“Welcome to the NASA of Colombia.”
I'm standing in a room filled with chemistry sets, infrared sensors, lab notebooks, and hundreds upon hundreds of zip locked bags of coffee beans, each looking exactly the same but each tasting ever so slightly different.
A man named Gustavo shakes out 11 grams of coffee in a bag labeled with a six-digit number, and pops it into an industrial-looking machine. He pours out exactly 150 milliliters of water, puts it in the machine, and heats it to exactly 194 degrees. A couple minutes later, I'll try the best cup of coffee I've ever had in my life.
"You're part of the experiment now," he says.
And now, after having thrown back six or seven of these tiny cups of coffee, I realize why my cab driver seemed so proud to drop me off at the aging-but-impressive all-brick main building of Cenicafe.
"Welcome," he said, "to the NASA of Colombia."
It's a good analogy. Of Colombia's two famous stimulants, coffee is certainly the one the country wants to promote, and it does coffee better than anyone in the world. The average coffee connoisseur might tell you it has something to do with Colombia's climate, or its volcanic soil. They're not entirely wrong, but such simplifications don't really tell the whole story.
Colombia dominates the worldwide market for ultra premium coffee because the country takes its coffee very, very seriously. And it all started at this government institution that's been studying everything coffee for more than 70 years.
You are only ever likely to run into two species of coffee: Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica. C. canephora, popularly known as Robusta, is easy to grow, naturally resists pests and disease thanks to its extreme genetic diversity, and generally yields way more coffee than Arabica.
Problem is, it (as a general rule) tastes horrible. Arabica, on the other hand, is delicious, but is the feeble goldilocks of the plant world: extremely susceptible to disease, parasites, and increasingly and terrifyingly for coffee addicts, changing climates. Making the two play nice together in your cup is what Cenicafe, established in 1927 by the Colombian government, does better than anyone else.
"Most of the research you see on coffee is related to how coffee affects humans, not on the agronomic part of the business," Alvaro Gaitan, lead researcher at Cenicafe, explained to me. "Well that was fine, but then the climate changed, the roya came, and boom. Everything came down at once. We're lucky here in Colombia to have had this continuous research on coffee."
And make no mistake, coffee farmers are suffering, especially in Central America. In El Salvador, roya, or coffee rust, a fungus that turns a coffee plant's leaves brown, has affected 75 percent of the crop. In Costa Rica, it's closer to two thirds. In Guatemala, more than 100,000 coffee farmers lost their jobs in the last two years thanks to the fungus, which grows more easily thanks to climate change, experts say. Meanwhile, climate change itself, without the added problem of rust, threatens nearly 100 percent of wild-grown Arabica, which is an important pool of naturally diverse strains.
Colombia has, for the most part, been unaffected by these threats, thanks in large part to Cenicafe. For decades, researchers here have been crossing strains of Arabica and Robusta, trying to stay one step ahead of whatever the industry's next existential threat is. It's not that other countries don't have research labs (they do); it's that those labs are relatively recent developments; are, in certain cases, poorly funded; and can bow to pressure from farmers for new strains as soon as a particularly bad growing season strikes.
Pushing out a new strain of coffee before it's ready can be disastrous, which has happened in Central America, leading many to believe that all newer strains aren't of as high quality as their predecessors.
"You can't take shortcuts. Instead of going through the hard process of making a good, rust-resistant strain, Central American countries gave their farmers new resistant varieties right away," Gaitan said. "The problem is, the quality wasn't there, so people didn't like it, and resistant coffee has become associated with poor taste."
Cenicafe has only put out a handful of new strains, many of them have been in development for 10 years or more. It's not the world's only coffee research center—in recent years, there's been increased attention on the crop—but it is one of the oldest, and certainly one of the most successful coffee labs in the world.
In addition to merely breeding together different strains of coffee, Cenicafe has begun experimenting with genetic testing (but not genetic modification) to learn how to better cross the strains.
Actually, my impression is that Cenicafe is experimenting on a lot of things. Gaitan is standing in front of row after row of coffee plant, many of them grown only here, because many of them were created here and will die here. Others come from Ethiopia, where wild coffee originated, some are Central American, others are crosses between all of them.
These plants have shown some sort of promise as seedlings that led Cenicafe to actually cultivate them—many of them will flower into the fruits that Gustavo will later brew up for teams of international, professional coffee tasters, who will grade the coffee. If it tastes bad, no matter how resistant it is to coffee rust or how easily it grows, it'll be tossed out forever.
"We have 100 species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta are only two of them," Gaitan says. "This here is our bank. Their genomes, their diversity, that's our money in the bank—the problem is, how do we take the money out of that? Right now, we only use 1-2 percent of the Ethiopian genome, so it's very important that we study the genome and see what's actually in there."
It's not quite as simple as merely sequencing the Arabica genome and plugging and playing different genes from, say, Robusta (which was recently sequenced for the first time). Arabica is a tetraploid, meaning it has four sets of chromosomes. Robusta and many other coffee varieties, on the other hand, are diploids, meaning they only have two sets of chromosomes. Crossing them or importing genes isn't terribly easy.
"There's an instability there, but we think we can do it," he said.
Cenicafe's team of scientists is working very hard on the genetics of coffee, which it believes will probably save—or at least delay—any major, long-term declines in Colombia's production. Gaitan and other researchers are growing tiny tobacco plants—a quicker-growing and better-understood plant than coffee—and inserting and removing genes here and there to see whether they can make the plants grow faster or yield more. If a genetic discovery is made in tobacco, researchers will try to emulate it in coffee.
The center is even looking into whether certain microorganisms in soil can affect how coffee tastes and how it grows. In some cases, the presence of certain microorganisms can actually replace the use of fertilizers. It's a field called metagenomics, and it requires researchers to sequence the genome of an entire ecosystem. Soil makeups are then compared all throughout Colombia, and specific strains of coffee are sent to farmers depending on the results.
In another lab, coffee beans are analyzed against every element in the periodic table to see if any specific element is seeping into the soil or is somehow altering the taste or hardiness of coffee plants. Yet another irradiates coffee beans with infrared spectrum to analyze how much caffeine is contained in a specific bean in a matter of minutes. Other researchers study coffee's natural insect predators; others study coffee's effect on the tropical bird population.
All of this research has, more or less, been a fantastic success for the Colombian coffee industry. The tastes of the many emerging middle classes in Asia are switching from tea to instant coffee, which is mainly a Robusta product, and Colombia is banking on the theory that, in a few years' time, those new converts will develop a taste for Colombia's premium coffees.
"It's what's happened in many places," Gaitan said. "Caffeine is the first motive, but once you have a group who likes instant, they soon want something with better quality."
That growing demand worldwide has, perhaps unfortunately, left little for Colombians themselves. You can grab a good cup of coffee at one of many Juan Valdez coffee shops, which is fronted by a fictional, stereotypical character and is owned by the country's National Federation of Coffee Growers, a quasi-government organization.
But if you don't go to a Juan Valdez, you're pretty much out of luck. Ask a Colombian where you can get a good cup of coffee, and chances are they'll tell you to hop on a plane.
"We drink the worst coffee in the world. All the coffee that doesn't meet certain specifications for exporting remains in the country," Gaitan said. "The rest, we export. We've been improving so much that now, we have so little coffee left that we have to import bad coffee from other countries. That's business, I guess."