Get to Know Nariño

Posted on August 24th, 2017

There’s something about Colombia.

Actually, there’s not “something” about Colombia, but many, many somethings that make this place particularly special among coffee-growing countries, and as famous. Everyone knows Colombian coffee—or thinks they do. However, to simply say a coffee is from Colombia is to tell just a fragment of the story, like recommending a book to a friend by only telling her the name of the publisher.

To really get to know Colombian coffee is to travel thousands of miles, taste through thousands of cups, and wear out dozens of pairs of hiking boots touring hundreds of coffee farms from north to south. Even that’s just the beginning—but every beautiful story needs a beginning.

At Cafe Imports, we’re still in the beginning chapters of a beautiful story we call Regional Select, a program designed to capture and showcase the true taste of a place. It began in this very country, in 2013, when Cafe Imports founder and partner Andrew Miller had an idea. “I dumped all the data from 10 years of the Cup of Excellence, and you can see that Huila’s No. 1, followed by Nariño, Tolima, and Cauca: Those four regions are the best-cupping coffees in 10 years of competitions, so clearly we know there’s something happening in the south.”

Traveling through Colombia meeting producers and tasting through different profiles, Andrew was struck. “Huila was always the pageant winner, but I’d been to Cauca and I love that profile: It’s just a little racy, with red fruits, a little more exciting. Reminds me of Malbec. I thought, ‘We need to share this region with our customers.’” With that, Regional Select: Cauca was born, followed by Huila. 

There are more than 550,000 coffee-producing families in Colombia, and 20 of the country’s 32 departments produce coffee, within an incredibly wide range of microclimates, cultural traditions, and profiles to the cup. The country’s northern regions (e.g. Santa Marta and Santander) with their higher temperatures and lower altitudes, offer full-bodied coffees with less brightness and snap; the central “coffee belt” of Antioquia, Caldas, and Quindio among others, where the bulk of the country’s production lies, produce those easy-drinking “breakfast blend” types, with soft nuttiness and big sweetness but low acidity.

As Andrew had discovered, though, there’s something happening in the south, and two years ago we quietly introduced a new-to-us region within the Regional Select program with a single offering: Nariño—and it flew out of the warehouse.

The southernmost western department, Nariño’s farthest edge meets the northern border of Ecuador, and one of its main boundaries is the Pacific Ocean. The climate here is particularly unusual, even in a country so diverse that almost everything can be said to be unusual. “It’s dry, and there’s cactus growing around—it’s different,” Andrew says. “It’s colder, it’s higher, it’s much more steep and rugged.”

This landscape contributes unique conditions that boost the special, sparkling quality of the coffees. Dramatic slopes and valleys have direct effect on the temperature modulation that creates these high-acidity, supersweet coffees: Warm, humid air collects in the lowlands during the day and creeps gently up the mountainsides at night, a combination that allows coffee to thrive at much higher altitudes than most of the rest of the country, as much as 2,300 meters above sea level.

Cafe Imports green-coffee buyer Luis Arocha agrees, adding that he was shocked on a recent trip to see an area where sugar cane and coffee were planted alongside each other on the same farm. “For me, sugarcane is only for low altitudes, and doesn’t go well together with coffee.” he says. “It gets really hot during the summer, allowing the sugarcane to produce. Also the altitude allows the coffee to be a good product to have. And the coffee is great!”

If one of the defining characteristics of a coffee’s profile can be simply, “wow,” well, that’s what Nariño’s got in the cup. Luis describes them as having “intense tartaric acidity. Some of the coffees taste like grapes, it’s incredible how good they are. I really like acidity in coffee, and the types of flavors they have are delicate and fantastic.”

Logistically speaking, it has been difficult to source Regional Select–level quality coffees from Nariño until recently. For one thing, its reputation has typically been for high volume, and producers here are traditionally accustomed to delivering their coffee more commercially, without a focus on lot selection and separation. Additionally, until this year, our export partner Banexport lacked the resources that would allow them to efficiently receive, sample, and process coffees from here. This year, however, the export company established two receiving stations and warehouses, one in the capital city of Pasto, and the other in La Unión, practically on the Ecuador border.

What’s more, the typically commercial nature of production to this point has allowed producers more access to and experience with techniques that lay a good foundation for specialty coffee, despite the small size of their landholdings. (“The average farm is about 1 hectare,” Andrew says. “That’s teeny!”)

“The producers we visited are more familiar with technology,” says Luis. “All of them have mechanical dryers at their farm, and they are aware that a slower drying with a lower temperature prepares a better profile. As Nariño has a reputation for high moisture and high relative humidity, they know they have to be careful with drying. They are very aware of agricultural practices, usage of fertilizers, which type of fertilizer is best for them. They are curious about producing high-quality coffees.”

Those high-quality coffees are up-and-coming, and we are pleased to offer several of them this year as Regional Select offerings, as well as some stunning 88–89-point microlots. 

The main harvest in Nariño is finishing now, and should be afloat within the next few weeks, bringing with them notes of caramel, apple, sugar cane, lemonade, florals, raspberry—complex, mouthwatering characteristics that we can’t wait to share.

E-mail for more information, samples, and to get updates about this coffee’s arrival in our warehouse.

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