Farm: Alianza Café
Varietal: Cautrra, Colombia & Typica
Processing: Fully washed & dried on parabolic beds, patios or elbas
Altitude: 1,800 to 2,200 metres above sea level
Owner: 60 small holder members of Alianza Café
Town / City: Buesaco municipality, Juanambú Canyon
Overall: Caramel, creamy, malt
Juanambu Buesaco Narino - Colombia
This Microlot was produced by 60 smallholder farmers from the area around Juanambú Canyon in Eastern Nariño, Colombia. Around an hour’s drive north from the Departmental head of Pasto, the Canyon and the natural park around it are stunning examples of Nariño’s astonishing landscape and are locations of great historical significance.
The Canyon itself is located in the municipality of Buesaco. Although Buesaco was founded in the early 1700s, its history becomes interesting during Colombia’s war of independence. Nariño became famous as one of the few states in Colombia that sided heavily with the crown instead of the independence armies. Pasto was an important colonial town and was in the centre of commerce between Bogotá and Quito. Residents had every reason to side with peace and stability, not the change of the status quo that Simon Bolivar promoted.
After heavy fighting in different parts of Ecuador and Colombia, the Spaniards and revolutionaries eventually met in the Juanambú Canyon, a beautiful part of Buesaco where steep ridges come down meet at a small river. The fight took place on top of a thin bridge, and after heavy losses the revolutionaries were able to beat back the Spaniards and continue their way south to finalize the battle for independence.
The Department of Nariño is located in the southwest of Colombia, just above the equator and on the border with Ecuador. The mountainous region has excellent conditions both in terms of humidity and temperature to keep coffee in parchment for ongoing export shipments, and its location on the equatorial line provides a great angle of sun exposure for the extremely steep hills around the volcano.
Coffee is grown at altitudes that reach 2,200 metres, some of the highest elevations at which coffee is grown in the world. The high altitude of cultivation allows for a slow, development of the coffee bean, which gives the cup profile of Nariño its unique characteristics. However, producers in this region are overwhelmingly small-holders, whose farms are often located in remote areas and who have traditionally found it difficult to break into markets for higher quality.
The game changer came in 2010 and 2012, when two growers from the region of Buesaco (in northern Nariño) won the Colombian Cup of Excellence. This huge win made it clear to many growers from the region that their coffee had the potential to be sold and commercialized as true specialty, and not with the meagre premiums they were receiving for certification schemes.
Inspired by this new opportunity, a small group of 17 growers got together and formed the first regional association, called Grupo Empresarial Buesaco. With the assistance of the local technical school, the group started to organize themselves in to a small operation with the aim of buying, warehousing and commercialising specialty coffee. The association grew very quickly and soon became too big for the initial group, who decided last year to separate and start a new association, focused primarily in specialty.
Today Alianza Café (the speciality off-shoot) is managed by six members of the Benavides family, who are committed to running the association with transparency and with the final goal of improving the income of the growers that participate in their programs. Although small in name, some 400 producers from across Northern Nariño participate in Alianza’s commercial activities every year. The eastern municipalities of Buesaco, Arboleda and Tablón de Gomez represent the most significant area of influence. As mentioned previously, this particular lot hails from a small community of farmers who work in the area around Juanambú.
Most of the contributing farmers manage their own self-sufficient wet-mills and patios (open or covered) for drying. Others may use rooftop elbas or covered beds. Every family does their own harvesting - usually with the help of neighbours. After the red and ripe cherries are picked, they are pulped by passing them through a manual pulper at the family farm (usually located close to the main house). The waste from this process will be used later as a natural fertilizer for the coffee trees. Depending on the conditions, fermentation can range between 12 up to 48 hours. Some producers will add several layers of wet parchment over the course of a few days, which is thought to add complexity to the fermentation process and final cup profile. Luckily, Nariño is blessed with some of the best drying conditions in the country due to the micro-climate and high altitude of the region, providing lower relative humidity, more wind and more sunny days than other areas of the country.
Crucial to sustaining the speciality efforts of Alianza Café is the support of Mercanta’s partner in the region, Pergamino Exporters, who also work with the larger Buesaco group and now have begun to work with Alianza in order to help them achieve their goal.
Pergamino has set up a structure where all the coffee from the association that scores above an 84 is purchased at a premium in accordance to the quality of the lot and the final price at which it is sold.
Pergamino has previously established similar projects with other small producer organizations in Antioquia, Huila and Cauca, all of which have been hugely successful in identifying high quality lots from small producers and helping producers place these coffees at market for a higher price. In this essential first stage of the quality improvement program, Pergamino is working with Alianza in order to understand better the profiles and quality range that the members produce. This involves cupping with the group frequently during the harvest season and also accepting samples into Pergamino’s lab in Antioquia and providing lots of feedback.
Mercanta has been one of the first (if not the first) to engage with Pergamino on this new project, and the group is already investing a portion of the initial premiums they have received.
It is worth noting that the violence that plagued the early independence of Colombia in Nariño continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. Conflict and war returned in the 1990´s and early 2000´s as FARC guerrillas took over northern Nariño. This region was ripe to serve as a centre of operations for illegal groups. The government did not have a heavy presence in the region, and the altitude in much of the municipality was ideal for growing opium poppy plants and coca (and thus of great interest to the rebels). Pergamino mentions that most of the growers that they work with in the area still become coy and awkward when asked what they did during this time. They explain that the only option was to grow these goods, as there was no real market for coffee and they were the only products that a grower could sell and earn a living.
Lucky for Pergamino and for Mercanta, the guerrillas were forced out of the region almost 10 years ago, and the region is now completely safe to conduct normal economic activities such as growing and buying coffee. Both Mercanta and Pergamino deeply believe however that specialty coffee serves a special propose in making sure this region is prosperous and its future is one of peace and not of recurrent conflict.