One of the top questions I get in my café, other then “Where is the bathroom?” or “What is the Wi-Fi password?”, is “Being in a country that produces so much coffee, why do Ecuadorians drink instant coffee?”. I know there have been a few other excellent articles that have touched on this subject, however, I would like to provide some feedback on this question from an industry perspective.
First and foremost, although our climate is ideal for coffee production the geography in Ecuador yields very little land in comparison with our neighbors to the north and south when it comes to mountain grown coffee. The best coffees are usually grown between 4000 to 7000 feet above sea level, above 7000 feet the climate is often too cold for coffee. A large chunk of our Andes are just too high up to grow coffee and our mountains incline too quickly towards the coast. There are plenty of nooks and crannies along our Andes that are suitable for coffee production, but in terms of land size it is very small when compared to Colombia, Peru or even a small country like Costa Rica. The few high altitude coffee regions that we do have, however, produce a great cup of Joe. The next question then becomes, if we have this great coffee, albeit in small quantities, why don´t Ecuadorians drink more of it?
Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world that produce both Arabica and Robusta coffee. Arabica is the coffee varietal that has better taste, Robusta is higher in caffeine, higher production, but tastes like wood or box carton. Robusta is an ideal varietal for instant or “industrialized” coffee. Because we have plenty of lowland on the coast and in the jungle, the instant coffee industry is actually much more lucrative in Ecuador than specialty coffee. (Chart below shows the volume of Arabica versus Industrialized coffee exported out of Ecuador from 1992 until 2016, see wide gap as of 2008)
Ecuador has found huge markets in Europe for our instant coffee, including Germany, Russia, Poland, Estonia, Spain and Ukraine. Ecuador even sends a large volume of instant coffee to Colombia, the all-stars of South American coffee. We have so much demand for our instant coffee that we actually import as much Robusta from Vietnam and Brazil as we produce of all other types of coffee combined.
Just like in any other country of production, the companies that produce a said product will actively seek a strong market at home in order to hedge the risk of decreased demand any given year. Yes, there is plenty of marketing for cheaper instant coffee in Ecuador. And, yes people like the convenience of just scooping some instant coffee in hot milk, stirring and being done. However, I think the disbelief by non-Ecuadorians may be a little unmerited. After all how long has it taken Americans to gravitate to a gourmet burger versus a Big Mac or Whopper?
To end on a high note, the specialty coffee movement has taken off here in Ecuador, there are many roasters and cafés, including us, that take pride in providing the best possible brewed coffee or as we call it “café pasado” that we can find. Although it may take a little more searching out, whether you prefer a dark roast or a medium roast, a floral coffee or one with plenty of body, an espresso or a caramel frappe in most big cities here in Ecuador you will be able to find your favorite brew. And yes, you might just sit right next to an Ecuadorian drinking the exact same drink.