America's Coffee Obsession Has Nothing on Colombia's

Dan Gentile/Thrillist
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

It might seem like America couldn't get by without coffee, but in Colombia, the entire economy would collapse. The 560,000 coffee farms throughout the country make it the South American nation's biggest export and also its most popular drink. It only makes sense that it would develop a coffee-drinking culture that's a far cry from the US's grab-and-go, venti-sized obsession with whipped cream-topped mochas.

I recently joined the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation for a first-hand look at the coffee culture on Colombia. Turns out, everything's different. Even the hipsters. Yep. They're here too. And they're intense.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

People know the coffee regions

You'll only find domestically-grown beans in Colombia, so instead of choosing between a Kenyan and an Ethiopian, you're picking regional origins like Huila or Narino, each with its own unique characteristics. Your average US coffee snobs might know they like Kenyans, but most haven't leveled up to the point where they can tell you their favorite region of the country. Since Colombians know the regions of their country well, it makes it easier to add a level of sophistication that's unmatched by most American drinkers.

They drink it at night

Coffee shops in America do most of their business before 10am, but Colombian shops don't need to rely on the morning rush. At the shops we visited, 3pm and 7pm were the busiest times of day, partly because the lack of emphasis on caffeine means people are less scared to have a late afternoon or early evening cup.

Courtesy of Santiago Echavarria

Juan Valdez is like their Uncle Sam

Thanks to an ingenious marketing plan started in the '50s, most people's association with Colombian coffee is a mustache-wearing farmer alongside a donkey under a mountain backdrop. The iconography helped brand Colombian coffee to the entire world, and although it may seem a bit politically incorrect to American eyes these days, it's an image of pride and national identity on the level of Uncle Sam.

One of the things that makes Juan Valdez unique compared to American brand icons like Ronald McDonald and Betty Crocker is that he's portrayed by one specific actor. They're on their 3rd Juan in 57 years, each of which has been an actual farmer that tours internationally posing for thousands of photo opportunities a year and serving as an ambassador for Colombian coffee around the world.

In addition to the farmer, the more scientific side of the coffee industry is also presented by an actor who goes by the name of Professor Yarumo and hosts educational coffee broadcasts on TV and radio.

Juan Valdez Cafes are incredibly popular

From airports to malls to busy street corners, nearly everywhere you turn in Bogota there's a Juan Valdez-branded coffee shop. Some locations just offer the basics, while other shops have a variety of fancy preparations like pour-overs or syphons, as well as barista-guided tasting sessions. The cafe chain has also expanded to 13 countries, including shops in Miami and New York City, and isn't stopping anytime soon.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

The working-class coffee is called tinto

It's easy to imagine that Colombians drinking the best coffee the world has to offer, but the reality is more complicated. Your average Colombian makes a distinction between tinto and cafe, which is similar to the difference between canned grocery store coffee and what you'd find in a coffee shop. Tinto translates roughly to “inky water” and is a thicker, more concentrated, made with commodity-quality beans, and sold in very small cups. You can typically find people selling it out of thermoses on the street for $.10 a cup.

Tinto doesn't refer to one particular style of preparation: it could be everything from a simple drip brewer to a pour-over cloth coffee filter (looks like a sock), to just putting grounds in the bottom of a cup and splashing them with hot water. It's basically the Colombian equivalent of a “cup of Joe,” in that you probably won't hear a graphic designer ordering it over ice, and more sophisticated drinkers would shy away from the label.

Part of the explanation behind it is that Colombia has a quality standard for the type of beans they can export, and everything below that stays in the country for domestic consumption, much of it becoming tinto.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Coffee shop camping is a new thing

It's only in the last few years that coffee-shop camping has really taken off in Colombia. Many owners still have mixed feelings about this, but progressive third-wave shops like Amor Perfecto are welcoming and happy to offer free wi-fi to the new generation of remote workers.

They don't drink it for the caffeine

In the US, Dunkin' Donuts' slogan is “America Runs On Dunkin',” but the 100 DDs in Bogota operate on a different mentality. “Let's see us at Dunkin” is the (roughly translated) Colombian catch phrase, and it represents the country's mind-set toward coffee. It's primarily something to be shared, a ritual to gather around, and less of a functional shot in the arm.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Coffee is everywhere

Saying coffee beans are to Colombia what apple pie is to America is a serious understatement. It's a national symbol in the same sense, but you don't see apple-pie earrings, or apple seeds carved into furniture, or apple-pie theme parks complete with Ferris wheels and bumper boats. And the ubiquitous nature of coffee farms means that consumers are intimately familiar with not only beans, but the actual plants.

There are still hipsters, and they keep it even more local

Colombia isn't immune to the plague of coffee hipsterism: the country also has its fair share of bearded dudes in skinny jeans and gaudy eyeglasses ordering cortados and V60 pour-overs and pretending to work on their Macbook Pros. But being so close to coffee producers means that they can legitimately claim their beans are farm-to-table, and you can legitimately loathe them even more.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He'd like to thank the Colombian Coffee Growers Association for showing him around their fair country. Follow him to broken Spanish and fresh Huila beans at @Dannosphere.