The Lab

Origin Profile: Colombia

Overview

Production: 13.5 million 60-kilo bags
Primary Varieties: Castillo, Colombia, Caturra, Typica, Bourbon
Average Farm Size: 2 Hectares
Maximum Elevation: 5,750m or ~19,000ft
Notable Growing Regions: Huila, Narino, Antioquia, Cauca, Sierra Nevada

Geography

Colombia is in the Northwest corner of South America. It is the only country on this continent with coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. The Andes Mountains run Northeast from Narino to Norte de Santander. The Andes splits into three distinct chains or cordilleras: Occidental, Central, and Oriental or Western, Central and Eastern. A majority of Colombia’s population lives on the slopes and in the valleys of the mountains, with the lower elevation eastern region being more sparsely populated. Between the central cordillera and the oriental flows the Magdalena River. The Magdalena River basin and that of its tributary, the Cauca, cover a vast area – over 100,000 sq. miles. About two-thirds of Colombians live here. Historically, its gentler flow makes it the ideal mode of transporting goods to the Caribbean.

The Occidental Cordillera is the lowest of the Colombian Andes. The highest peak is 4,100masl. This chain begins in Narino and runs through Cauca, Risaralda, Choco, Caldas, Antioquia, and Cordoba. To the east is the Cauca Valley, which forms a deep rift between the Western and Central Cordilleras. The Central Cordillera is the highest in the Andes, with Nevada Huila reaching 5,750 masl. This chain runs through Narino, Cauca, Huila, Tolima, Risaraldo, Caldas, and Santander departments. The Oriental Cordillera is the widest and peaks at Nevada Cocuy at 5,493masl. It passes through the regions of Putumayo, Huila, Tolima, and Boyaca.

Climate

Given Colombia’s equatorial location, the seasons have relatively little effect on temperatures. Different temperate zones are distinguished primarily by elevation. Tierra Caliente represents the lowest elevations below 900masl. This zone comprises most of the countries area, about 85%. It is where tropical fruit like banana, pineapple or sugarcane is grown. Tierra Templada, the temperate zone, is 900-2000masl or and covers just less than about 10% of the country and includes the lower slopes of the cordilleras. The cities of Medellin and Cali can be found in this zone. Tierra Fria is 2000-3000masl and covers about 5% of the country. The Paramos represents <1% of the countries area is the highest elevation zone encompassing the mountain peaks. As seasonal winds shift and ascend over the mountains, the air cools and condenses producing fog and rain. Farmers in the mountains can experience two wet seasons and two dry seasons per year with April – May and July – September being the wet seasons.

Growing Regions

The departments of Quindío, Risaralda, and Caldas have historically been the largest producers of coffee in Colombia. More recently, the departments of Huila, Narino, Tolima, and Antioquia are becoming more established. The cup profile of Colombian coffee depends heavily on variety, altitude, and terroir. The northern departments of Santander or Boyaca tend to be lower altitude and higher temperature zones that produce less complex coffees. The coffees offer a classic breakfast blend profile. They are medium bodied with low acidity. The flavors are nutty, sweet, with subtle citrus notes. The high mountain farms of Antioquia, Quinidio, Narino, Huila, or Tolima produce exceptional coffee as a result of the elevation and volcanic soil. These coffees will offer more vibrant fruit notes, high sweetness. and florality. About 40% of Colombian coffee is sold at a premium for being specialty grade.

History

The origin of coffee in Colombia is not completely certain, but the most common story is that coffee arrived with Jesuit priests in the 1730s. It was not until 1835, over 100 years later, that the first coffee exports were logged from the port of Cucuta. Coffee experienced large speculative expansion in the second half of the 19th century as large estates with access to international banking and credit in Santander and Cundimarca opened to profit off coffee’s relatively high international prices. The Thousand Days War and the international decline of coffee prices at the beginning of the next century proved that this style of coffee production was unsustainable for Colombia. The estates in Santander fell into financial crises and growth of estates in Antioquia and Caldas stalled. Coffee remained a viable option for smaller farmers. It represented a more intensive farming option that could be cultivated year-round, much better than the slash and burn farming of other crops. Most of Colombian producers today operate on farms less than 2 hectares or 5 acres. Only 5% of Colombian Coffee is produced on estates bigger than 5 hectares or 12 acres.

Federación Nacional de Cafeteros

In order to compete more effectively, Colombian Farmers formed the Colombian Coffee Growers federation (FNC) in 1927. The FNC is one of the oldest and largest agricultural NGOs in the world. The FNC’s goal is to protect the interests of Colombian Farmers domestically and internationally through collective action, education, and research. In 1938 FNC created the National Coffee Research Center – Cenicafe. Cenicafe was founded to study coffee farming including production yields, harvesting and processing methods, and resulting quality in order to improve Colombian coffee. Today, Cenicafe is proving to be successful in producing new varieties of coffee that are more resistant to Coffee Leaf Rust which will make the Colombian coffee industry more robust.

Varieties

The Typica variety is one of the oldest in central America and the world. It has very good cup quality potential, but is highly susceptible to leaf rust, and has low yields according to World Coffee Research. The caturra variety is the most commonly planted in Colombia. It is a bourbon mutation that was first discovered in Minas Gerais in Brazil. The plant size is small with good yield potential and good cup quality. Caturra is still susceptible to coffee leaf rust. The Colombia coffee cultivar became very popular after leaf rust devastated the harvest in 1983. Colombia is a Caturra-Timor hybrid. Further experimentation along the same lineage lead to the development of the Castillo cultivar. Castillo has good cup quality and is resistant to leaf rust.

Civil Unrest, Guerilla Warfare, and Impact

Coffee production in certain parts of the country has been difficult as a result of guerilla warfare in the later 20th century. In 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a prominent liberal land reform champion, was assassinated in Bogata sparking protests and violence because of decades old divisions between liberals and conservatives. Land disputes occurred between wealthy haciendas and the peasant class where some peasants tried to colonize land and form independent communities. FARC was formed by rebels in the Southwest region of Cauca who fled to the mountains after theirs was raided by government authorities. As FARC recruited more members and spread their area of control, the farmers in these areas did not have adequate support from governmental institutions. Rebel colonization was having a negative impact on their businesses. Coca farming offered a solution as it was relatively easy to grow in this region, producing high yields with little fertilizers. Cartels also operated more easily in areas under FARC control, and they paid taxes or bribes to the guerilla groups. Farmers who did not switch to Coca and did not work with Cartels were left on their own and in sometimes dangerous circumstances.

In 2016 a peace deal was reached between FARC and the Colombian government that included weapons collection by the UN, electoral reforms, resettlement and matriculation programs, and land title reforms.

Parts of the agreement were meant to address the illicit drug trade that grew under FARC. The programs were designed to end coca production through crop subsidies and increased support from the government. Farmers who remove coca from their farms will receive, on average, $12,000 over two years and help with planning and growing the new crops, most commonly coffee. The removal of coca, especially older bushes, is extremely labor intensive and, in order to receive the subsidy, the process must be completed in 60 days. The switch to coffee is problematic as well when considering trees will take at least 3 years to mature and produce cherry. This will leave farmers without income for an entire year. The program has had success especially in areas where private companies have added additional support to farmers. Companies like Illy, Starbucks, McCafe, and others have signed long terms contracts with these farmers to incentivize the return to coffee farming and guarantee their income. At Royal NY, we have been working with new producers from Narino, Cauca, and other former FARC territories. Whenever possible, we feature these coffees as microlots and farmers receive a premium for their crop.

The peace with FARC will hopefully continue. The decrease in violence represents opportunity for growth of the Colombian coffee industry. There are areas that are now accessible to importers and other forms of external investment that were previously too dangerous to do business with. Supporting and developing these areas can help to further stabilize the region and increase the quality of the coffee that is being produced.

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.

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