“Coffee was considered a medicine. It was prescribed for tuberculosis, smallpox, scurvy, dropsy, and eye inflammation. But doctors warned their patients never to drink their coffee with milk because the mixture was believed to cause leprosy.”
-translated from a blog entry from El Laboratorio de Café, which was translated from Heinrich Eduard Jacob’s Coffee: The Epic of a Commodity, 1935
This Christmas, I am visiting familia in the land of coffee, the Antioquia region of Colombia. They don’t mess around with local food around here, and coffee is taken seriously around these parts. Coffee thrives here in this mountainous climate so close the equator. The weather fluctuates between 60 and 80 degrees all year long. El Laboratorio de Café is one of the most serious local coffee peddlers.
I drink a lot of coffee these days. At home, I have a stovetop Italian-style espresso maker that makes six cups of espresso at one go. And these days, I drink it with milk. Milk and coffee is a new thing for me, mostly because of the Southern-style, Mississippi girl machismo that I’ve been carrying around most of my life. When I compromised by inner coffee toughness, I wasn’t aiming to usher leprosy into my life and body. My Italian teacher mentioned that milk helps the stomach handle the acidity of coffee. Also, milk tastes good in coffee.
Even with milk, six shots of espresso in a morning is pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. I go through coffee-drinking ritual phases that fluctuate in response the the seasons of the year. In the summers, I taper off my coffee drinking. The sun is a good substitute for caffeine, and I don’t have any students to unjustly bear the effects of caffeine withdrawal headaches. But, come winter time, when the sun seems gone forever, and the wooden floors are so cold in the dark, dark morning, and all I want out of life is to sleep the days away until the sun comes back, then I switch back to six shot Italian espresso maker from the relatively benign summertime French press.
I prefer my espresso maker and my French press. My methods of coffee brewing are the methods that give me oily, thick coffee.
I bought two pounds of Antioquia coffee from El Laboratorio: Finca los Naranjos and Variedad Blue Mountain Special Reserve. On the back of each type of coffee is lots and lots of information about the types of coffee.
Let’s start with the Finca los Naranjas. This coffee comes from the Caicedo area within the Antioquia region. It won 1st place in the Best Cup of Coffee Competition of 2014. The trillado date for my coffee was December 9, 2016. My brother explained trillado- it’s the process of separating the dried green coffee beans from their papery sheath. We call this the hulling process. Medium acid, intense body, and an aroma of sugar cane and intense chocolate. The flavor is honey, fruit, and brown sugar. It’s a mix of 80% Caturra coffee and 20% Bourbon. The coffee process was fermentation, plus water, plus sun. We call this “wet process.” The beans were grown at an altitude of 1830 meters above sea level, or 6000 feet. My coffee is the November 2016 harvest, and it was roasted on December 15, 2016. I bought it on December 24, 2016. I should drink it before June 15, 2017, which I don’t anticipate being a problem. When you drink six cups of espresso every morning for breakfast, you go through some coffee.
The Variedad Blue Mountain Reserva Especial comes from Valparaíso, Antioquia. It was honey processed instead of wet processed, which has an impact on the amount of acidity. The honey process results in less acid than the wet process, and El Laboratorio de Café describes the acidity level as “milky.” Medium bodied, with an aroma of fruit, honey, and brown sugar, and a flavor of red fruit. It was grown at 1800 meters above sea level, or 5905 feet on the Jardin Real Finca, which is an experimental farm that partners with El Laboratorio. Blue Mountain coffee, usually the expensive darling of Jamaican tourists, isn’t typically grown in Colombia. My coffee is the May 2016 harvest, hulled on December 2nd and roasted on December 13th.
I remember a snippet from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis from my childhood. The Prince is underneath the earth and the dwarfs who live underground and harvest jewels stop him as he is escaping back onto the right side of the dirt. The tell him to wait, that they can show him what real living diamonds and rubies taste like. The things that we know to be diamonds and rubies are only the cast-off shells of the living fruits of the earth. And the Prince is tempted by the prospect of tasting and drinking living rubies and diamonds.
I keep a mental inventory of the foods that I tasted fresh for the first time, and it felt like I was tasting the living thing. The first time I tasted fresh olive oil, the first time I tasted fresh green beans, the first time I tasted fresh grapefruit juice, and now this coffee, here in Antioquia. Coffee here is more alive than other places, even places with a hard and fast coffee-drinking culture, like France and Italy. Here, there is so much more variety and the drink is connected to the crop. You can taste the freshness in the coffee. It tastes alive, and it makes other coffee taste stale, like the cast-off shells of the real coffee.
And, as a post-script, I’d like to mention that the coffee isn’t the only thing that has been redefined for me as a more alive taste. The milk is more alive here, and it makes the phantom threat of leprosy worth it. It comes in plastic bags, and it smells like no other milk I’ve ever smelled, which is to say, the milk here actually has a smell. I can taste the mountain grass eaten by the Colombian cows when I drink this milk.