Monday, March 12, 2012

Culinary secrets of Colombian cycling. Part 4: Coffee

This is the fourth installment in an ongoing series about culinary staples in Colombian cycling. The first three parts can be found here, here, and here.

Translation: "Coffee and cycling, the great pride of Colombia. Cafe De Colombia...the drink that is enjoyed with pride and accompanies our lives now accompanies our cyclists in their great goals through European roads. Coffee and cycling, both fruits of our land, ones that show the world the great pride that exists in Colombia. Drink coffee...feel the pride of Colombia."

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a reader who, perhaps rightfully, asked why I hadn't written about coffee in my series of "culinary secrets" posts. This, he thought, was a highly unusual omission on my part. I certainly see his point. The rise of Colombian cycling on the world stage was largely defined by the Cafe De Colombia team, which was itself sponsored by the National Federation of Coffee Growers. For several years at the Tour De France, the King Of The Mountains classification was sponsored by the Federation. At the Vuelta A España, the polka dot jersey was actually redesigned to make the polka dots coffee beans after the Federation of Coffee Growers sponsored that jersey too.

Oscar de Jesus Vargas wearing the mountains classification jersey at the Vuelta

Given that American (and many European) cyclists seem to find such an obvious connection between cycling and coffee, how on earth could it be that I've ignored the beverage that gave rise to Colombians in the European peloton? How could I possibly ignore the beverage that inspired component manufacturer Chris King to make an espresso tamper, USA Cycling to come up with their own brand of coffee, and several cyclists to have their own blends (as you can see here and here). Why would I willingly ignore the fact that even fellow cycling bloggers have their own signature coffees? How could I possibly disregard the union between cycling and coffee, which obviously reached its zenith in Colombia?

The answer is easy. We Colombians don't like coffee. Some of us actually rather dislike it. This is something I've mentioned on the blog before, and it's true.

While it's always risky to make such a sweeping overgeneralization (like when I said that all Spanish cyclists have very pointy sideburns), I can honestly tell you that Colombians, by and large, simply don't care for coffee at all. I certainly don't, and I'm not alone. Here's the data to prove it.

Coffee consumption per capita, top thirty countries

So where does Colombia rank on this list you ask? 55. As you can see, we just don't consume the stuff at all, though I'm open to the fact that some regions enjoy it more than others. But those who do drink coffee, drink very little of it...much in the same way that if Spanish cyclists are going to have sideburns, they're going to have a thin sliver of them.

In Colombia, coffee is usually enjoyed while sitting down in a cafeteria, never on the move, never while driving, and seldom while working, as it's simply not a big or necessary part of our lives. For this reason, coffee is something that Colombians just don't put any thought into. As such, people who obsess over coffee, talk about blends, and own pricey machines to make the stuff are completely and absolutely beyond me. The same can be said for those who believe that there's a link of sorts between coffee and cycling (beyond the sponsorship of a team by Cafe De Colombia).

A typical serving size of black coffee in Bogota, usually about the size of an espresso, and sweetened with two cubes of white sugar. When asking for a cup of coffee, Colombians will often use the diminutive form "cafesito" or "tintico", to indicate just how little of it they actually want.

On the go
A couple of years ago, I took my wife's American family to see Bogota. As Americans, they are coffee drinkers, and were shocked by their inability to get coffee in many places. When they did get coffee, they had to ask for as many as two or three cups of it (due to the tiny servings), and were dismayed by the poor quality (more on that later). Perhaps the most shocking thing for them, was the fact that no one offered to-go cups of any kind. That's because when Colombians drink black coffee, they will often consider it a social event. It's something you sit down to do as you talk with friends, family or business associates. The thought of walking around while drinking coffee seems odd (if not crass) to most of us, and is akin to carrying a thermos of red wine while sipping from it. You can certainly do it, but it's a bit weird and could bring your sanity into question. Come to think of it, the only person I ever remember drinking coffee while walking around when I was a kid was our next door neighbor, and that's not saying much. He was a degenerate gambler who had removed the driver's seat from his Fiat, and replaced it with a wooden chair from his dinning room (after cutting down the legs, in order for it to fit inside the car). So if you want to be seen as a degenerate gambler who would use a dinning chair inside his car while in Colombia, go ahead and drink coffee on the go.

But let's get back to my wife's family visiting Colombia. Some members of her family didn't believe me when I said there was no to-go cups for coffee. They had me ask several store clerks for paper or styrofoam cups on their behalf. Each time I asked, my question was greeted with priceless faces of disbelief by servers, ones that were recognized despite the language barrier by everyone involved. Eventually, they realized I was telling them the truth. In Colombia, you sit, you drink your coffee while having a chat, and then you go.

Translation: "Colombian coffee, the wine of thinkers, the favorite beverage among civilized people." The cup in shown in this picture is a larger serving by Colombian standards.

So Colombians don't drink much coffee at all, many actively dislike it, and if they do drink it, they do so in small quantities. But is the coffee in Colombia good? Is it worth going to one of the biggest and most well-known coffee growing countries in the world for a cup of coffee? The answer is a resounding no.

Anyone who is fond of coffee and has visited Colombia will tell you that the quality of coffee you'll find there can range from poor to horrible. First of all, the beverage is of little importance to us, and the highest grade beans are usually exported anyway (you can read about this here, in a story called "Why does most coffee in Colombia taste like dishwater?"). What's more, most Colombians drink (get ready for it) instant coffee. In fact, the best selling brand of coffee in Colombia is instant, and it's called Colcafé, a blend of the words "Colombia" and "café". Even its name is wonderfully generic (you can buy Colombia's favorite coffee online here.)

If any of the people in this picture drink coffee at all, they drink instant. Believe me.

If you're a coffee aficionado, you have no doubt gasped while reading this, hearing about the tiny portions of bad (often instant) coffee that Colombians enjoy. You're probably also asking what on earth Colombians drink instead of coffee. Well, the most popular beverages are hot chocolate, aguapanela, and in some cases agua aromatica (hot water with a couple of spearmint or lemmongrass leaves and sugar). By far the most common breakfast beverages are hot chocolate, or fresh fruit juice, not coffee.

A wonderfully informative story about coffee consumption in Colombia, and how little Colombians care about coffee quality, from Public Radio International

When in Colombia...
So if you find yourself in Colombia, is there no hope for finding what you would probably consider to be a good cup of coffee in a portion that approximates what you are used to? Well, a few establishments have slowly started to cater to such needs. Chief among these is the Juan Valdez chain, which actually has several locations outside Colombia (including some in the United States). My wife, who drinks coffee, is very fond of their drinks and dessert-like blends when we are in Bogota. So are many of Colombia's younger and more cosmopolitan set, who will at times even get theirs to go (much to the horror of the older generation). Juan Valdez shop interiors are impeccably designed with a decidedly modern aesthetic. As wonderful as their stores are, they are still somewhat rare in Colombia. As such, it's safe to say that Colombians will keep drinking coffee as they always have, particularly when compared to those of other nationalities: seldom, in small portions, and fully ignoring the quality of it.

Sign in a typical cafeteria, or tienda, announcing that they sell perico coffee. See below for Colombian terminology relating to coffee.

Cafe con leche
At this point, you may be asking yourself why on earth I wrote this post. The first three parts of this series have been devoted to culinary staples of Colombian life, ones that are inextricably linked to cycling. So why write about coffee? Well, for some bizarre reason, the link between coffee and cycling is strong for many in the United States and Europe. Additionally, Colombia and coffee are sometimes synonymous, particularly in the world of cycling, where many will always remember the Cafe De Colombia team fondly. Regardless of what I may think, Colombia, coffee and cycling seem to go hand in hand. Lastly, I thought it was worth this writing to dispel certain myths about Colombia, and also to teach the world how to drink coffee like a Colombian.

This, I believe, is the most important part of this post. Colombia does consume some coffee after all, so if you're going to drink it, you should at least try to do so in the typically Colombian manner. While black coffee is certainly consumed in Colombia, the kind of coffee you would drink before a ride is often completely different, so let me tell you about it. It's the way that I, and millions of other Colombians drink coffee. It's called cafe con leche, and while some Colombians have it on a daily basis, most will drink it once every few weeks at best. Despite what the name may lead you to believe, cafe con leche is not a café au lait, which is far too strong and too coffee-tasing for our delicate Colombian palates. A cafe con leche is made this way:

Boil one cup of whole milk (or soy milk if you are so inclined)

Add one small spoonful of instant coffee (decaf if you are so inclined). And I mean small.

Add two healthy spoonfuls of sugar. Stir, and enjoy.

Cafe con leche is made exclusively for breakfast. It's small, it's not to-go, and you drink it sitting down. You enjoy it with an arepa, or with french bread rolls with butter and jelly, which are sometimes dipped in the cafe con leche (the second option being more common in colder climates like Bogota).

There you have it. Perfectly Colombian coffee, as preferred by champions who had the Cafe de Colombia logo on their jersey back in the 80s...and Colombians who still race today.

Rigoberto Uran knows the deal. Cafe con leche and an arepa for breakfast. He seems to prefer a large portion of rather dark cafe con leche, but considering his status as a professional, he's allowed to make such choices.

Important terminology
Simple black coffee. If not made with instant coffee, it will almost always be served out of a greca, like this one. Visitors who know coffee will often point out that coffee served from grecas in Colombia is often reheated several times, and is thus bitter.

Black coffee with a healthy splash of whole milk. Be mindful of the fact that "perico" is also the word for scrambled eggs with onions and tomato, particularly outside of Bogota. Jose Beyeart (the French cyclist and first Olympic gold medalist in road cycling) found this out the hard way, when he went to the Colombian coast to greet his French wife who traveled by boat from Europe. Upon her arrival, he took her to a small café, and ordered a "perico" for her, proudly showing off how well versed in Spanish he had become during his time living in Bogota. Imagine Jose's shame when the waiter brought scrambled eggs instead of coffee with milk. So he ordered again, "perico" he said...only to get a second order of scrambled eggs.

Black coffee that is very watered down, then sweetened with aguapanela and sometimes cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks are removed before drinking.


  1. It also depends, I was born in Bogota, but my parents moved us to Barranquilla for a while and we used to live on a street where all my mom's sisters lived and I remember vividly how every morning in one of the houses they would put a large pot with boiling water with a panela, coffee with a ladle in the pot. Around breakfast everyone on the family living on that street would come to get their cup of coffee; being from Bogota that only family that did not drink coffee was my family. I also remember that the pot would get restocked with water, panela and coffee throughout the day. Up to this day I don’t drink coffee.
    Of course another thing I remember well was the "Arepas de huevo" Yummy! I think next time my mom comes to visit me I will have to ask her to make me one.

  2. Antonio,
    thank you for sharing such a wonderful memory! My mom grew up in Barranquilla as well, so I can really appreciate this. My dad always drank coffee, but oddly enough he picked it up after years of working around Americans in Bogota. Funny how it took working around americans for someone from colombia to start drinking coffee as he did for much of his life.

  3. Klaus,

    There is one item that I would like to find here in the US and that is the "Guineos Pasos" these would make a perfect bicycling food for refueling while cycling. I found a place on the web that sells them, but the shipping is higher than the price of the Sun Dried Bananas.

  4. I guess it all ultimately depends on your upbringing. At my grandmother's house, cafe con leche is served (at least) three times a day, usually after a meal and it's made on the spot. At home, it usually was 2 times a day: breakfast and, surprisingly, dinner. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that most of my relatives drink coffee on a regular basis, but as Klaus stated, it's usually of the no-frills kind, like a tinto or cafe con leche. And yes, quality does vary, but you can find good ground coffee if you're willing or, more importantly, are able, to pay more for it.

    Colombian-brewed coffee is not the best, but it is certainly much better than the black water that's brewed in my workplace here in the US every day (don't even get me started on the orange decaf pot)

  5. on a different note, it would be interesting to see if the attitude towards coffee in Colombia varies by region. I mean, is it possible that people from Bogota think about coffee in a different way than, say, paisas, vallunos, or costeños?

  6. Christian,
    I'm sure it varies by region, it must. But cafe con leche for dinner? That's just crazy! (I kid).

  7. I hate coffee. The smell alone makes me nauseous. Barf!!

  8. Great post!

    It also gave me the confirmation that the Nordics do drink huge amounts of coffee. I had noticed they always serve a lot of coffee at meetings there, but wondered whether this was limited to meetings or a more general societal thing. So thanks for the stats!

  9. Thanks for the post -- sounds like there's certainly not widespread coffee appreciation in Colombia, who knew... It seems like coffee is pretty hit or miss in other Latin American countries. In Chile the coffee was horrible and invariably instant, but in Argentina I've had excellent espresso pretty much everywhere.


  10. DMD,
    Argentina must surely have good espresso because of their insanely high level of Italian immigrants. Makes sense.

  11. I put money on western style Coffee Culture hitting Colombia sooner or later. Even my school canteen here in Australia has an espresso machine.

    On a seperate matter, I recently purchased a new, with tags Suarez Colombian national team jersey off Ebay (in small and it fits) and being a kit geek I had to then get a matching set of bibs. I ordered some from an online store with a note asking about sizes. You see, I usually wear a small, but was concerned that the sizing of these bibs might be a Colombian small (and I thought this might be much smaller than a Euro small). I was assured it wasn't any different. Wrong. They arrived today and if I wore them for more than 5 minutes I would be providing my wife with no more children.

    Who do I blame for this? You, Klaus. Your blog has rekindled my interest in Colombian cycling and my desire to be a micro-sized climber Like Lucho Herera. I might be small by western standards, but.... Maybe this is why I can't climb like Fabio Parra?

  12. Jackseph
    Crap, I'm sorry to hear about the sizing mishap, and about your possible inability to have children now. I've normally found that Colombian clothes made for export are sized like american clothes for the most part. I take full blame for this, and advice you to put said bibs right back on ebay.

  13. I had that bad experience with sizing with kits made in China. The local club that I belong to gets their kits from Pactimo which manufactures their kits in China and they run very small. Normally I wear XL American sizing and ordered my kit XL, when I got it I could not get into the jersey and since they don't take returns I had to sell my jersey to another club member.
    BTW: For those interested I was able to find sun dried bananas (guineo pasos) at the local Natural Grocers store, they are not the same as I remember the ones from Colombia, but will do for the time being.

  14. Muchas gracias for the coffee explantion! I wondered back in the days at LeTour when the Colombian coffee folks gave out samples in the athletes village "Is this really what their coffee tastes like? This is horrible!". Of course this was made worse by coming from the Giro d'Italia where the espresso, even the free stuff is pretty good. Nice explanation about the "to-go" idea too, I like the analogy of walking around with a big glass of wine. I'll use that the next time one of our client's asks why there's no giant cups of watered-down coffee to carry around.

  15. Coffee seems like their energy drink. Rigoberto Uran’s kitchen nook looks the same with our kitchen. The only difference is the color of the chair, well in my case; I prefer the color red for the stripes design of my chair.


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