Coffee from the Cauca region of Colombia is unique due to the high altitude and unique, mountainous ecosystem. The majority of coffee in this part of Colombia is growing around a plateau located at over 1,700 meters above sea level, though some small producers have small plantations at well over 2,000 meters. The meseta de Popoyán, where much of the best Cauca coffee is grown is sheltered by the Andes Mountains, creating a homogenous climate that is idea for coffee cultivation.
Another defining characteristic of the Cauca region is that the Sotará and Puracé volcanoes have led to volcanic-rich soil which contributes to the rich flavor profile. These volcanoes also bring cold winds to the region which result in higher- quality coffees. High levels of sunlight intensity along with the absence of cloud cover during important parts of the year lead to favorable flowering conditions. Temperatures range between 11 and 18 degrees Celsius (51 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit) which also are ideal for high altitude coffees.
Most people believe that coffee came to Colombia in the 17th century along with Jesuit priests. However, it wasn’t until 1835 when Colombia first exported coffee to the United States. During the 19th century, most coffee was grown on large latifundios controlled by European-descendant elites. After several land reforms, today coffee production is mostly controlled by small-scale farmers. In the Cauca region, several “resguardos”, or indigenous reserves allow for native control of the land where coffee is grown, and the average size of the coffee plantation is just over one hectare.
The vast majority of the over 93,000 small-scale coffee farmers in Cauca come from one of several indigenous populations, including the Nasa – Paéz, Guambiano Yanaconas, Coconucos, Epiraras – siapiraras, Totoroes, Inganos, and Guanacos. There is also a large segment of Afro-Colombian coffee farmers in one part of the state.
Indigenous coffee farmers have their own forms of traditional organization, and community growing collectives are common throughout the region. Furthermore, on a national level, the National Federation of Coffee Growers represents the nation’s coffee producers. This federations is unique in that guarantees the purchase of green coffee from farmers of all sizes, though farmers are not required to sell to them. Because the average farm size is only around 1 hectare, there are also several small cooperatives and producers associations who help small farmers collectively market their coffee via fair trade and direct trade agreements.
Much of the coffee in the Cauca region of Colombia is shade grown, making coffee a sustainable agricultural crop for the indigenous people of the Cauca.
Due to the high elevations and lower average temperatures, the Arabica coffee grow in the Cauca region has a much higher level of acids and sugars than other coffees grown throughout the country. This directly leads to the perfect combination of acidity, sweetness and mildness that is so sought after in high quality coffees. The coffee from the Cauca region of Colombia is characterized by a sweet flavor accompanied by a strong caramel aroma and fragrance. The high levels of acidity are balanced out by a medium body and mild impression while the sweet, floral notes bring a distinctive taste.
Over ninety percent of the coffee in Cauca is harvested between the months of April and June. At the highest elevations, harvest can continue into July. Also, small coffee farmers in this region also benefit from a smaller mid-harvest that occurs between November and January. Because of the small average size of coffee farms (just over one hectare), almost all of the harvesting is done by hand, and the coffees ate generally washed before export. The washing or wet process leads to clean flavors and a consistent profile.
Care for the coffee plants throughout the growing season is artisanal, allowing for the best organic practices to be utilized which further enhances the coffee flavor profile. Lastly, the relatively low nighttime temperatures significantly slow the coffee’s maturation process. This directly leads to finer flavors and increased acidity. Darker roasts of Cauca coffee leads to increased juiciness which is highly sought after by international markets.