Coffee shops have always been more than just a place to grab a drink - just take a look around when you’re next in one. There’ll be friends chatting, colleagues brainstorming, amateur novelists staring at blank laptop screens; a place for meetups, chats, phone calls, days off, days in. They’re wonderful places, and for many of us, form a hugely important part of our day-to-day lives.
In recent years, however, there’s been a shift in the coffee scene in London (and the UK in general). Today, when you think of coffee culture in London, you’re met with images of long-haired, inked-up baristas serving up flat whites and filter coffees in bare-bricked cafés pumping out comforting lofi indie. Now, I get that this is a bit of a generalisation, but exactly how far removed is this from Colombia’s coffee scene, a country which has a much closer and stronger connection to the beverage we love to drink?
When it comes to coffee and Colombia, what better place to experience coffee culture than Bogota? As the capital city of one of the biggest and leading coffee producing countries in the world, it was a no brainer. Small & large coffee shops and chains have been established not just to sell the perfect cup of Colombian coffee, but to offer a coffee experience like no other - complete with tastings, specialised preparations and informative lectures from their baristas. Out of all of the cafés we visited (and there were a fair few of those), the two that stood out to us the most were Variatele and Bourbon - two cafes which gave us two very different tastes of what it means to drink coffee in Colombia.
Variatele, a family run business that had taken Bogota by storm. It has a mini-roaster in the back, a shop in the front, with a huge courtyard packed full of people sandwiched in between. Boasting a huge array of brewing and filter methods, you’re encouraged to come up and see for yourself exactly how it’s done.
But what stood out for me here was the noise. Not of beans being ground, espressos being pulling or steam wands ‘pssssting’, but of conversation; the whole café was alive with it. Groups of students, friends, families were all just going for it - arguments were being thrashed out, jokes were being told, discussions were getting heated and stories being told. Their ethos centres around bringing people together, connecting communities and making conversations flow which does end up drawing a young, vibrant crowd from nearby universities. It was loud, it was lively, and it was great fun. More like a busy city centre bar than the coffee shops we’re used to.
Next up was Bourbon Coffee Roasters - and a completely different experience. Where Variatele was lively and bustling, Bourbon was calm and intimate. Now, both places obviously cared an incredible amount about the coffee they produced, but the joy of Bourbon was in our particular barista, and and our very personal experience.
Coming around from the bar to our table like a delighted child wanting to show you their new toy, we all shared in the smell and aroma of the freshly brewed coffee - and were carefully walked through every aspect of the brew we were about to try. It was like sitting down and watching a production - admiring in silence the care and precision that was taken in every step of the brewing process. Every single detail was perfect, and it made you appreciate how much joy it gives people to care so much about the drink, or experience, they’re creating. For Bourbon, coffee is one of the few things left in our day-to-day lives where you can observe and appreciate the process, watching something come into being.
I think it’s also really important to note that during our time here, Colombia was in turmoil. Rioting had broken out across the capital, with thousands out on the streets protesting. The cafés we visited were like quiet ports in a storm - cut off from the issues outside, you felt at ease - surrounded by people who were also looking to keep off the streets and get on with the business of meeting friends, family and loved ones in safety.
Comparing our experiences in Colombia with those we’re used to in the UK, we were struck by both the different pace and focus when it came to their cafés - and exactly how much more the average customers understood about the coffee; both when it came to quality, taste and even right down to brew method. It isn’t about matcha lattes and avocado on toast; it’s about the coffee and the people that come with it - taking a moment out of your day to let life stand still, and in the meantime drink a bloody good cup of coffee.