Monday, October 25, 2010

Cafe Crawling Bogota

Danilo and his espresso from Oma.

Stepping out onto the streets of Bogota in front of the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia building where our judges certification class is being held, we feel a sense of freedom washing over us. For the past seven days we've been the guests of the coffee association, which entails being looked after by two lovely coordinators, shuttled around in private vehicles and generally taken care of.

And while this is a lovely and luxurious way to live, ensconced in high thread count bedsheets and all the bottled water you can drink, it leaves us a bit disconnected from the countries we visit. By now, I've seen quite a few places in the world and have navigated my way through some interesting cities, but since we've been judging coffee competitions, it feels as though we're truly foreigners in a foreign land.

Our selection of drinks from Oma.

Our daily routine comprises waking up and having breakfast in wonderful hotels, then being whisked to the competition venue in private vehicles, then out to eat and party at night, but nary are we set free to roam the wild tundra. Because of this, there are times when I feel disconnected and even apprehensive about venturing beyond the pale.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Our hosts are wonderful, gracious and very generous. We're well-kept when traveling. But one of the jokes passed around by the judges is that they've traveled the world and seen the best convention centers the world has to offer. Ironic, but there's a bit of truth to that. So much so, that we've started to make a point of it to tack on a day or two to our itinerary just to have the opportunity to see more than the different venues of the world.

Ian enjoying the mild Bogota weather.

So, stepping out onto the streets of Bogota by ourselves is almost exhilarating. Free from the control of schedules, we're free to engage the public, visit shops and taste coffee other than competition coffee. Our first stop: Oma Coffee, just down the street.

Bogota is a cool place. Literally and figuratively. There's an energy and a bustle to the place. Cars careen in a seemingly random and haphazard manner. To the average American, it seems like madness. Walk across the street in that entitled expectation that pedestrians have the right of way and you're gonna get flattened. By a bus.

Danilo and Mauricio from Mexico City.

Truly the biggest problem with working in coffee and working with some of the best talent and best coffees in the world is the conundrum of going out into the world to drink coffee. For the past week, we've been working with national judges who seem to have a very different preference for their coffees, based on the way they interpret the drinks we sample together. It's a bit perplexing and we've been wanting to get out there to the cafes to see exactly what the typical Colombiana is drinking.

At Oma the coffee is remarkable. It's dark. It's bitter. It's difficult to drink without sugar. My cappuccino needs a couple to three sugars. Round and round the world we go and the coffee is usually about the same: difficult. The curious thing is that coffee is usually of lower quality within producing countries because they export their best stuff for the highest prices.

Our selections at Juan Valdez Cafe.

Happily, Bogotanas like outdoor seating and we've landed ourselves at a nice table to sip coffee, munch on baked goods and generally while the afternoon away. Day One of the WBC Certification Class is over and we're reflecting on the experience. Ian is the only candidate up for re-certification, the rest of us are first-timers.

Sitting out in the cool weather as the shock of traffic flows by and the lovely Colombianas walk past, we're reminded that all is nice in the world. We're out in a different part of the world and hanging out with friends. Not a bad way to go about it.

At Juan Valdez, we find David.

After a little while, we walk across the street to the JW Marriott where a large Juan Valdez Cafe is situated. It's busy and throughout this trip it's been clear that Juan Valdez is a focal point of national pride here in Colombia. During the competition, Mauricio Romero, the 2009 champion, was surrounded by people who looked as though the entire hope of the nation rested on his shoulders. That look of pride and expectation, seems like a lot to carry and is something you don't see in the USBC.

The Juan Valdez Cafes are similar in nature to those of Starbucks. They do very similar executions of coffee and do so in a very modern and efficient environment. So efficient in fact that the Juan Valdez at Andino center in Zona Rosa does US$150,000 per month in revenue. At two dollars average for a cup of coffee, that's upwards of 30,000 cups per month. Insane.

The staff is unhappy with my picture taking and I don't understand why. In fact, I never really understand why operations gets upset with photo taking. It's not like they've got anything to hide. I think for a moment of pushing our connection as guests of the Federacion but that would only make me look like a jerk. Instead, we take our coffees and bump into David.

The instructional bar at Juan Valdez Cafe.

David is there holding a meeting with some colleague when we run into him. David has been one of our hosts during the competition and with his business completed, we sit down with him for a bit of coffee. Here I'm having a simple brewed coffee that's pretty decent - if you add a little sugar and cream.

We sit for awhile and chat while awaiting our 4:30pm appointment to tour the laboratories of the Federacion.

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