Place in world as coffee exporter (13/14):
Sacks (60kg) exported annually (13/14):
Percentage of world coffee market:
Other major agricultural exports:
Estimated number of individuals relying on coffee for livelihood:
More than 2 million
Typical Varieties Produced:
Typica, Bourbon, Tabi, Caturra, Colombia, Maragogype, Castillo (among others)
Key Coffee Regions:
Nariño, Cauca, Meta, Huila, Tolima, Quindio, Caldas, Risaralda, Antioquia, Valle, Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Santander & Norte de Santander
Typical Harvest Times:
From July/August & January/February
Colombia is the third largest coffee-producing country in the world and, until the arrival of Vietnam on the coffee scene (whose outputs are mainly Robusta), Colombia was second only to Brazil.
Coffee first began to be cultivated commercially in Colombia in the mid-1830s and throughout the twentieth century was the country’s main export crop. A mountainous topography and many tropical micro-climates contribute greatly to Colombia’s reputation for ideal growing conditions, which – in turn – have helped Colombia establish itself as a recognisable ‘brand’ around the world.
The importance of coffee to the country’s economy can’t be overstated. Colombia has around 875,000 hectares planted with coffee across 590 municipalities and 14 coffee-growing regions. On average, 75 percent of the country’s production is exported worldwide, with the crop generating some 10-16 per cent of the agricultural GDP. The majority of this production surprisingly comes from small farms: 60 percent of Colombian coffee farmers cultivate less than one hectare of coffee while only .5 percent have more than 20 hectares.
Traditionally, the majority of coffees from Colombia have been processed using the fully washed method. However, Centre for Coffee Investigation (Cenicafé) has developed an ecological system that uses very little water, reduces contamination of local water sources by 90 percent and reduces water consumption by 95 percent. This dry pulping method has proven reliable not just in preserving the eco-system but also in guaranteeing a consistent cup quality and is increasingly used across the country.
The drying process in much of Colombia is unique – small-holder farmers spread the parchment across the flat roofs (or ‘elvas’) of their houses to dry in the sun. Polytunnels and parabolic beds are also used in farms with high altitude and cold weather conditions. Parabolic beds – which are constructed a bit like ‘hoop house’ greenhouses, with airflow ensured through openings in both ends – both protect the parchment from rain and mist as it is dried and prevent condensation from dripping back on the drying beans.
The diversity of coffee and profiles found across Colombia is enormous and coffee is harvested practically year-round depending on the region. The main harvest takes place from October to February with November and December being the peak months. There is also a second fly (or 'mitaca') crop several months later, again varying by region and micro climate.
As the country becomes more developed, labour costs have risen, making harvesting more and more expensive. In 2015, unemployment in the country reached historic lows and labour supply in the rural coffee growing areas has increasingly failed to meet demand – the FNC calculates that some coffee regions are under-staffed by between one- and two-fifths. The issue could have implications for overall exports in coming years.
About Colombia coffee growing regions:
Antioquia – Antioquia was the ‘wild west’ of the country for many years and was initially settled almost entirely by gold miners. During the latter part of the 19th century, coffee was introduced in the mountainous, fertile borderlands of the department, and Antioquia became one of Colombia’s most important coffee producing areas, bolstered by ideal coffee growing conditions made possible by the central and western cordilleras (mountain ranges) that cross the department. As of the 1980s, coffee was the most important export from the region.
Despite the department’s ideal setting as a producer of speciality coffee, for many years it was overlooked in Colombia’s portfolio of powerhouse coffee producing regions. This is rapidly changing, in part, due to the priorities of the department’s current Governor, Sergio Fajardo. Fajardo was previously the mayor of Medellín, Antioquia’s capital city known for many years as a violent and dangerous place. Fajardo led a remarkable transformation of the city, turning it into a world class tourist destination with a strong economy. Coffee (and the valorisation of the department’s production) has been at the heart of this ‘makeover’, and these days, Antioquia is truly on the speciality ‘coffee map’. Of course, Mercanta and our partners in the region certainly played a role, here, too, as we’ve worked with our partners in the region since before Antioquia was ‘cool’, and every year we are able to bring in amazing, new micro-lots due to the groundwork we laid in those early years.
Cauca— Coffee from Cauca includes the Inza region and areas surrounding the colonial city of Popayan. Situated on the “Macizo Colombiano” (the Colombian Plateau), which surrounds the high peaks of Tolima and Huila, the region is an important source of water and wildlife, in addition to being prime coffee growing land.
Mercanta works primarily here with an innovative and enterprising cooperative whose microlot separation program has inspired many other producer organisations throughout the country. Every lot of coffee delivered to the cooperative is cupped and scored, and those scoring 85 points or above by the Association’s cupping lab in Pedregal are reserved for either speciality blends or single-producer microlots. These stringent standards result in very limited quantities of an exceptional blend of 70%+ Caturra and approx 30% Variedad Colombia being made available for export and, further, highlights the work of individual producers whose coffee previously would have been lost in larger, bulk lots.
The region’s violent past, with a heavy presence of FARC guerrillas, had historically prevented the FNC (Colombia’s national coffee board) and specialty-focused exporters from establishing a presence in the region. As violence has diminished, it has enabled the growers in the region to seek increased access to markets for quality, not only taking advantage of the region’s wonderful coffee-growing conditions but also the economic resource that nearby tourist destinations bring (for instance, the World Heritage Site “Parque Nacional Arqueológico de Tierradentro”). In the future, Mercanta fully expects increasingly great things in coffee from the area.
Chocó – Most coffee from Chocó is grown near the municipality of El Carmen de Atrato, separated from the fertile coffee-growing slopes of southwest Antioquia by only a steep ridge. An area of rich biodiversity, the region is also one of Colombia’s most remote and has, in the past, been plagued with violence and isolation due to FARC presence.
Eastern Chocó was one of Colombia’s most important coffee producing areas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; however most of the department is covered in dense, nearly impenetrable rainforest that stretches east for 100km to the Pacific Ocean. Chocó’s coffee regions lie within the mountain ranges bordering Antioquia, and with no other viable route to transport coffee out of the department, almost all of the coffee from Chocó is milled in Antioquia and, subsequently, has traditionally been sold as Antioquian coffee. Furthermore, challenges to market access have meant that Chocó has been less focused in past years on coffee than their neighbours to the East.
Government programs and successes recently celebrated by that neighbour (Antioquia) have inspired many producers in the region to rally their coffee producing efforts anew. Their efforts have been sustained by the Cooperativa de Caficultores de Andes (Cooperandes), a Colombian cooperative that works in five communities - Andes, Betania, Jardín, Cuidad Bolivar, Hispania (all Antioquia) and El Carmen de Atrato (Chocó) – and that has been very active in promoting the production of high quality coffee in the region. Mercanta began sourcing from this region in 2015, and indications look great for the future, as well.
Huila—The department of Huila is more rural than Cauca; nonetheless, is renowned for the quality of its coffee and is quickly becoming the largest coffee producing region in Colombia.
In Huila, Mercanta works primarily with a cooperative that works with producers living near the town of Timaná, in the south of the department. Every weekend during Huila’s harvest, Asprotimaná members bring their parchment coffee to the town of Timaná. There, each coffee is analysed and cupped by the association´s team of professional cuppers, who have been trained to the most exacting standards. If the coffee comes from a grower who has previously produced coffee of very high quality or if the coffee cups above 84 points, the sample is sent to Mercanta’s partner, Santa Barbara Estate Coffee, whose dry mill is located in Medellin. There, the coffee is cupped again by Santa Barbara’s team. Only samples of the very best coffees from each harvest are then sent through to Mercanta for our own assessment. During the 2014/15 harvest Santa Barbara cupped more than 1,500 samples to select the coffees that have been separated out as microlots (10%) or included in regional blends (20%). Programs like this one not only create better livelihood opportunities for small scale farmers in Huila but also create incentives for improved quality.
Nariño— Nariño lies in the far south of Colombia, bordering Equador in the high peaks of the Andes. Due to its proximity to the equator, coffee can be grown at very high altitudes in the department, and many farms are located on mountainsides of well over 2000 metres.
The Nariño coffee producing zone presents a combination of factors such as 1666 sunlight hours per year,1866mm (74 inches) of rainfall per year with reliable rainfall patterns and soils with a high percentage of organic material, all of which make it possible to cultivate coffee at a high altitudes and cooler than average temperatures.
It would be practically impossible to grow coffee here if the heat that accumulates at the bottom of the canyons during the day did not rise, during the night, to attenuate the cold in the higher mountain regions. But the fact that it does makes for some pretty special coffee.
Santander—Large amounts of typica and shade coffee are grown here and much of it is Rainforest Alliance certified. The department has a drier micro-climate and a lower growing altitude.
Sierra Nevada— The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a mountain range isolated from the Andes that reaches an altitude well over 5,000 metres. On the north coast of Colombia, many coffee farmers in the department are part of either the Arhuaco or Kogui native tribes. Most of the coffee here is grown organically, either certified and passively.
Tolima—The South of Tolima has for many years been a hotbed of FARC Guerilla activity and is a strategic region for Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Access is difficult across much of the department and producers growing in the region tend to be very small scale.