Market Reports

Robusta coffee in Ecuador

As the love of coffee spreads into new markets there is a growing need to find new or improved sources of supply for everybody’s favourite caffeinated bean. But while the world’s growing appetite for coffee seems to know no limits, and changing climatic conditions place more pressure on producers in many traditional origins, there are some producer countries whose output is dipping due to a confluence of economic and environmental factors. The South American nation of Ecuador is one such country. While Ecuador once had a strong coffee sector – peaking in the mid-1980s with annual production figures of around 2 million 60-kilogram bags – recent years have seen a marked decline in Ecuador’s output. “Although coffee world demand has not been reduced, production figures and exports in Ecuador have decreased in the last three years between 15 and 20 per cent,” says Jairo Andrade, who works with Ecuadorian coffee producers on behalf of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). “I would say there are three factors that have hurt the sector’s development: low prices, low productivity per hectare and coffee leaf rust.” Andrade says that declining productivity in Ecuador due to ageing crops, low density and lack of crop management have made it difficult for the country’s coffee farmers to compete on the international market. “The soluble coffee industry in Ecuador pays US$0.75 per pound, and these prices are not enough to allow farmers to make investments in plantations. However, it is difficult for the industry to pay higher prices as exports of industrialised coffee are in bulk with modest margins,” Andrade says. As a result, the domestic soluble coffee industry actually imports more than 1 million bags of Robusta coffee, mainly from Vietnam,  to transform it into soluble and freeze-dried coffee and re-export it. In an effort to revive this flagging industry, CRS has initiated The Borderlands Project to promote the revival of Robusta coffee as a mechanism of import substitution and to prevent the outflow of currency. As part of this project, CRS has worked for the past four years with 1600 families of small-scale coffee producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. One important issue was to look for new markets that recognise the quality of the Amazon Robusta coffee and be able to pay better prices. This in turn led to the establishment of a Robusta cupping competition, the Taza Dorada (Golden Cup), which was held in the city Lago Agrio, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, located in one of the main producing areas of Robusta coffee. “The Taza Dorada competition began nine years ago with the aim of selecting and rewarding the best special Arabica coffee from Ecuador,” Andrade tells Global Coffee Report. “This is an event organized by the National Association of Coffee Exporters – Anecafé. Based on this experience, Catholic Relief Services, as part of the Borderlands Coffee Project, funded by the Howard Buffett Foundation, in coordination with Anecafé, organised the first contest Taza Dorada for Robusta coffee.” Held in July, the competition received entries from 38 producers of Robusta coffee from different regions of the country. The jury was composed of three international judges – Andrew Hetzel, Dorothea Hescock and Miguel Meza – and two national judges certified by the Coffee Quality Institute.
A Hawaii-based coffee expert, and owner of Paradise Coffee Roasters in Minneapolis, Meza says playing a role in the competition was a revelation for him. “Previous to this competition I didn’t have much experience with Ecuadorean coffee – I had tasted it only a handful of times, and only Arabica,” Meza says. “Prior to judging the competition I hadn’t tasted Ecuadorian Robusta nor had any idea what to expect.” Meza says that in all honesty, he went in with relatively low expectations. “I [was] very surprised at how few defective coffees were entered,” he says. “Most of the coffees were very good and the scoring was quite tight. We had to pick a winner obviously, but everything in the top 10 was very good and most showed a similar sweet tropical fruit and vanilla-toned cup profile.” Meza was so impressed, in fact, that he purchased the winning Robusta lot for use by Paradise Coffee Roasters. That lot was produced by farmer Calixto German Rivera Narvaez and scored 84.40 points, being described by judges as “grape candy, kiwi, stewed fruit and residual banana”. Rivera’s small estate coffee is grown at 800 metres above sea level, the highest elevation of the samples received. Meza paid US$2.25 per pound of the coffee, or approximately three times local rates for commodity Robusta. All but three semi final samples were evaluated at a numerical quality score 80 points or higher on the 100-point Fine Robusta scale. The average point score of all semi final coffees was 81.99, with the top ten averaging 83.17. The top five coffees originated from Sucumbíos Province. All coffees in the semi final round were processed using the washed method. The week of competition culminated in a two-day educational program with presentations and panels by Ecuadorian and international participants on the topics of differentiated Robusta coffee marketing, climate change, quality improvement and sustainability. Approximately 300 farmers attended to participate in the sessions. Coffees placing in the number two and three positions were purchased by Ecuadorian coffee company El Café at the premium prices of US$1.40 and US$1.30 per pound, which is between 50-60 per cent more than market rates. Meza says that the experience has definitely piqued his interest in Ecuadorian coffee. “My general impression is that it is a place with a lot of potential for both Arabica and Robusta,” he says. “Great coffees are already being made here, but the industry and exports are quite small so most roasters and consumers don’t have much experience with the origin. It is definitely an origin I want to travel to more and source more coffees from.” Mario Idrovo was one of the local judges for the competition and says that there is a new generation of coffee farmers emerging in Ecuador who are determined to revive their nation’s industry. “The Ecuadorian coffee industry is complicated – we have been a coffee producing country for decades, but somewhere we lost our edge in competing due to factors like coffee plant diseases, immigration of farmers to cities or change of crops because coffee wasn’t cutting it economically for producers,” he says. “But there is a small group of extremely passionate and young people like myself that are putting in a lot of work and effort to making Ecuador one of the main producing countries in terms of quality and quantity, especially helping out small producers.” Idrovo says that while he was not automatically sold on the idea of cultivating specialty Robusta, recent experience has changed his mind. “Less than a year ago I wasn’t a believer in specialty Robusta, until I signed up for the Q Robusta Grader course and got certified – I was blown away with the quality that some Robustas had,” he says. “I never imagined that if a good variety got the same care and treatment as a specialty Arabica coffee it could produce a more than decent cup. Now this is where I tell the non-believers that specialty Robusta is not the same as specialty Arabica – they are completely different. You can’t compare apples with bananas … I’m convinced that specialty Robusta will be part of the solution to the problems that coffee is facing today. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.” Meza is also confident of the role Robusta has to play in specialty coffee. “I think it has always had a place in specialty coffee,” he says. “When we are talking about specialty coffee, we are really talking about mostly the espresso beverage industry in most countries and regions and Robusta has been a part of many roasters’ espresso blends for decades. I think it will be even more so in the future as climate change reduces the area available for growing Arabica, Robusta needs to fill the ever-growing demand for specialty coffee. Specialty consumers like variety and specialty Robustas can offer them a much different profile to experience than they can find in Arabica. Heavy, creamy, lactic mouthfeel with tropical fruit notes like jackfruit and banana. You can’t find these profiles in Arabica.” Andrade of the Catholic Relief Services says that this event has played an important role reviving interest in this small corner of the coffee world and its Robusta-producing farmers. “The results achieved in the first edition of the Gold Cup Robusta competition will generate a large impact in the short term, as it has made it clear that there is a market for specialty Robusta coffee,” he says. “Farmers are motivated and committed to improving the quality and production of coffee plantations, this will bring benefit to thousands of families living from this activity. The Taza Dorada competition has been an opportunity to spread the word that Ecuadorian Robusta coffee is a product of excellent quality and is competitive in international markets.” GCR

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