Care for a Coffee?

by Raneem Taleb-Agha (United States of America)

Making a local connection Colombia


“So where in the United States are you from?” he asked me, pouring coffee into a white porcelain cup. Don Carlos was an enigma--his sombrero, mud-splattered jeans and knee-length rubber boots said campesino, or rural farmer, but the artfully placed coffee sacks around his shop, the spotless Chemex in his hand, and the single-origin coffee he was pouring said third-wave coffee barista. A town near San Francisco, I told him. “Is it called Daly City?” I was shocked--how did he know what Daly City was? After all, it wasn’t exactly on the San Francisco tourist circuit, and we were in a small town in Colombia's coffee region, far from the bustling traffic of the Bay Area. I asked him if he had ever been. “No, but my brother has lived there for the past 18 years.” Colombia wasn't as safe back then--the guerilla had an active presence in the region--and his brother, just 17 years-old at the time, decided that life there wasn’t for him and left for the US. His brother got a job working as a driver in California, and Don Carlos worked as a repairman through Colombia's various political changes. After saving enough money, he bought a small plot of land and starting planting coffee. At first he sold the dried, raw beans to a co-op that later toasted(i.e. burned) and exported the beans to the US, but he later realized he could make better-tasting coffee, and better profits, by producing the coffee himself. After a couple of years, he opened Cafe La Floresta, where he now serves coffee that is grown, picked, dried, toasted and brewed by himself and a small team of workers. He employs mostly women--widows and uneducated young mothers--and pays them better than they could get at another farm. I asked him, quite hopefully, if he would ever consider expanding his business or selling his coffee outside of Colombia. Unnervingly sweet and fruity, it was unlike any other coffee I had tried. I didn't want this to be my last taste. "I don't want to," he said with a sly smile. "I want my brother to come visit me." When I got back home to San Francisco, my backpack was a 2 pounds heavier than it had been when I left. Sergio, Don Carlos' brother, came to meet me at my house. He was younger, but had the determined eyes, the same smile. When I handed him the coffee, he pressed the bag against his nose and took a whiff. "Ah," he sighed with a smile on his face. "It smells like home."