South American coffee producer Ecuador is far less known for its coffee than its long-standing fame for producing the cocoa beans used in some of the world’s finest chocolate. But hidden deep into the jungle, behind the central part of the Andes Mountain range, Ecuador’s coffee growers are taking steps to change that. Although still in the initial phase of market development, an increasing share of coffee from Ecuador is starting to reach both the specialty market in the U.S. and Europe.
BY MAJA WALLENGREN
Coffee production in Ecuador is known to have started in the early 1860s and at the peak of production in the 1994-95 crop cycle total output of Arabica and Robusta coffee reached 1.2 million 60-kilogram bags. A decade later, a combination of low prices, the dwindling size of per family farming units and a lack of political support has cut production in half and total output in the 2012-13 crop cycle ended at 605,000 bags, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This, however, producers say is all about to change as the country’s growers are working hard on improving quality and raising productivity.
From the Northern Amazon region on the border with Colombia to central El Triunfo in Guayas province; from the coastal province of Manabi to Loja and Zamora-Chinchipe in the remote south-east, Ecuador has everything it takes to produce amazing coffees: The regions, the micro-climates and all the old varieties based on the original Ethiopian Arabica strains such as Typica and Bourbon that produce some of the best cup qualities. And with a significant share of the Arabica coffee grown at altitudes close to or above 2,000 meters above sea level, Ecuador might be the only country in the world that can lay claim to grow Alpine coffee.
“Ecuador is not known for being a coffee producing country but here in Loja we have some of the best coffee produced in Ecuador. We have unique qualities because of the many microclimates in this region and we are really hoping to be able to start establishing ourselves more in the specialty market,” said Eduardo Santin, commercial manager of the producer group Fapecafes in the Loja-Zamora region.
Travelling the 400 kilometers to Loja overland from Ecuador’s commercial capital of Guayaquil provides the opportunity for the ultimate coffee adventure. Climbing to over 4,000 meters altitude in less than two hours, the road cuts right through the Andes Mountains and reveal stunning scenes of Alpine beauty. From the tree-less geography of Alpine tundra dominated by arid and dwarf-sized shrubs, upon starting the descend down toward Loja the arid lands suddenly opens up to green valleys and fertile farm lands.
Located at over 2,000 meters above sea level, the town of Loja was founded almost 500 years ago and is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador. Coffee growing first didn’t start in earnest in Loja until the 1950s and 1960s but local producers pride themselves with being home to some of the best beans cultivated in the country.
Describing the arid climate in the Zamora region on the slopes of the Andes with a year-round dry and windy climate as a place not usually seen fit for coffee growing at all and even less suitable for top quality beans, U.S. coffee roasters Sweet Maria’s said they have had bought some of their finest arabica beans from this area.
“Typically, precipitous areas like this are not very conducive for growing, processing and drying exceptional coffees. Zamora is an enigma proving that these hurdles can be overcome. We’ve been buying coffee from this region for four years now and consistently receive great quality. Some of the Bourbons I’ve tasted from this group are some of the finest coffees I’ve tasted from the entire continent,” said U.S. roasters Sweet Maria’s founder and chief green buyer Tom Owens in a note to customers published at the site of the Oakland, CA-based company’s online store. Owens describes the Zamora coffees as “a coffee with big fruit and lingering sweetness” with medium body and notes of apricot and plum apparent in the cup.
From the southern regions to the northern and coastal regions, the first place to embrace coffee growing in Ecuador was the Jipijapa Zone in the province of Manabí stretched out along the north-western coast lone. Coffee was introduced here in the early 1860s, historical accounts agree.
But Ecuador’s perhaps most valuable coffee jewel is found at the Galapagos Islands. Home to both green …
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