South America has its back up against a wall. Look at any altitude map and you can see it running down virtually the entire west coast of the continent, the Andean Mountain range, the “Andes.” In Colombia, the Andes include the Volcanoes, Nevado del Huila and Nevado del Tolima, which reach above 17,000 feet (more than 5,000 masl) and cast their long shadows over the coffee lands of the departments named after them, Huila and Tolima, home to Olam’s own Colombian Dulima coffee.

The Andes occupy the southwest portion of the Pacific rim ring of fire, known the “Andean Volcanic Belt,” which includes four zones (North, Central, South, and Austral) separated by volcanic gaps. Some might consider all this information about volcanic regions as too much information, but volcanic soil and coffee cultivation go together like peas and carrots, and understanding why coffee grows where it grows the way that it grows is part of coffee’s story.

Of the 74 volcanoes located in the Northern Zone, 19 are located in Colombia, including Huila and Tolima. Just north of Tolima is Nevado de Ruiz, which erupted in 1985, killing many thousands of people, and it is still considered hazardous. Both Huila and Tolima are considered active, though Tolima has not experienced a major eruption in nearly 4,000 years. Huila has had significant eruptions within the last 10 years.

So, what’s the big deal with coffee and volcanic soil? Well, even though it’s been 4,000 years, the soil resulting from the last major eruption of Tolima is still considered “young soil” relative to how long it takes, say, a boulder to erode into soil (leaching nutrients the entire time). In the same way that young people are full of energy, young soils are filled with nutrients that are no longer found at the same levels in old (but wise) soils. There is a long list of elements on offer in volcanic soil that are fading or absent in other soils, such as high levels of potassium (sugar and citric acid) and nitrogen (amino acids and related to caffeine development). Also present is something called “Boron,” which arrived from outer space a long time ago, and is important to cell walls, the creation of enzymes, and the production of flowers and fruit, meaning Boron contributes to yield.

Photo Olam Specialty Coffee

We should just say it: A plethora of nutrients are found in volcanic soil.

Beyond the nutrients, the structure of volcanic soil is also beneficial to coffee growing. To over-simplify if not be inaccurate, volcanic soil is like a sponge. It can soak up and hold moisture while, at the same time, facilitate good drainage so water doesn’t pool, which is not good for coffee plant roots. Coffee plants like to take a drink, then take a break. Take a drink, then take a break. Volcanic soil is totally into that rhythm. As an added benefit, volcanic soils are often found on an incline, because … volcanos, which also helps with drainage.

If you read long enough about the Colombian Andes you may come across a curious contemporary legend. It is said that early in the 20th century a pilot from another land, Japan perhaps, crash landed his airplane in the Andean Mountains of Colombia. He was so thoroughly taken by the beauty of the region above the timberline that he wandered about for years, with no thought of rescue or escape, and if you venture beyond the timberline even today, you may find him wandering alongside the spectacled bears that live there (so named because their coloring makes them appear, to a creative mind, as if they are wearing eyeglasses).

The region over which our pilot in the tall tale became so enamored, between the timberline and the glaciers, is known as paramo, an “alpine tundra ecosystem,” if you care to be technical about it. The term is almost always used in reference to the northern Andes, where it is, to be even more technical, a “neotropical high mountain biome.” The paramo of the northern Andes has the distinction of being considered one of the fastest evolving regions on the planet. The majority of paramo ecosystems occur in Colombia, on the slopes of Nevado del Huila and Nevado del Tolima, for example. The area around Tolima is the largest paramo on earth. Paramo are known for dramatic fluctuations in temperature, from below freezing at night to nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, described as summer every day and winter every night. These fluctuations–at lower altitudes where they are no so dramatic–are great for growing coffee.

Tolima is home to the largest paramo on earth. Photo by Federico Mejia  |  CC by 2.0    Top Photo by Zasilvape CC by 2.0

Despite these conditions, people have lived on the paramo for thousands of years. The Pijaos people were native to the region now known as Tolima long before the Spanish arrived. They fought hard against the invaders and when they finally retreated they moved into the highlands around Nevado del Tolima, the volcano they called Dulima, meaning Snow Queen, and a name that also serves synonymously as identification of their homeland.

Olam’s Colombian Dulima is named for the spirit of the Pijaos people and their Snow Queen who, unbeknownst to them, created a superior environment for growing coffee.