Exploring the world of coffee in Colombia

Colombia is a fascinating country, with 3 major mountain ranges (Cordilleras), coffee growing region spanning 11 degrees of latitude. Its unique geography means it can offer coffee all year around.

Our visit took us from Bogota, to Manizales, Chinchiná and then onwards to Santa Marta to visit the Sierra Neva and Santa Marta Port. After visiting offices in Bogota, it was a relief to get out of the traffic ridden city and into the beautiful rolling mountains of Manizales and Chinchiná.

Colombian coffee farms are typically small. 96% of farms are smaller than 5 hectares. Across the country there are 550,000 coffee producing families, in 588 growing municipalities. Half of all municipalities grow coffee.

Visiting numerous farms in Caldas lead to a similar conclusion: due to poor flowering at the end of last year, the next crop (beginning April) is expected to be down 20-30% from last year. Whilst we were there, all eyes were focussed on the current weather, which needs to be dry and hot, for the flowering of the main crop, beginning October.

Two exceptionally well-kept farms we visited were Finca La Suiza and Finca Samaria where Mauricio Osorio grows any varietal he can get his hands on, including Tabi, Wush Wush, Gesha, red/yellow/pink bourbon. The nearby Belen de Umbria, is a true coffee town. It really comes to life on the weekend when all coffee comes to market, brought in with colourful jeeps, and sold to local collectors.

While the Eje Cafetero used to be the most important coffee producing region, there has been a big trend in production moving south. New areas in Cauca, Tolima and Huila are opening, which used to be off limits due to FARC activity. These areas also benefit from lower labour costs.

In recent years there have been two significant developments that have advanced the coffee industry here, and across the country. Firstly; motorbikes, to get between farms rapidly, allowing quicker deals to be done. Secondly, of course, mobile phones. Make no mistake, the owner of even a 2-hectare farm knew exactly where the NY coffee market was trading.

The next stop was Red Ecolsierra in La Sierra Nevada. La Sierra is an independent mountain range from the three that run up the country. Where the three main mountain ranges in Colombia are volcanic, La Sierra is Limestone, boasting the closest snow-capped mountain to the sea, anywhere in the world. It’s a younger mountain rage, where the soil layer is relatively thin, with less organic material. To overcome this and since this area receives more hours of sunlight than anywhere else in the country, coffee plants are grown in the shade of bigger trees. These trees help to develop the soil structure and protect the plants. The Guamo tree is very popular in coffee plantations as it submits nitrogen into the soil: free fertiliser.

The harvest for La Sierra is October-December. 2017 was a tough time for this region with a very concentrated crop with too much rain, over-spilling into the harvesting which spoilt some of the crop.  Again, during the visit here, all eyes were on the weather, hoping for hot and dry conditions, so that when the rains come in April, the plants are in a stressed state, which produces a good flowering.

Red Ecolsierra are doing fantastic work to support the local population and environment. We saw new beneficios being built with the social premiums from Fair Trade and organic sales. The coffee itself is one of moderate acidity with excellent body, ideal for espresso. The striking thing about this region and this group; is that farmers use organic practices as standard, because, that’s how their ancestors taught them to treat the land.

2018 has already been a strange year here. Some point to climate change. Untimely rains in January caused early flowers, which subsequently died. Crop pickers taking the remains of the 2017 crop had to be warned not to disturb the flowers. This was the first time this region had seen flowers on fruiting plants. Luckily, 2018 should be a bigger crop, up 10% due to cyclical ‘on-year’, and new trees coming into producing age. Only time will tell.

It’s currently a tough time for coffee producers. Low terminal market, strong local currency and changing weather patterns. Many exporters are coming to the realisation that other origins can compete in an aggressive way, including Peru, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
Some exporters expect that 2018 crop production will be around 13 million bags, a reduction of just over 1 million. 2015/16 and 16/17 were big crops and trees are still recovering. 2016 saw the FNC remove restrictions on only allowing exports of excelso grade. This also boosted export numbers and
local stocks were drawn down and exported. Now we see a lack of lower grades, which are demanded locally, making the market very firm domestically.
With the mitaca crop expected to be down 20-30% in the mid regions, we expect supply to be tight and prices to remain firm until April/May. Midcrop flow from central region (Antioquia, Caldas, North 
Tolima) is expected to begin in April, and May and June in the south (Cauca, Nariño, Huila, south

The future is bright however. 78% of Colombia’s crop is now rust resistant. The average tree age is just 7 years old and the FNC predict 100,000 coffee hectares will be renovated this year. Another point of interest is that Cenicafe are rolling out their next new varietal. (Cenicafe is the research arm of the FNC, responsible for producing varieties such as Colombia and Castillo). This new strain, Cenicafe1 is rust resistant and can be planted closer together, increasing yield per acre. Whilst this is still in development, it is expected to be rolled out over the next year or two. This should boost Colombia’s 19bags/Ha average which has already grown from 15bags/ha in 2015.

Finally, for us, the most striking thing about Colombia, is the variety it can offer. Each region has its own characteristics and there are some stunning specialty coffees being produced. Since producers are no longer restricted to only export main commercial grades, there are more opportunities on varietals and processes. Keep your eyes peeled to Daarnhouwer’s offer lists – we will be shipping many of these in the near future.