By Sylvan Hardy
Although the recognition has been slow in coming, Ecuador is finally getting serious notice from the highly opinionated, highly caffeinated international community of coffee experts.
For decades, the coffee produced in the lower valleys near Quito and in Loja Province has received honorable mention in the coffee media. The problem was that there was not much of it – certainly not enough to supply high-end coffee shops in Europe, U.S., and Japan on a consistent basis – and quality control was inconsistent, to put it kindly.
A bigger issue was that most small coffee producers were more interested in turning crops into cash as quickly as possible, which meant there was little interest in experimentation and innovation. Coffee rushed to market and sold for a dollar or two a pound seemed just fine to Ecuadorian consumers steeped in tea-drinking tradition.
All this is changing due to a new generation of coffee growers.
At the forefront of the new entrepreneurs are Diego Mejía and Juan Peña. Mejía is from Quito but plans to relocate to Cuenca by the end of year to join Peña in opening a cafeteria in El Centro.
Mejía won the Ecuador national barista championship last month in Guayaquil and heads to Amsterdam in 2018 for the international championship. He met Peña while he was searching the country for the best coffee beans for his barista competitions that take place in such far-flung destinations as the U.S., China and Ireland.
Peña is the owner of La Papaya plantation, north of Saraguro, and like Mejía, he is an inveterate tinkerer. “The real fun in this business is experimenting with the beans, varying the drying time and roasting processes, mixing different varieties,” he says. In terms of growing high quality coffee, Peña has little to prove: he sells almost all of his annual yield to two boutique suppliers, one in the U.S., the other in Korea, fetching the highest prices ever paid for Ecuadorian coffee.
Mejía, who studied gastronomy in college, shares Peña’s passion for experimentation. “I’m always curious about how I can create a better cup of coffee,” he says, adding, “but more important than the final cup of coffee, for me, is the adventure of finding new flavors and nuances.”
Mejía and Peña don’t have an opening date yet for their cafeteria, or even a location, although they say it will be in El Centro, close to Parque Calderon. “It could be November or December,” says Peña. “Right now, we’re concentrating on bringing in the equipment,” he says. “We have to buy it in Germany and the U.S. and the process of getting it to Cuenca isn’t easy.”
In addition to the cafeteria, the partners have other plans, including coffee tours to La Papaya and public demonstrations about how to make the perfect cup of coffee.
“We are excited about our plans,” says Peña. “We look forward to sharing them with the people of Cuenca.”