Until recently, Nariño was not a widely celebrated name in coffee. For most of the 20th century its production was blended with coffee from other regions to produce a generic "100% Colombian" mark for export.
This changed in 1989 when Starbucks took an interest in Nariño and introduced a permanent single origin offering, Nariño Supremo. By the early 2000s, Starbucks was purchasing nearly 100% of the coffee grown there. (Still today you can see ubiquitous badges advertising the company's internal sourcing certification adorning warehouses and processing facilities.)
In those days, very little of Nariño's coffee was traceable and most still tasted fairly generic. And although the region's coffees caught the interest of some early direct trade buyers, it was generally thought of as a region with huge potential overshadowed by extreme logistical hurdles.
In 2010, Nariño's coffee producers showed the world otherwise, dominating that year's Cup of Excellence with a staggering 17 wins—and one coffee receiving an inconceivable (and borderline comical) 100-point score from multiple judges. That proved to be a watershed moment for the region, incentivizing exporters to do the hard work of identifying and separating high quality microlots.
Part of the challenge with Nariño is its remote location. Its capital city, Pasto, is more than 12 hours by car from Medellín (where Pergamino, our export partners, are headquartered). Pasto is served by an infamous municipal airport that receives flights departing Bogotá or Cali—the runway is so short, and surrounded so tightly by mountains, that each flight is permitted three attempts to land. If all three attempts are scrubbed—and they commonly are—the plane must return to its airport of departure to avoid running out of fuel.
Traveling in Nariño is no easier. The route from Buesaco to the fincas in Alto Naranjal requires a special vehicle, a Land Cruiser modified to be heavy in the front—a vital feature given how steep and sharply curved the unpaved roads are. The drive itself is incredible—shady and perfumed by fallen, crushed oranges at the lower elevations and surrounded by panoramic views at the higher elevations.
Nariño's geography is special in that it lies along the equator. Here, the ideal temperatures for coffee exist higher than anywhere else in the world, and it's common to see coffees grown at elevations as high as 2,300 meters (7,500 feet). Volcanoes make up the highest peaks, under constant cloud cover associated with the páramo, a sort of tundra climate occurring above the tree line. Otherwise, Nariño experiences well-defined rainy and dry seasons—helpful for the growing and processing of very high quality coffee.
Ulpiano Rodriguez moved his family to the neighboring state of Putumayo in the 1990s, but was forced to leave suddenly when a new gang took control of the area. He returned to Nariño (which was also being ravaged by guerilla violence) and built his 3 hectare coffee farm in Alto Naranjal from scratch. Today, Finca Buena Vista includes 12,000 Caturra and Colombia plants and a small beneficio (wet mill). After the coffee is picked and depulped, it ferments in water for 24 hours before it is sundried on patios.
We were fortunate to visit Ulpiano's farm on our last trip to Nariño in the summer of 2018. Since then, our export partners, Pergamino, have established a more permanent presence in the region, including a local collection point for parchment coffee. We're excited for our mutual growth in this incredible region.