Lately, it seems like one of the biggest news stories in Bogota is the arrival of Starbucks in a country synonymous with excellent coffee. The coffee giant known well throughout the world recently opened its first of 50 stores planned for Colombia over the next five years. Everyone here seems to have a strong opinion about this new development. Juan Valdéz, the colombian coffee chain, has a devoted local following. Some people refuse to try the new kid on the coffee block, while other loyalists are conflicted exclaiming, “I’ll try Starbucks, but my heart belongs to Juan.”
With such high opinions of the local chain, I had to try out Juan Valdéz for myself. Admitedly, I’m not the bigget fan of Starbucks (or chain coffee stores in general, for that matter), but I did enjoy my experience at Jaun Valdéz. In most regards, the store was pretty similar to most other coffee retailers I’ve been to. It had all the distinct markers of a chain: gift sets of JV mugs and coffee for sale, sleek interior, well lit case of over priced cakes and muffins. There was one very noticeable difference between Juan Valdéz and other coffee shops I’ve been to. Namely, the size of the beverages. The small I tried from JV must have been half the size of a small from Starbucks, and the Strabucks “Venti” was simply non-existent. In my book, this is a good thing. It was actually very refreshing to see a normal portioned coffee drink compared to the gargantuan cups from Starbucks.
The menu at JV was also noticeably different. It took me a while to figure out what was so different about it, but when I finally did it was so obvious. The menu from the Colombian chain focused mostly on the actual coffee drinks. Ordering a drink was simple, there was no clutter of frappacinos or steamers or made up brand-specific names and sizes to memorize. I ordered a small Americano and that’s what I got. Nobody asked if I wanted it “with a little room” or “with whip??!” and it was refreshing. I’ll be curious to see if Starbucks alters their sizes or menu to be a bit more country specific. The small size, no-nonsense coffee seems to be a general trend in Colombia. Typically when I buy my morning cup of coffee I spend about 500 COP ($0.25 USD) and am served a really good dixie cup of black coffee. I was a bit surprised at first by the tiny servings, but have since come to relish the simplicity and quality.
Nowhere was this principle more true than when I toured a coffee farm last week. The tour began by bracing the Saturday morning traffic out of Bogota, an experience I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, but was worth it to get to Quinini. The small coffee growing región near Bogota is home to some amazing coffee and wonderful people. Not to mention that it was much warmer than the city! It’s amazing what a difference lower altitude can make.
We hiked through the green mountains and learned all about the coffee varieties and various other plants that grew side by side with the coffee plants, often helping them in the process. For example, the giant leave from the banana plants provide the necessary shade for tempermental arabica coffee. After a few hours, we found our way to a grower’s delightful home. We met his family and learned more about the coffee harvesting process while we sipped incredibly rich coffee from, once again, tiny cups.
The pride that this family has in their coffee seems to be a sentiment felt throughout the country. It feels like everywhere, coffee is not just consumed, it is truly enjoyed and savored. And the small, high quality servings seem to act as a testiment to that.