This is our fifth year buying coffee from Alto Naranjal, a small community high in the mountains of Nariño, Colombia. The name describes the fragrant orange groves shrouding the lower elevations—halfway up the mountain, the tree cover becomes sparse and the scent of wheelcrushed oranges dissipates into the heady perfume of coffee blossoms.
Exploring Colombian Coffee
Nariño is an almost mythical region in the specialty coffee pantheon. Colombia's three cordilleras—the parallel ranges that comprise the Andes—converge in Nariño, which is crossed by the equator, flanked by the Pacific, and dotted with volcanoes. The highest elevations—above 3,800 meters—are home to the páramo ecosystem, an alpine tundra under perpetual cloud cover.
The region is incredibly remote. From Bogotá to the capital city of Pasto is about an 18-hour drive—unless you have cargo, the more sensible option is an hourlong flight. The only connections to Aeropuerto Antonio Nariño depart from either Bogotá or Cali, and because of the short mountain runway, pilots often need multiple attempts to land. After three failed attempts, the plane must return to its original place of departure to refuel.
Most of our purchasing in Nariño is centered around the town of Buesaco, about 15 miles east of Pasto. Alto Naranjal sits on a high ridge overlooking the town and the route there is no less challenging than the flight. Set atop a maze of unpaved switchbacks, the trip requires a Land Cruiser that has been outfitted to have extra weight in front to provide crucial balance against such steep inclines.
The farms of Alto Naranjal are small. Each would fit comfortably within a single city block. Most consist of little more than the family's residence, rows of coffee and some food crops, and a tiny wet-mill for processing. But reception on the farms is warm and generous: as a visitor you're likely to be met with a glass of milk blended with either banana or carrot (it's delicious—think strawberry milk). Or you might be offered a tiny saucer of tinto, commercial coffee sweetened with panela.
Fernando Muñoz inherited his plot when his father died and the family farm was divided among himself, his mother, and his brother. At first, he chose to leave Nariño, enlisting in the Colombian army and later pursuing construction work in Bogotá. Recently, he returned to Nariño and resumed work on the farm. His plot is small—just 1.5 hectares—and he compliments his income from coffee by driving a rickshaw in town.
Fernando grows Variedad Colombia and Castillo, two cultivars promoted by the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia due to their resistance against coffee leaf rust. Once picked, Fernando ferments his coffee for 24 hours without the addition of water. He then washes the coffee and moves the resulting parchment to patios for sun-drying.
We purchased Fernando's coffee through Royal Coffee New York and Pergamino, our friends and longtime export partners based in Medellín, Colombia.