Harvest + Trip Report: Ecuador 2019

Posted on August 15th, 2019

Ecuador is not typically the first place that comes to mind for fans of specialty coffee, but it’s not because the country lacks great cups: Some of our favorite South American coffees come from the misty mountains of Pichincha in the north and the biodiverse province of Loja in the south. Ecuador’s border neighbors of Colombia and Peru tend to outshine it in terms of annual yield and recognition, but every year the country’s reputation for quality, clarity, and personality inspires more and more specialty-coffee hunters to look to the farmers here for new profiles, captivating stories, and strong potential for growth.

There are a few key reasons that Ecuador’s coffee hasn’t achieved the widespread hype it most certainly deserves, including the logistical challenges of sourcing coffee in a country located smack-dab on the equator: The unique climate system created by that longitude in proximity to the country’s coffee farms means that coffee is harvested year round, which creates substantial labor costs as well as the need to be especially diligent with quality during harvesting.

That increased need for labor has become a huge issue over the past several years: Shortages of available workers means that costs go up and up, and often so does carelessness or inattentive picking and processing. Climate change has naturally exacerbated the problem: Areas that were once sun-drenched in the afternoons are now enveloped in fog all day long, while in other regions the annual temperatures are increasing so rapidly that parts of long-established farms are no longer as hospitable to coffee as they once were.

Despite the challenges, however, farmers here have seen possibility in the specialty market, and since the beginning of this century they have invested in good-quality heirloom Arabica varieties like Typica and Bourbon, and interesting profile producers like SL-28 and Gesha. Many have also adopted new and advanced technology to improve their overall cup: Brix meters are common during harvest and fermentation, as well as moisture meters and other tools of the trade to help grow their specialty output.

Cafe Imports has worked in Ecuador since 2012, when CEO and head of sourcing Jason Long purchased half a container from Pichincha. Today, thanks to senior green-coffee buyer Piero Cristiani’s personal interest to the country as a source with enormous untapped opportunity for quality and investment, Cafe Imports has not only developed long-term cornerstone relationships with several of the top growers in the country, but is also bringing increased awareness about Ecuador’s budding specialty sector to the industry at large through our Resource trips, and through our partners’ representation of Ecuadoran coffees on the national and international coffee-competition stage.

A Resource: Sourcing trip to Ecuador this past July took roasters to both of our primary sourcing areas in the country to meet with some of the intrepid farmers behind the amazing coffees on our offering sheet. Customer service representative Kirstin Benish went along as Cafe Imports support staff, as well as to meet some of these larger-than-life personalities for the first time. A longtime traveler, writer, and coffee-lover, Kirstin jumped at the opportunity to introduce our customers to these producing partners, and she shares her reflections below.

Kirstin, meet Ecuador. Ecuador, meet Kirstin

As a new employee to Cafe Imports and new to the specialty-coffee industry, it took me some time to grasp onto the concept of traceability in coffee—the idea that alongside various growing countries, processing methods, and varieties, there is a specific name connected to the coffee: a washing station, farm, cooperative, estate, and sometimes even a farmer. My first few days at work I scrolled through our list of offerings over and over, trying to imprint all the newness into my head and make those names that appear on my computer screen seem, well, human. What does this name, this kind of traceability to the farmer, actually tell us?

It didn’t “click” until I found myself in Ecuador, sitting at a table on the porch at Henry and Verena Gaibor’s farm Maputo with Cafe Imports senior green-coffee buyer Piero Cristiani, sourcing liaison Omar Herrera, and three of our roaster partners, eating crispy fried plantains and drinking the Gaibors’ coffee.

This job is more than just finding good coffee: This is about people: humanity, connections, and the stories behind coffee. Tracing through the supply chain from a bag of roasted coffee all the way to the particular producer/s is what makes specialty coffee special. It’s certainly what made this trip special for me. Coffee, as it happens, connects people: It makes the world a smaller place, especially for those of us at Cafe Imports. One day in Quito, I chatted with the co-owner of a cafe while she made my coffee, and she asked about what brought me to Ecuador. I replied I was there for work with Cafe Imports, and a man near us said, “You work with Piero?” Turns out the friendly stranger’s name is Daniel, and he explained that he’s known of Piero for years, in part because Piero’s spent so much time on the ground there.

Piero took the lead in introducing us to some of the producers he’s spent all these years visiting, like Henry and Verena, whose story was one of the first that resonated with me. Surgeon and nurse turned coffee farmers, Henry and Verena (respectively) met through Doctors without Borders in Burundi. I later found out that Henry spent time in Mozambique prior to Burundi—hence the farm named after Mozambique’s capital city. (They have another farm named “Hakuna Matata,” which any fan of Disney’s The Lion King will tell you means, “No worries” in Swahili—a language they both know well from their time in Africa.)

Henry and Verena took us all through their farm while they explained, in fine detail, when things were planted, the workings of the farm from planting to picking, and quirky stories about the last five years being coffee farmers. Their level of precision and experimentation made the smallest details—pruning methods, spacing between trees, etc—feel that much more intricate and intimate. It never felt like strictly business: It was also about equally passionate people collaborating and sharing their love for coffee.

Then there’s Fausto Romo, who told us his story of working in a bar across from the Chicago Cubs’ stadium for ten years, and how he went from there to moving back to Ecuador, owning Colombian cows, then selling them to grow coffee.

His farm is significantly smaller than the Gaibors’ farms are, which expanded my idea of what “a coffee farm” meant. Fausto’s drying beds are located behind his family’s home, and the seeds are sorted by hand on tarps laid out on the street and front yard. We hiked under banana trees and through rows of coffee plants at his farm, and stopped often to admire the views of these three hectares he was so proud of.

Later, our group met Carmen Gagnay and her son as they welcomed us to her farm, La Fortaleza. This mother-son duo has two acres of coffee trees, and plenty of room for expansion. The story she told us was all about community: While she wasn’t raised in the area, she’s lived there for 23 years—during which time she recognized the lack of opportunities for women in the community to earn income. She decided when she started her farm to only hire local women as pickers in order to provide that kind of opportunity. (This is a good time to note that in Ecuador, farm owners primarily employ local labor rather than migrant workers, which is not common across coffee-producing countries in Central and South America. Along with Ecuador’s higher minimum wage, this creates a higher-than-average cost of production here, which in turn drives up the sales price on high-quality specialty coffee.)

Just when I thought I’d seen the span of coffee farms in Ecuador, and met so many different types of producers, our group flew to Cuenca and drove three hours south to visit Juan Peña’s now-famous Hacienda La Papaya.

Piero met Juan Peña several years ago, at the very beginning of Juan’s coffee production. Even then, Juan’s professionalism showed years of experience—although his was not originally working in coffee, but in long-stem roses—and he has remained quality-focused. Now, Cafe Imports buys most of Juan’s production, and his coffee has gone on to help win a U.S. Barista Championship title, among other things.

Where other producers are more romantic, gregarious, or “Hakuna Matata” about their production, Juan is highly scientific and experimental: He works with students at the University of Cuenca for studies focused in agronomy, chemistry, and entrepreneurship. Every proponent of his coffee is measured and logged, every plant is well-fertilized and watered through an intricate irrigation system, and every possible variable is tested. He’s meticulous, controlled, and with significant attention to detail—including hospitality, as the farm doubles as a lodge with guest cabins for coffee visitors, and even though Juan tends to be quieter or more reserved than the other producers we met, he is no less open, friendly, and happy to share information about his work and passion for coffee.

Ecuador isn’t yet a household name for specialty-coffee production, even though it obviously has some rock-star producers—and certainly there are more coffees, more farms, more personalities to discover. This is why we love coffee so much: It is the greatest dot-connector, the greatest storyteller, and the greatest passport in the whole world.

Click below to browse our current offerings from Ecuador, and e-mail your sales representative or sales@cafeimports.com to find out what we’re expecting to arrive from the most recent shipments from this captivating place.