Medellín’s Cafes and Farms Are Taking Back Colombian Coffee

In Medellín, Colombia’s capital, coffee growers and cafe owners have been neglecting their neighbors, despite the country’s reputation for smooth coffee. For generations, locals have remained loyal to basic filter coffee, often called tinto (red), which is the reddish color of brewed Colombian coffee. However, in less than a decade, a few entrepreneurs have given the city a cafe culture that matches its famed farming practices, pushing the city into the world of third-wave cafes and contemporary brewing methods.

These businesses distinguish Medellín as one of the few cities where high-quality coffee is grown, harvested, roasted, and consumed. They have also helped reshape dynamics around the supply chain and the economic significance of Colombian coffee. Coffee literally fills the slopes of Medellín’s hills, and after the Jesuits brought the plant to Colombia in the 18th century, the industry became fundamental to the economic development of the Antioquia department, especially in the 20th century. Today, 114,000 hectares of Antioquia are planted with coffee, spread across more than 95,000 farms and tended to by over 76,000 coffee growers.

For much of Medellín’s coffee-growing history, plantation workers would typically roast beans in a pan, grind them, boil the coffee in an olleta (traditional metal pot), sweeten it with panela, and strain it through a mesh cloth. At home, most people just use a filter machine out of convenience. The Echavarría family runs several coffee farms outside the city and works with farmers across Colombia. Their primary business was exporting beans, but in 2012 they turned their attention to the local market with a cafe on Medellín’s Primavera Street. The family eventually expanded to eight locations across the city, training locals to become baristas. About 60 percent of their business still comes from exports, but they are hoping to get to a 50-50 split with domestic sales.

The Echavarrías are especially focused on paying their producers well, partnering with groups like the Women’s Agricultural Association of the Cauca Department to offer fair rates and training and knowledge about organic farming. Higher pay could guarantee supply for the brand and its cafes, especially specialty beans from high-altitude areas.

Global coffee brands like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts promote ethical sourcing programs and social and ecological responsibility to coffee-growing communities, but local operations have a greater impact. In Medellín, the coffee industry plays a significant role in social and economic change, particularly in areas like La Sierra, where residents were directly affected by cocaine drug cartels, deep economic inequality, and paramilitary violence.

Rituales, a coffee roastery founded by Cristian Raigosa and Joan Molina, works with 35 families from La Sierra, focusing on the quality of coffee and the social conditions of the coffee farmers. The company has a shop in the Laureles neighborhood, which is becoming more gentrified and known for tree-lined streets, fruit carts, cultural venues, and restaurants. Rituales ties the neighborhoods together and contributes to the peacebuilding mechanism of the country.

Urbania, another coffee shop founded in 2016, links business to social and environmental causes and works directly with producers, victims of conflict, and ex-combatants in Antioquia. The cafe’s Paz (Peace) line of coffees is a best seller, and the model can be replicated for environmental impact projects. Urbania started working with conservation NGOs that had contact with coffee growers and is part of several efforts to help preserve forests, jaguars, and bears.

A change in attitude among Medellin’s customers is necessary for the growth of the coffee industry, as people are willing to pay more for better quality and create a new consumption culture. The industry’s growth is exciting, with dozens of cafes sprouting up around Medellín and some shops even considering expanding to Bogotá. While V60 and Chemex pour overs are popular at the city’s newest establishments, there’s still room for a classic tinto, possibly made with the best of Medellín’s coffee beans.

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