In the center of tiny Pijao, Quindío in Colombia, dogs nap under park benches and the cobbled streets have no cars. The town -- which won an award for most beautiful town in the province -- is surrounded by mountains of coffee plants. But despite this, and even though coffee is everywhere in Colombia, the countryside is hardly crawling with cortado-guzzling coffee snobs. In fact, for years it didn’t have a real coffee shop.
But now, thanks to the vision of award-winning farmer, roaster, and cafe owner Victor Hugo Grisales Gutierrez, that’s all changing. You don't see many rural Colombians obsessing over the quality of beans, or the latest milky preparations, but the reserved Guetierrez isn’t like most rural Colombians.
Like his parents before him, Guetierrez operates a coffee farm near town. But unlike his parents, he channeled his growing efforts into a full-blown coffee shop. Cafe los Pinaos opened in January 2013 when there were only two small coffee counters serving the 5,000 residents living in Pijao's town center.
The town wasn't exactly demanding change
In most of Colombia, coffee -- or Tinto -- is low quality. It’s bitter, pitch black, and slightly thicker than the average American cup. Instant coffee is also more popular than you might think, as typically the best beans are sold abroad. It's the lower quality beans that don’t meet export standards that make it into the average Colombian’s cup. Locals drink coffee obsessively, but it’s more about the ritual and cultural significance than the taste.
Combine the established drinking culture with the town’s isolated geography and commitment to the Slow Cities movement, and as one might imagine, a specialty grade latte is not an easy sell to a rural Colombian grandmother who spent her whole life drinking instant coffee.
This is where forward-thinking Guetierrez comes in.
With innovation comes inflation
Guetierrez -- who has a year’s worth of college-level education in coffee tasting, brewing, and commercialization through government agency SENA -- learned about the diversities in coffee flavor profiles and the effects of different brewing methods, and then focused on separating the beans he grew based on quality. Then he entered into the Cup of Excellence (a national coffee growers competition) where he advanced to the finals, an honor that meant his beans were some of very best in the country and could command a premium price on the international market. But to roast and brew them domestically meant significantly increasing the price of a cup.
How to make friends and influence coffee drinkers
To endear the town to this new wave of coffee, Guetierrez took to the streets. He hired a band to play in the town square and gave away samples for over a year. Pijao's mayor was so impressed that he let Guetierrez set up shop in a vacant government building. Once operational, Cafe los Pinaos used the oldest trick in the book to get the town hooked: the first hit of espresso was free.
Guetierrez needed a way to make lattes and cappuccinos more accessible to fans of tinto. Milk-based drinks are becoming more popular in Colombia by the day, but they’re far from the norm and a wide strata of coffee characteristics is still a somewhat foreign idea. The way he did it was by following Starbucks' lead and personalizing each drink. However, instead of writing on cardboard sleeves, he went a step further and used food coloring to spell names in the foamy tops of cappuccinos. It’s surprising how easy people’s skepticism disappears when they feel like the experience is crafted specifically for them. The special cappuccinos quickly became the shop's best-selling item.
Community is still crucial
The outdoor space of Cafe los Pinaos is lined with live coffee plants and smells like fresh, roasted on-site beans. It serves as the type of cross-generational gathering place that fits perfectly into Colombia's communal culture. Unlike Americans, Colombians aren't afraid of caffeine upsetting their sleep schedules, so the shop is buzzing with activity until closing at 10pm. Colombians also have no qualms about children drinking coffee, so it's not unusual to see the tables full of children taking chess lessons and sipping lattes late into the evening. While their parents wait, Guetierrez offers even more free samples.
A country of coffee entrepreneurs
The countrysides are full of other farmers striving to increase the quality of their beans with each harvest, but despite innovations on the supply side, most Colombians are more than happy to keep drinking the same coffee that their parents did before them. It takes truly forward-thinking collaborations throughout the supply chain, from grower to roaster to cafe owner, to help everyday Colombians experience the best of their country’s coffee. Guetierrez and his Cafe los Pinaos has done just that for the people of Pijao.
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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He'd like to thank the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation for their hospitality and patient translations. Follow him to Spanish lessons at @Dannosphere.