The world’s highest coffee

Landing in Pasto airport is a challenge for even the best pilots. The runway in Colombia’s Nariño province sits on a narrow plateau, constantly buffeted by crosswinds that swirl across the Andes mountains.  

What lies below - some of the highest-grown and finest coffees on the planet -makes it worth the bumpy approach. Indeed, altitude and coffee quality are inextricably linked.

In Nariño coffee can grow up to 2,300 meters, thanks to unique micro-climates and its proximity to the equator. Colder temperatures in the high mountains slow the beans’ development, resulting in more complex sugars and flavours in your daily cup.

Another factor influencing the taste profile of local coffees is the region’s fertile, volcanic soils. Nariño is dotted with active and dormant volcanoes that have blanketed the surrounding areas with mineral-rich lava and ash over the years.  

Nestled at the base of the La Jacoba volcano near the village of La Union is a five-hectare farm that belongs to Frank Torres, his sister Yorgeny and brother Gabriel. We first met Frank on a Q Grader course in Bogota earlier this year, vowing to visit his farm one day.   

The three siblings in their 20s are injecting new life into the family business, renovating crops and opening a restaurant beside the farm house, serving local dishes like ‘fiambre’ – a delicious mix of pork, chicken, rice, banana and potato, all wrapped in a banana leaf for added flavour.

Aware of the growing demand for high-quality ‘specialty’ coffees, Frank and his siblings are refining their farming techniques. Several coffee varieties, as well as bananas, lulo, mandarins and limes, all grow together on the farm, a mixed-cropping technique that helps provide shade, improve soil fertility and naturally control pests.

“It’s an opportunity to work on environmental conservation while improving the quality of our crop,” Frank says. “It’s hard to do, but not impossible. Impossible is travelling to the moon, at least for me.”

Technology is also helping. Frank uses a Brix meter to measure the sugar level of coffee cherries, useful information when deciding when to harvest and how best to process the beans.

If you’re in Colombia and want to learn more, go and visit yourself (elranchodema@gmail.com). The farm is open to tourists. We recommend it!

After taking the bus back to Pasto airport, we headed for one final coffee inside the main terminal to steady our nerves before take-off. There we discovered the very knowledgeable Diuver Obando who makes excellent espresso at the Caffeto café.

“Narino is known for its acidic coffees with fruit notes,” said the young barista while working the machine. “They’re different to others in Colombia.”

Roasting up a storm in Bogotá

Just because a gringo has long hair and a neck tattoo, it doesn’t mean they’re right”
— Alvaro Pelaez, roast master

Or put another way, drinking some of the ultra-light roasts currently in vogue may make you feel ill, no matter how trendy they are. Which is not to say that here at ZipaCoffee we’re endorsing burnt coffee. Obviously it’s a question of balance.

And so, keen to hit the right notes as we continue to roast coffee on a Huky roaster in our Bogotá apartment, we enrolled in a three-day course offered by Educafés in collaboration with local café Varietale.

It turned out to be both a mad dash and solid introduction to what probably takes a lifetime to master: how to turn green coffee beans into something delicious in the cup, courtesy of heat applied in the right quantities at the right moments.

If it sounds easy, it isn’t.

Batches of beans roasted to the same ‘degree’ or end colour do not necessarily taste the same. How quickly their temperatures rise in the machine and how long they remain there will determine sugar and acid concentrations in the finished product.

As if that weren't enough, bean variety and density, batch size and altitude all need to be factored in to the calculations.

Alvaro showed us how to plot a roast's progress using Artisan software. Another software option is CropsterIn simplistic terms one could say typical roast curves look like a soup ladle or tick, with temperature on the y axis and time on the x axis.

But as Buhler engineer Oskar Rutishauser explained in an interesting presentation, studies show consumers frequently prefer coffees roasted in completely different ways.

In any case, the course provided us with several new techniques to try out back home. Our thanks to organizer Parmenio Angarita and instructor Alvaro Pelaez for the insightful comments and good humour over the three days.