Traditional Colombian coffees have a reputation for ranking among the best coffees in the world. Ever since the early 19th century, Colombia has been producing and exporting coffees that are renowned for their full body, bright acidity and rich aftertaste, but there are several distinctions to be made within this beautiful origin. In the north, the beans are grown on lower altitudes and higher temperatures and will produce a deeper, earthier taste, with medium acidity, more body and nutty/chocolaty notes (Magdalena, Casanare, Santander, Norte De Santander). Coffees from the southern regions (Cauca, Narino, Huila and South of Tolima) are renowned for their smooth flavor with citric and sweet notes, backed by a medium body and increased acidity. The Central Region (Caldas, Quindío, Risaralda, North of Valle, Antioquia, Cundinamarca and North of Tolima) produces rather balanced coffee, with fruity and herbal notes, without losing the specific characteristics of each micro-region. With its wide scale of coffees, Colombia is the second largest Arabica producing country in the world, offering fresh crops all year round.
The department of Antioquia is remarkable in many ways and proving that to the world seems to be the goal of Sergio Fajardo, governor of the department. He launched a campaign that focuses heavily on education in all stratas of society. When traveling the region, you see banners, stickers and posters everywhere that proudly shout “Antioquia, la más educada” telling everyone they’re the most educated region of Colombia. The first phase of the program is focused on coffee, as it’s the most important source of revenue for the region. They want the more traditional farmers to be aware of new farming practices, more ecologically responsible methods, new varieties, and so on. This helps improve the general quality of the coffee produced in the region. They also want to inspire the new generation to follow in their parents’ footsteps, securing the knowledge and production of coffee in the future. This lush, green region does produce extraordinary specialty grade microlots, often more in line with African flavour profiles than anything like typical Central American profiles. Located in the Andes Mountain range, Antioquia has a very different microclimate around every corner. You can even see the vegetation change according to the changes in climate when you’re driving on the winding mountain roads! In the humid climate areas at altitudes near 2000masl, there’s pretty amazing and diverse coffees to be found.
Eje Cafetero (Colombia Growing Axis/Coffee Triangle)
The Coffee Growing Axis is famous for its intensive and quality coffee production. The four regions that make up the axis are Quindio, Caldas, Risaralda and Tolima. Altitudes in the axis range from 1,300 to 1,700 masl while tropical rainforest conditions, volcanic soil and a wealth of rivers and streams make the area ideal for coffee growing. There are two wet seasons and two dry seasons each year. There is dry weather from December to February and June to September and wet weather from March to May and September to November. Due to these weather conditions, there are two harvests annually, leading to the availability of fresh coffee most of the year.
The Huila region is one of the most well-known coffee growing areas of Colombia. The coffees from Huila are prized for their sweetness and richness, their bright citrus notes and their funky, jammy flavors that mimic the unique taste of honeys and naturals. With their complex and versatile flavor profile, coffees from Huila can be used for both espresso and filter brews. The Department of Huila (population: 1,125,000) is located in the southwest of the country, with Neiva (population: 380,000) as its capital. The department is situated for the most part in the Colombian Massif, harboring Colombia’s second highest peak, the Nevado Del Huila Volcano. Indeed, the volcanic soil is hard to avoid in these parts of the Andes, which makes it fertile ground in which to grow coffee. Also contributing to the fertile soil is the Magdalena River, Colombia’s largest stream which generates 86% of Colombia’s GDP (directly or indirectly) according to some sources. Due to the weather, coffee production and harvest occurs for the most of the year, allowing imports of fresh coffee almost constantly. Ironically, the ideal growing conditions in the region, the high rainfall and humidity, makes it hard to dry and process coffee.
Nariño is a department located in the far southwestern corner of Colombia, bordering Ecuador and with a shoreline in the Pacific Ocean. This makes the geography and climate of the department fascinatingly diverse as the coastal plains roll up into the Andes Mountain range in the middle of Nariño. The coastal plains are hot and rainy with abundant vegetation, whereas the Andes mountains are colder and drier. The portal to Nariño is the capital city of Pasto, the last city before the southern border with Ecuador. Given the precarious location of the Pasto airport high in the Andean range, the landscape and accompanying coffee production is breathtaking. Most of the population and political activity is concentrated in the mountains of the Andes region. The economy is for the largest part depending on mining and farming, with sugarcane, coffee and livestock as main sources of income. Coffee is typically produced on small farms of about five hectares. The environment is challenging due to the rugged topography. There are no less than three volcanoes in the Cordillera Occidental, reaching altitudes between 4000 and 4700 masl. The rich volcanic soil full of nutrients provides an excellent base for coffee plants to slowly form their fruits in lower temperatures, resulting in complex, sweet and acidic coffees.
Former FARC territory, the Nariño region was a no-go zone until not so long ago. As a less popular coffee destination, a lot of the smallholder producers here don’t have access to international buyers who will appreciate their work. With farms in remote and difficult to access places at altitudes often above 2000 masl, there are many gems to be found and Nariño coffees repeatedly get awarded in the Cup of Excellence program. Four times already, the region produced presidential number one lots, getting SCAA scores above 90. A Nariño flavour profile typically is bright and acidic, with a lot of floral and citrus flavours going on. Cheers to the altitude for that!
The current coffee situation in Nariño is very interesting and the historical context in Colombia is reﬂective of some of the greater challenges and opportunities the future of coffee holds. Coffee has been produced almost exclusively by smallholders since it arrived on the scene in the region in the mid 16th century. At the same time, the political and geographic challenges of remoteness and conflict have meant that most of the coffee ended up going into larger scale commercial supply chains.
After an industry-led intervention through the CRS Borderlands project, the region has garnered the attention and desire of much of the specialty industry. The smaller farms, more traditional varieties, less intensive management, and high elevation in the volcano-ringed altiplano leads to a potential for very high-quality coffee. As the internal Colombian conﬂict slowly subsides in the region it also opens up opportunities for much more exchange and participation between producers and the supply chain, bringing the chance for conversations and new avenues that did not previously exist.
Alongside the new opportunity for the region come familiar challenges. Organization, communication, trust, and the challenge to the old paradigm and power in the region all make for a much more intensive process when working here. That said, there are many producers and supply chain partners who are pushing forward to take advantage of the new opportunities in sustainable and equitable ways.
We keep returning to Santander to find that classic Colombian cup profile. These dependable, crowd-pleasing coffees have deep chocolate profiles with a rounded sweetness, mild acidity and big body – just like you would expect a Colombian coffee to taste. In fact, the first coffee grown in Colombia was grown in Salazar de los Palmas, in Santander. At higher altitudes, you can also find more particular cup profiles, with producers targeting the specialty market.
The department of Santander extends over Colombia’s eastern Andes range, close to the border with Venezuela. The region lies along the 9th parallel north, sharing latitude and crop cycle with growing regions in Panama, Costa Rica, India and Ethiopia, among others.
Coffee cultivation takes place at a lower altitude, starting at 1200 meters above sea level. As this involves higher temperatures and more exposure to sunlight, coffee cultivation takes place under a shade canopy to protect the coffee trees and the soil. Shade cultivation helps create an environment with more stable and cool temperatures, blocking the strongest sun. At cooler temperatures, the coffee fruit matures slower. This stimulates the development of more complex sugars in the fruit, as well as a more uniform ripening on the tree. In total, the department of Santander has around 50,000 hectares under coffee cultivation. Santander’s 31,753 coffee producers represent 5.68% of the coffee producers on a national level.
Tolima lies deeply nestled in the Central Andes, making a secluded region that is difficult to access. The people of Tolima are marked by a particularly violent past. Due to its remoteness, the region was an ideal hiding place for guerrilla groups, who operated from the jungle. Only recently, the region has opened up and become less politically complicated. Despite its past, Tolima is Colombia’s third largest department in terms of coffee production.
Under those conditions, producer organizations can play an important role in transforming the communities. Associations or cooperatives create jobs and can help to make coffee more appealing to young people. Many groups in the region organize courses and training to develop barista skills, quality control or even business management. In a region where the job availability outside of coffee farming is very limited, this is essential to draw young people away from criminality. Next to that, by being part of a group, a producer has much better access to support on an agronomical, commercial and economical level.