to shine. You can brew fine-ground coffee for a less saccharine flavor, but it will take a long time to brew.
What is it? Also called a vac pot, it uses heat, pressure and a siphon (made from cloth) to infuse water with coffee.
The grind: Finer than drop, coarser than espresso
Coffee's most Breaking Bad-like gear is the siphon, which may be for you if you like a show and enjoy a gentle amount of full-bodied taste. The bean became a little less sweet and a lot more fruity in a mellow, light roast kind of way.
The French Press
What is it? The other plunger in your house.
The grind: Coarse
After about three or so Colombian minutes, Echeverri plunged the coffee and poured a thick, bittersweet honeyed cup that almost had the appeal of a French roast. "You're getting really close to the pure taste of the bean, but you can still get a lighter, sweeter cup if you let it brew for less time," he said.
The Stovetop Espresso
What is it? A stovetop steamer that's been the preferred household coffeemaker in Europe and South America since the 1930s. It's also in MOMA's permanent collection.
The grind: Slightly coarser than true espresso
When heat is added, the pressurized water fully intersperses with the fine-ground coffee. It's a much lower pressure than standard espresso, so it isn't quite as bitter. This method showcases the beans' most bitter notes, which came off like a slightly metallic, toasted malt.
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