Colombia is a diverse group of growing regions spread from North to South along the three "cordilleras," the mountain ranges that are the Northern extensions of the Andes. Colombian coffees can be outstanding. Most coffee, especially from the Southern growing areas of Huila, Cauca, Narino and Tolima, comes from small family farms, and when the picking and processing are done well they can be exceptional: Silky body, cane sugar sweetness, floral hints and traces of tropical fruits are found in the best Colombia coffees.
We work primarily in the areas of Narino, Huila and Cauca and make many visits each year to visit farms and cup coffees, but most of the work happens in Oakland at our lab, where we receive hundreds of samples to cup. We grade these either as clean and sweet coffees that are good enough for our micro-blends (either by farmer group or small regions), or as single-farmer micro-lots. Each of these micro-lot samples represents a single farmer's work over the period of a week or two and represents a lot of 1/2 to 5 bags of parchment coffee. The main image on our Colombia page is Walter Penna, one of the farmers that has coffee designated as micro-lot quality, from Pedregal, Huila. He is next to a pile of parchment coffee, the green bean still intact in the shell, and inside a parabolic drying cover to protect the coffee from rain, as well as provide gentle diffused light and heat for even drying.
It's important to make a distinction between the way we work in a country like Colombia, and the majority of Colombian coffee imported into this country that ends up at a roastery, a cafe, or in coffee bins at a market.
Colombian coffee has been highly marketed in the US for many decades by the FNC, the Federacion Nacional de Cafe. They have been successful at equating the name Colombian Coffee with "good" coffee. This is half-true. Colombian coffee is bulked into container lots that lack clean cup character and distinctive flavor attributes. This is the case with all origins in fact: There are stellar Ethiopian coffees but that does not mean Ethiopia coffee necessarily means good coffee. The fact that coffee is now marketed by origin country, sub-region, farm, farmer name, or which side of the tree they picked does not guarantee good quality. Also, indiscriminate mixing of good and bad lots, well-processed clean coffees with over-fermented batches, or ones that might have been re-wet by rain showers when drying, results in the lowest common denominator for the entire shipment of coffee.
Colombian Coffee Quality
Is there good Colombian coffee? Absolutely, but not from Supermarket bulk bins and the like. Good Colombian is rarely sold simply as Supremo or Excelso, a name that designates the size of the beans only and means nothing about the quality of taste. Grading by screen size doesn't make sense because a larger bean does not mean better cup quality. In fact, the presence of diverse bean sizes can result in better cup quality, but not necessarily. Since we rate everything by cup quality and all coffees are judged "blind," bean size is irrelevant and doesn't enter into how we select coffees.
Among the generic pooled lots are regional coffees branded only by the Department (State) they come from, Huila, Medellin, Antioquia, Cauca, or very general sub-region distinctions like San Augustin or Pitalito. These lots can be okay, but recent samples have showed a tendency towards the use of non-traditional varietals like Variedad Colombian or the newer Castillo cultivar, both catimor types that offer disease-resistance at the expense of taste quality. There are still older types of "aqua-pulp" processing in use in Colombia from volume-oriented mills, and these tend to have a fruity taste on arrival, while they fade into a cup with paper-cardboard taint in a few months.
Many areas of Colombia have two crops: a main harvest and the "mitaca," where the coffee shrub will be producing flowers for the next semi-annual harvest while it is being harvested with red ripe coffee cherry. It poses problems both for the plant and its limited amount of energy, as well as a physical risk of damaging the flower buds while picking the ripe fruit. More significant is the presence of coffee rust fungus (roya), as well as the coffee berry borer insect (CBB, or broca). With climate change, these problems are spreading to coffee regions within Colombia that were never at risk previously. And in areas where they were formerly present only at lower altitudes, for example the valleys in Huila at 1200 meters, these blights are now found on the slopes overlooking these areas, at 1600 and 1700 meters. This is severely affecting the volume of coffee a tree can produce, and the incomes of the farming families.