This year’s Colombia field trip explored uncharted territory. Mercanta are very excited to have finally gained access to Nariño province in Colombia’s far south-west, out of bounds until recently due to security concerns. José made the trip to this very special region at the beginning of March and returned with some great new coffees.
Not an easy year
In March 2009 I spent a week in Pereira, Risaralda as a member of the Cup of Excellence International Jury, cupping coffees from Colombia’s main regions – namely Huila, Tolima, Caldas, Quindío, Risaralda and Meta. At that time Colombian coffee production was more or less following its normal cycle. Although the crop was slightly smaller than in previous years, this pushed up fruit quality and some great coffees made it to the auction. (www.coffeehunter.com/articles/colombia_cup_excellence_2009)
Then over the next few months Colombian coffee was thrown into an unexpected crisis; a 32% fall in main crop production lead to a shortage of over three million bags. This came as a very unwelcome surprise – of 11 million bags forecast, the actual crop yielded just 7.5 million, the lowest production levels since 1976. This shortage not only affected growers, exporters and importers but also damaged Colombian credibility in the international market. Many export contracts were not fulfilled, and those that were commanded a record high local price but were sold on at contracted prices, inflicting massive losses on exporters. These high prices partly helped producers to compensate for their loss in yields, although were also pushed up by internal speculation as the abnormal conditions created a climate of chaos during the main production months.
This terrible crop can mainly be blamed on the weather. Rainfall went up by some 40% and climatic conditions in coffee producing areas were altered dramatically by the El Niño weather phenomenon – with heavy rain in some places and drought in others. This caused the damaging Roya fungus to spread rapidly, devouring leaves and severely affecting fruit ripening. With these problems in mind I headed back to Colombia to see first hand the current situation and meet our friends in Huila.
Two days in Pasto, Nariño
Nariño is located in the south-west of Colombia, bordering Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean. The best coffees are grown in what is locally called ‘Cuenca Interandina’, or ‘Interandean basin’, located mainly around the Galeras Volcano (4,000 metres and still active!). Coffee here grows at an altitude range of 1,800 to 2,100 metres and the average temperature fluctuates from 18 to 24° Celsius, with variations of 15° Celsius between day and night. The soils are mainly volcanic with some very rocky areas due the proximity of the volcano, providing nutrients to mainly the Caturra varietal and a small percentage of Tipica. This region started getting recognition for the quality of its coffee in 2000 and has been making the top ten at Cup of Excellence since the programme was launched in Colombia in 2005. One thing worth mentioning is that Nariño 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.
We fell in love with coffees from Nariño when we bought Lot #1 – El Aguacate from Gregorio Botina – at the 2005 Colombia Cup of Excellence auction. At the time we were blown away by Gregorio’s coffee – the cup as we remember was very complex and rounded with intense sweet orange acidity and notes of peach. Unsurprisingly the coffee was a great success and since then we have set our sights on finding new lots from this region. Gregorio’s farm is located in the village of Sandoná and his coffee grows at 1,900 metres. We also bought Lot #14 at the same auction in 2005: La Mina from Franco López. Franco’s coffee comes from the village of Buesaco (at 2,050 metres).
A few years passed and our intended visit to this region never materialised as a result of security concerns. The area has suffered the presence of guerrilla and other criminal groups for several decades and it is only now that we have finally got the green light to visit this very special place.
During our trip we spent time in five villages around the volcano: Tunja Grande, Matituy, Sandoná, El Ingenio and Consacá. In Tunja Grande we were welcomed by Segundo Eulogio Matituy from Finca La Esperanza; in Matituy by Carlos Manchabajoy and Mariana Pantoja; in El Ingenio by the Barco family; and in Consacá by Vicente Mora.
Between the municipalities of Sandoná and La Florida there are two villages called El Ingenio and El Rodeo. The hills that surround the villages are exceptionally steep – almost sheer – which makes coffee growing a great challenge. Until visiting these growers I had asked myself the question; “How do people grow and pick coffee on such steep hills?!”. I discovered that pickers have to tie themselves to trees and keep their balance with one hand whilst picking coffee cherries with the other – not an easy task! The cherries are then taken to a house in the village of Santa Rosa for pulping, fermentation and drying. These extremely steep hills are also present around the Maco, Yanbinoy, Bella Vista and Santa Barbara villages.
There are a good number of shade trees in the area such as Leucaena, Plantain, Banana, Guamo, Cachingo, Carbonero Gigante and Vainillo. These trees sustain the plantations – as well as providing sun protection they retain a high level of water, which they then slowly distribute to the soil. This is much needed during the dry season.
In the 1970s and 80s the main coffee variety in Nariño was Tipica. The local coffee Federation (FNC) encouraged the planting of Caturra as a better pest-resistant variety. There is still a small ratio of Tipica in the region but Caturra now accounts for the majority of plants. Until 2001 coffee parchment was bought locally based on defects (fewer defects = better price), however since 2001 coffees in the region have been bought based on cup quality and density of beans. Nariño is also a big producer of Fique cabuya – a natural fibre that grows in the leaves of the Fique plant (see photo gallery below), which are washed, dried, turned into threads and woven into sacks for green coffee beans and other agricultural produce. Coffee growers in Nariño also produce corn, yucca, plantain, and banana, mostly for their own family consumption.
The main crop in Nariño is during the months of May and June and we expect to have these wonderful coffees available in the UK around August.
Cupping in Pasto
The Cooperativa de Caficultores de Occidente, which represents 2,000 producers in Nariño, looked after us for two days and showed us the region. They prepared a cupping session with lots from different villages. Here are the results:
• Sandoná – Crisp citrus acidity / elegant and balanced / notes of lemon and honey
• Pasto – Bright grape acidity / coating mouthfeel / notes of orange marmalade
• El Tambo – Vibrant acidity / very juicy mouthfeel / intense and persistent sweetness / notes of fresh cane sugar
• Matituy – Bright acidity / notes of plum / buttery rounded mouthfeel
• Tunja Grande – Zesty citrus acidity / notes of honey / very sweet
• La Florida (Rodeo / Bella Vista hills) – Very complex coffee / layers of flavours / silky mouthfeel / rounded / balanced acidity
Looking towards the future we are very optimistic. This coming crop in Nariño is very likely to be a gem and we cannot wait for it to arrive…
A day in Neiva, Huila
Huila is one of our favourite coffee regions and every year we organise a visit to catch up with our friends from the Agua Azul association in the town of Pitalito. Unfortunately during this year’s trip there were elections in the country for senate and congress and we were advised not to go up to Pitalito for security reasons. Therefore we invited Julio Gomez, Jose Sanchez, Reynel Castillo, James Zambrano and Ricardo Granados to a meeting and lunch in the city of Neiva.
The idea of the meeting was to hear directly from the growers about the problems they faced during the last main crop and to establish goals and plans for the coming one. We heard that even though the internal market reached record prices for producers there was not enough coffee for them to take advantage of this situation. The growers also said that the climate is changing every year and it is becoming very difficult to follow a normal pattern of farm management. The El Niño phenomenon has brought rain to some areas and drought to others, and the Roya fungus affected an extremely high proportion of their plantations. It is worth noting that this Roya problem will also affect the coming crop (the smaller mid-year crop – known as Traviesa or Mitaca – in south Huila, and the main crop in Nariño) as the plants devote most of their nutrients to producing new leaves (whereas in a healthy cycle the plant would already have a good covering of foliage and would direct its efforts towards its fruit).
It was fantastic to see the producers again and we wish them a speedy recovery for this year’s main crop. A big thank you to the following people for their generosity and excellent hospitality:
In Nariño: Francisco Ortiz, Carlos Oliva, Roberto Barco our local partners in Pasto
Farmers: Segundo Eulogio Matituy, Carlos Manchabajoy, Mariana Pantoja, Family Barco and Vicente Mora
In Bogota: Ricardo Granados, Roberto Velez our local partners in Colombia
In Huila: James Zambrano our local partner in Huila
Farmers: Julio Gomez, Jose Sanchez and Reynel Castillo from Agua Azul