Narino is the southernmost coffee-growing area in Colombia, and operates on a slightly different schedule as a result.
Harvest in Nariño comes at a time that is somewhat in between the middle and main harvests of our other primary sources of Colombian coffee, namely Urrao and Caicedo in the north, and La Plata and Inzá down south. Logistically, this works out great for us as we’re able to bring in fresh Colombian coffee from Nariño when the other coffee regions are producing very little.
But that reason alone sells Nariño’s importance to us short, as we’re quickly learning that it is one of the more diverse Colombian growing regions in terms of micro-climates, and the cup characteristics we are tasting from the producer groups we buy from.
What started as a captioned photo from my phone, quickly turned into a full “travelogue” about my trip to Nariño this week. There’s a lot more to say about the areas we’re buying from. For now, here’s a sampling of iPhone photos from my trip, and some of my notes from the visits I made to a few of the growing areas.
Harvest Time in Narino
The harvest starts in late May and runs until about early September. During this time farmers in coffee communities deliver their their harvested coffee in parchment to associations and private buyers, and are paid a price per kilogram for their coffee (this is different than most of Colombia, where parchment coffee is traded by the “carga”, a 125 kg bag).
Like all of Colombia, the base price is a standard rate set by the Federación de Nacional de Cafeteros (“FNC”), the government agency who regulate the Colombian coffee trade, and minimal premiums are often tacked on by local buyers for slightly better than commercial qualities, and in order to fulfill large contracts with multi-nationals.
There is generally a small premium attached to the different coffee qualities, dependent on visual and often sensorial grading of each lot that’s delivered. For the projects we’re a part of, the farmers receive the going rate paid by the coffee association which is a little above the FNC price. We then cup test every lot and assign to one of our three different scoring ranges, each with a premium attached that is paid directly to the farmer once our approvals are confirmed (typically 1 month after the coffee is delivered to the association).
The two main areas we are buying from right now are Buesaco and La Union. The high altitudes of both regions means relatively cool climates, and therefore slower rate of maturation for the Coffee plants, resulting in denser seeds. The towns respectively sit at 2000 and 1700 meters, and it’s really common to see coffee grown at 2100+.
We get excited about high altitude because of the intersection of altitude and bean density, but some of the trees growing at the higher end of that altitude range do look a little stressed, which is expressed in yellowing of leaves. It’s perhaps more likely to be from slight nutrient deficiency as so many of the farmers we visited are growing fully organic coffee, which is pretty unique in Colombia. (The association is uncertified at the moment, but working to be certified by next harvest.)
Regardless, so many of the coffees we cupped this visit tasted fantastic, and our approval rate for the samples we tasted between La Union and Buesaco was easily 70%.
The other area we’re sourcing Nariño coffee from is Aponte in Corregemiento Tablon de Gomez. Aponte is an indigenous reservation area that is geographically part of Colombia, but that functions under its own local government separate from Colombia.
The people of Aponte are Inga, an pre-Colombian ethnic group related to the Incas who have inhabited this part of Colombia for more than 500 years. There are about 5,000 Inga people living in Aponte, and most are bi-lingual in their native tongue of Inga Kichwa and Spanish.
Aponte is located in a “páramo” ecosystem, where converging weather systems create a climate of constant moisture in the form of misty fogs and rains. As we approached from the sunny lowlands, it’s easy to spot, as the entire hillside was blanketed in a haze of mist and rain. Many fault lines pass through the jutting hillside, one of which runs straight through the middle of town, and is slowly separating, crumbling the town’s buildings in it’s path.
The real structural damage started about 3 years ago, but moves slow enough that folks are able to avoid injury by moving to safer parts of town. Still, this means spending a lot of time and money on rebuilding, and since they do not operate under the Colombian government, they are not eligible for government financial assistance.
We first learned of Aponte on a sourcing trip last year after cupping a few honey processed lots from the region (we blended them with honeys from Buesaco and sold under the name “Honey Process Buesaco”). It turns out that many producers employ this method, a practice that was adapted at the suggestion of a previous coffee client of theirs who no longer works in the area.
I don’t generally think of a cool and damp climate as being ideal for producing honeys, as they already take so much longer to dry than fully washed coffees. But it works in Aponte, and is another example of a local coffee practice going against conventional wisdom. Part of the reason may lie in the near constant wind, which helps circulate air in the mostly-enclosed drying rooms you typically see at the farms.
The climate in conjunction with their autonomy from Colombian rule of law (and not to mention the difficulty of reaching the area) has also attracted narco traffickers and guerrilla groups to the area, who’ve coerced some of the residents into planting poppy fields to supply the raw product for opium and heroin.
Páramo areas often attract guerrilla activity because of the remote access, as well as the sight line that is afforded from being up so high from where incoming police or military are easily spotted. “Force” may be more appropriate here, as even if not by weapons, the fact that the area was controlled by guerrillas meant it was much harder if not impossible to attract buyers for coffee and other crops, and so farmers have little choice but to meet the poppy demand of narcos.
In recent years the activity around the drug trade had slowed quite a bit in this region, which has helped the growth of coffee production. This is due in part to the exit of guerrilla groups like the FARC in particular, after the previous president Juan Manuel Santos negotiated a peace treaty between the FARC and the Colombian government.
But their absence has also created a vacuum that is filled by other guerrilla and paramilitary groups, fighting to create strongholds in mountain areas near Aponte, as well as in some of the lowland regions along drug routes leading to the coast where coca production has ballooned to 500,000 hectares. Being so far south in the country has not helped to facilitate peace in these specific areas, as the government are slow to send military force and other aid to the region. Most of the coffee areas we’re buying from are not along these routes, and relatively safe from getting caught up in the violence.
It’s still pretty early in the harvest season, yet I was still able to cup 100+ really nice samples of coffee between the two associations in Nariño that I visited that total around 150 bags of coffee. In addition to this, I approved another 125 bags or so between Inzá, Cauca and Caicedo, Antioquia.
Looking over our current Colombia offers, we’re down to less than 75 bags of coffee, so this is a much needed trip to replenish our dwindling stock. My fingers are crossed for finalizing this container by middle of July, having it on the water before the end of the month, which puts it in Oakland around middle of August. Check back for updates as we move to get this shipment on the water.
Here are a few more phone photos from the trip, and I’ll come back and update with a photo set from my camera once I’m back in the states. -Dan
Update July 5, 2018 – Two short videos have been added. Scroll all the way to the bottom.