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Ecuador´s Heirloom Coffee – Café Criollo

If I were to be asked what makes Ecuadorian specialty coffee unique, the first thing that comes to mind is the Typica sub-varietal.  Typica is considered the closest strain of coffee to the original Arabica beans found in Ethiopia.  These beans were smuggled by the Dutch into Latin America and have proliferated ever since.  Beginning in the 1980s, before the specialty coffee movement, most countries in Latin America began eliminating Typica from their farms, because they are susceptible to coffee diseases and have a low production yield.  For better or for worse, Ecuador´s coffee industry was left behind in this push towards higher yield hybrids and cultivars.

As the specialty coffee movement has gained strength, roasters and importers across the world have begun to take notice of Ecuador´s antiquated coffee sub-varietals.  These plants are truly a sight to see, sometimes over twice the height of a normal person one can easily feel transported to an untouched Ethiopian forest speckled with wild coffee trees.  As valued as Typica, or as locals call it Criollo, is, many producers are beginning to eradicate these trees as they have been decimated by coffee rust in the last five years.  In my short time in the specialty coffee world, I have seen some areas that were once lush Typica-Criollo coffee forests now look more like lifeless twigs sticking out of the ground.

Ecuador has, however, been given a tremendous gift by none other than Nestle.  Nestle had been working for years with various producers throughout the country to develop a stronger Typica plant.  Their method of reaching this goal was to find the seeds of the strongest Typica tree in any given crop, then replant and find the seed of the strongest Typica tree in that crop and so on for quite a few decades now.  The result has been what specialty coffee professionals are calling Typica-Mejorado.  Quite honestly this sturdier Typica could not have come at a better time.  As producers are eliminating their old Typica-Criollo plants, they now have the option to plant Typica-Mejorado.  Of course, these sub-varietals are still 100% Typica and are not resistant to coffee rust, as are other cultivars.  However, Typica-Mejorado is an obvious improvement and as long as producers accompany these new trees with best farm management practices there is a bright future for Typica, at least in Ecuador.

Here at Café Ñucallacta we are always encouraging producers to work with either version of Typica, not only because of its superior cup quality but because it is what Ecuador may be most known for when it comes to coffee.  Of course we put our money where our mouth is, and make sure to buy as much of this coffee as we can at a fair price for the producer.  In conclusion we know there are plenty of exotic new cultivars pushing the limits of the specialty coffee world, such as Geishas, SL-28s, Sidras, etc.  However, we are strong believers that the specialty coffee industry would not be complete without that spicy, sweet and elegantly bright flavor profile that characterizes a good cup of Typica coffee.

Why instant coffee is truly king in Ecuador

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.