Coffee lesson from Cartago # 3: Drinking local coffee, from donkeys to horses

1.) Don’t be mule-headed about bad coffee, when you can drink good coffee straight from a mule’s side

At the far end of the linear park I saw a pack of people in a disorderly line, eagerly waiting their turn. Among them I managed to make out the shiny back and pointed ears of a horse, and I thought we had arrived at a children’s carousel. Strangely, the kids were sitting around bored, while the adults waited next to the attraction, jingling their coins. I took out a $500 coin, engraved with the same samán tree that shade the park, and upon paying just $300 more I was able to enjoy the attraction.

The show is roasting, grinding, and dispensing coffee, all in one spot. The work is done by the same beasts of burden that carry bags of coffee up and down the mountainsides where Colombian coffee is grown. This mule, made of fiberglass and steel base, bears a coffee roasting machine on its back. The coffee grinder and machine for preparing the drink is mounted on one of its sides. The coffee is not only good and cheap, but it comes with a nifty package.

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Francisco and Marta with their mule. Photo by Carrie Cifuentes.

Francisco, the creative mind behind the design, and Marta Cecilia Ortega Pérez, pour some 3,000 cups out of their mule every night. The beans come from El Cairo, a nearby area known for producing high quality coffee. When they started 15 years ago, the locals weren’t accustomed to drinking black coffee (or at least, not the quality stuff), but by offering fresh coffee with an innovative presentation the couple has managed to change the city’s habits, little by little, cup by cup, with their Café a Lomo de Mula.

2.) Locally bought vs. Locally grown

During breakfast at my hotel I asked the waiter where the coffee was from, if it was local coffee. With all of the cordiality and impeccable service that characterize Colombian wait staff, he smiled and answered, “The coffee is Sello Rojo, ma’am.” My expression must have revealed my disappointment, because he quickly added, “But it is purchased locally, from right here in town.” Oh, okay, so is that what makes it local?

Sello Rojo is the leading brand of poor-quality coffee in a country known for the best mild coffee in the world. It was transported to the town from a far-off factory, already roasted and ground, ready to be scooped by the spoonful, only roughly measured, without any appreciation, without any enjoyment. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a young barista was savoring the results of an experiment preparing coffee harvested only a few months ago and just minutes away.

3.) The craft of good taste

The rear of the store still functions as a leather workshop, following the family tradition, but at night the aroma of coffee seeps into the streets, seeking to create new habits. “The older folks are used to second-grade coffee,” reflects Cesar Ramiréz, owner of the café/saddlery Nebraska. “They drink coffee, but of poor quality.”

As at Café a Lomo de Mula, in Nebraska they use the local and good coffee from El Cairo. Cartago is a distribution center for coffee from El Cairo, along with the entire coffee-growing region of Norte del Valle, Risaralda, and Caldas, so there are many coffee threshers and warehouses in the town. Yet, the tightwads and diehards continue to sip black coffee by Sello Rojo, left over from the previous day and sold from a thermos.

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Tintos in thermoses in Parque Bolívar. Photo by Carrie Cifuentes.

Among the town’s youth, however, the specialty coffee movement has gained ground. Only four months after opening, there is so much demand that Nebraska is already planning to expand to the second floor of the equestrian store. The owner is young himself, and in tune with the hipster trends. He is expecting a child, and our hope is that the next generation will grow up with a well-cultivated taste for high-quality coffee: locally grown coffee.

*Translation by Carrie Cifuentes of “Lección de Cartago #3- Tomar café local, desde burros a caballos“.

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