I traveled to Bogota in 2012 for the first time, and since then, it has become one of my favorite cities. Back then, El Dorado Airport wasn’t as beautiful as today, and the traffic was horrific!
Noisy, colorful, and vibrant. It’s easy to judge the city for its chilly and rainy weather, and if you stay near Chapinero, you might feel closer to an eccentric European town than in the largest city of Colombia.
During the past few years, Bogotá’s coffee culture has evolved. I haven’t traveled again during the pandemic, but its coffee culture is still under my radar. It is the city that introduced me to specialty coffee, after all.
Tintico con panela: the signature drink
Walking by any neighborhood, you'll witness popular cigarrerías and street vendors selling affordable coffee, which is slightly strong and made with percolators or drippers. In Colombia, they name this black coffee drink tinto, a Spanish word referring to its dark color.
In Bogota you'll hear "Por favor, regáleme un tintico" at every cigarreria to order a black coffee. Photo by Michael Schmid on Unsplash
One of the best-known recipes for tinto is adding coffee grounds to boiling water, turning off the fire, and letting it rest for a few minutes before serving. I have met people in Venezuela who brews guayoyo using a similar method, but tinto tends to have a higher brew ratio. However, in both cases, panela -or papelón, as we call it in Venezuela- is the most traditional and palatable sweetener.
Most people brew coffee at home, early in the morning. But it isn’t unusual to find cigarrerías and street vendors crowded, with people having their second or third cup of coffee in the morning. Many people have a quick breakfast at these spots, drinking their coffee with empanadas or their favorite bread -some filled with bocadillo -Colombian guava jam- and white cheese, a prevalent choice.
Posh cafés: gomelos’ way to coffee
Drinking coffee is a Colombian tradition, more practical than symbolic. Unlike the sombrero vueltiao’, coffee is everywhere in Colombia. It doesn’t matter the social class, economic status, or region. And Bogotá gathers people from all the spots in Colombia, be its major cities or war-disrupted towns. Arguably, the richest and the poorest live in Bogotá, too, so that almost all customs, drinks, and experiences are available when it comes to coffee.
Starbucks won its space in Bogota, against all odds. Picture by Edgar Zuniga Jr., published under a CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
More recently, people from Europe and the US have chosen Bogotá as their new home, an affordable and friendly staycation spot. In contrast, Venezuela’s migrant crisis has taken thousands of my fellow country people to Bogotá and many cities and towns in Colombia.
Diversity and inequality are the two faces of a complex and beautiful city. And alongside the humble cigarrerías and street vendors, Starbucks and Juan Valdez cafés compete, offering their Italian-style espresso drinks.
Strategically located, you can find these cafés in malls and affluent neighborhoods. Although both brands offer very different coffee beans, they compete with each other in terms of aesthetics, attracting consumers willing to pay up to 10 times more for a cup of coffee than in a cigarrería.
Most of these coffee drinks are espresso-based and with a wide selection of milk and plant-based alternatives. In addition to the traditional empanadas, Juan Valdez and Starbucks offer croissants and pastries, catering to a more international and wealthy clientele.
Somewhere in the middle, between these pricey espresso-based drinks and cigarrerías, Tostao is a significant player in Colombia, which took the coffee shops market by storm a few years ago with an aggressive price strategy. Tostao is, for that matter, accommodating almost all kinds of coffee drinkers, offering decent quality at the lowest price possible.
Specialty cafés in Bogotá. Different. Iconic. Expensive?
The first time I heard about specialty coffee was in Bogotá, in 2016, at Expo Especiales. Every year, Bogota celebrates specialty coffee at Corferias, one of the most significant event venues in Latin America.
Café San Alberto at Bogota city center. Picture courtesy of Café San Alberto.
The pandemic stopped all coffee events in Colombia in 2020, and in 2021 the Colombian Coffee Trade Federation show-stopped again, but it seems it’ll be back in 2022. Another event addressing the general public started in 2019, the Bogota Coffee Fest. This event retook place in 2021, with an exciting schedule, including some coffee competitions and coffee tastings.
While these events promote Colombian specialty coffee, Bogotá has seen a rising but unstable growth of specialty coffee shops. Independent micro-roasters had a promising start in the 2010s, with a strong welcome from enthusiastic coffee lovers, particularly among the youth, who joined the ranks of specialty coffee as baristas, and roasters. During this same decade, Tostao’s started strong and fitted perfectly with most people’s expectations: good coffee shouldn’t be expensive.
Still, there is a growing public for specialty coffee. At these cafés, baristas would explain processing methods and origins thoroughly. They even would tell you to taste your coffee without adding sugar and decide later.
A Chemex service Libertario. Picture courtesy of Libertario Coffee Roasters
Prices at these cafés are similar to Starbucks and Juan Valdez. However, some can be more affordable, even when they look luxurious. To the same extent, the taste and aroma of the coffee at these coffee shops is what sets them apart from the rest: fruity and floral notes that shock the novice coffee drinker in a single sip.
Many of these coffee shops are micro-roasters too that serve their single-origins and blends. Unlike larger premium coffee chains, they serve incredibly fresh coffee every day. Additionally, it’s more common to find people enjoying a Chemex service here, appreciating more complex aromatic profiles.
Having a ball-press at Top 5 coffee, a coffee shop opened by Mauricio Romero after winning the national barista championship. Picture: Yker Valerio
The narrative of specialty cafés is strong in Bogota, and it isn’t rare that baristas are business owners too. The quality of their coffees speaks of their excellent relationships with coffee producers and roasters, who tend to work very closely to achieve a good, well-round cup of coffee.
Coffee shops like Azahar and Libertario are fine examples of specialty cafés, and they are worth visiting, repeatedly. Café San Alberto, one of my favorites, sells only coffee from their estate. Albeit it has less variety of coffee beans, it has a premium aesthetics, and a full range of brewing methods to serve its coffee.
In any case, I miss Bogotá’s coffee. Be it the affordable tintico, the posh cappuccino, or the decadent natural brewed with a Chemex. All are delicious and great to have in a city.