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Meet the maker: the man who speaks Arabica

Colombia's Arabica coffee is among the best in the world, and farmer Juan Pablo Villota Leyva is pushing it to new heights with his beans, which have won more awards than any other in the country.

By Jez Fredenburgh
Published 29 Oct 2018, 18:00 GMT, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 13:35 BST
Juan Pablo Villota Leyva

Juan Pablo Villota Leyva believes coffee should be treated like a great wine.

Photograph by Juan Pablo Villota Leyva

Juan Pablo Villota Leyva believes coffee should be treated like a great wine. Its terroir, its flavours, its aromas — all of these things should be considered and appreciated. It's an attitude that has won this third-generation farmer and his family a fistful of international awards and recognition for the best coffee in Colombia.

His farm, San Alberto, sits 5,900ft up on a hillside in Quindio province in the Zona Cafetera — a coffee mecca in the western foothills of the Andes. Dark green rows of Arabica sweep the landscape, pickers work the steep slopes, and a sour, fruity smell of composting coffee shells hangs in the air.

Like their neighbours, Juan's family used to sell to the local cooperative — and get very little money. But things changed after he completed a stint in the French wine industry, during which he "fell in love" with the great châteaux and returned home to approach coffee with the same reverence.

Now in a cool, airy laboratory full of kettles and charts, Juan works his "magic". For three to four hours a day, he tastes San Alberto's fresh roast, testing it with brewing and serving methods. "It's easy to make a mess in here, no one is going to complain," he laughs. "I really enjoy this moment."

He's already thinking about how to blend his three varieties this harvest — Caturra, Castillo and Geisha. "I like a very smooth, well-structured coffee with light acidity and juicy-sweet flavours of apple and peach with red fruit notes," he says.

It's a laborious process though. Plump, red 'cherries' are picked by hand and the skin removed, leaving a sweet jelly. The beans are then washed before being dried, threshed and roasted. What makes San Alberto special is a meticulous five-step process that weeds out less than perfect beans.

"By roasting such a large volume of our own beans, rather than selling to a middle-man, we're preserving our identity and value," says Juan. "San Alberto coffee tastes of San Alberto."

Now he's on a mission to create 'apostles' of good coffee through tasting sessions he calls 'baptisms'. As well as the on-farm cafe, the family has opened 'coffee temples' in the capital, Bogota, and the Caribbean city of Cartagena.

"People say to us that our coffee doesn't taste like coffee. That to me, signals we are creating some-thing different and people are understanding that coffee isn't just coffee — it's full of detail."

Where to try Colombian coffee

1. San Alberto
San Alberto cafe is outside Buenavista village in Quindio province, Colombia. 340g: 33,000 pesos (£8.70), or buy online for $14 (£10.70) plus shipping.

2. Hacienda Venecia
Stay on a traditional coffee farm near Manizales, Colombia. 250g: 13,125-15,000 pesos (£3.50-£4) bought there or online.

3. Don Leo
Visit Don Leo's farm near Pijao, Quindio, for his three coffee varieties. 500g: 25,000-50,000 pesos (£6.60-£13). Arrange through local coffee tour operator Experiencia Cafetera.

4. La Floresta
This cafe is run by coffee farmers. Visit on your own in Pijoa, or with Experiencia Cafetera (see above). 500g: 25,000-70,000 pesos (£6.60-£18.50)

Four coffee brewing methods

1. Chemex
Produces a clean cup with floral notes. Hot water is poured over grinds in the top of a glass funnel, leaving the coffee to drip into the base below. San Alberto coffee brewed in a Chemex results in a bright flavour, light body and soft aftertaste.

2. Drip cone
The most common drip method uses a V60 filter that's placed over a coffee mug; hot water is then slowly poured over the grinds in a paper filter. Brewing is slower than a Chemex and ideal for one cup. It results in a balanced coffee.

3. Vacuum syphon
A bottom chamber containing water is heated, causing vapour and bubbles to rise into the chamber above where coffee grinds are added. A vacuum then causes the coffee to be drawn down into the bottom chamber.

4. Cold brew
Grinds are steeped in fridge-cold water in a French press for between 12 and 36 hours, then strained as normal with the plunger. For the best brew, the coffee is filtered again using paper filters in a Chemex or V60 before serving. The result is a clean, bright coffee that's less acidic and bitter.

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