Cuenca Coffee Fantasy: A home roasted utopia, bargain flavor, and the brown bean’s niche in Ecuador’s culture
By Scott Fugit
Photos by Dee Fugit
The year was 2006, when a landmark event occurred in my life as a coffee drinker. Surrounded by the plush lobby of the DuPont Circle Hilton in Washington, DC, I patiently stood among ambassadors in suits, diplomats carrying briefcases, and conference executives quietly talking in the early morning que. When my turn came, I stepped up to the counter and crossed a personal, first-time, brown bean threshold.
I willingly, and with full knowledge of forethought, paid the astounding cost of $8 for a 20 ounce cup of coffee.
This left a bitter taste in my mouth that has lingered. It was the charred flavor of burnt money. I must have ordered the Viente Triple Gouger, with double chiseling. Admittedly, I had faced a perfect coffee seller’s market – a hotel lobby full of suits on expense accounts craving their wake-up caffeine fix. But still, eight dollars? Where’s my kiss? That’s $51 per gallon. I could have bought a barrel of oil, or topped off my car with gas – only $2.35 per gallon that year. It’s over now. I’ve bean there and done that. Still, those were grounds for a lasting fantasy. I remember wondering, is there an alternate coffee universe – one just as tasty but in a different cost orbit? Somewhere is a land of homegrown beans, acquired dirt cheap from friends, processed by hand, brewed and enjoyed without the corporate infused aftertaste of overhead markups, market share percentages, dividend strategies or shareholder’s meetings.
Yes, the brew has to be good, but it’s not just about flavor profiles and cupping reports. This is also a money issue.
Ten years later, it’s all coming back to me. I have just met Santos and his wife Zita, who own a popular B&B in Banos, Azuay, Ecuador. He’s a semi-retired gold miner with experience in maintaining machinery like conveyers and rock crushing gear. I had already seen his shop full of tools and parts. Metal gates and art everywhere proved he’s handy with a welder. Now he’s setting up a contraption that reminds me of Jules Vernes’ time machine. My Spanish is poor, but it didn’t take long to figure it out. I’m looking at a homemade coffee roaster. With a beach ball sized, welded, copper globe, electric motor, a chain driven adjustable gearbox, he rolled it out on a hard surface far away from the house – Santos was fixing to put fire to the bean.
It’s a promising start to my Cuenca coffee fantasy.
Ecuador’s relationship with coffee has been slow brewed. Popular legend says Kaldi’s time was around 850AD. He was the first Ethiopian herder to try the small, red bush cherries that made his goats dance. In short historical order, coffee was a valuable commodity. Plantations spread throughout Latin America to provide for markets, and profits in the northern latitudes. It took until the middle 1700’s for the plant to reach Ecuador.
From there it’s been a bumpy road. A top export crop in the 1970’s, slumping prices crushed production in the following decades. Small family farms are where most Ecuadorian coffee is grown, usually with other crops like bananas and mangos. The best coffees come from consistently maintained plants. Years of low prices meant abandoned crops, rotting beans, insect pests, and impoverished growers. At least half a million Ecuadorians, around one in eight farmers and their families, were dependent on coffee to survive. A galaxy away, world commodity prices are manipulated by traders using futures contracts and leveraged derivatives. It’s a chasm the size of the Andes between struggling Ecuadorian farmers and the profits from my eight dollar Viente Gouger. The gap is filled with a complex and sometimes brutal multi-billion-dollar industry.
Where does profit fit into my coffee fantasy? It doesn’t. That’s the point. Coffee is a plant right? With Ecuador’s amazing variety of micro climates, soil types and people, coffee is localized and small scale. Everyone gardens here. How tough could it be to beat the system and score the brew on the cheap? Yes, it’s a massive industry, but it’s a home hobby too.
Enter the fantasy beans.
What could be better than a having a good amigo living on a coffee farm in Portoviejo, Ecuador? I know. Having that same friend owe you a favor. Santos had helped his pal recover from a construction injury. Now, the payback is a regular supply of organic arabica beans, free of pesticides or chemicals and carefully picked as they ripen through a four month harvest. Most Ecuadorian coffee is of the robusta variety, a hardier plant with a higher yield. It’s called “café en bola,” when picked all at once, dried in a pile and sold for use in instant coffee blends. Ecuador’s best arabica beans are exported. Even the growers here drink instant coffee. Expats often complain that instant is served everywhere. Economically, being forced to compete with lower costs and higher robusta production in Vietnam and Brazil, is a losing global strategy. Most industry insiders agree. Small family farms with skilled growers producing select boutique varieties is the future of Ecuador’s coffee industry.
Santos, and his wife Zita, have their own coffee boutique and a very refined taste for the bean. Nothing instant here, except my amazement at their cost. A “quintal” is a 100 pound bag. They regularly buy a quarter quintal, 25 lbs. of arabica Ecuadorian coffee beans for $37. That’s $1.48 per pound. The profit margin, if that was brewed up and retailed to the suits at the D.C. Hilton for $8 per cup…… then scale that up by about a zillion cups…….. the net would be…..!!!!
The numbers fog my fantasy. Caffeine helps me focus.
In northern latitude coffee roasting is an industrial process, done in large facilities with big equipment. Not so in Ecuador. Here, where everything is small scale, most coffee is roasted in micro batches, often in a skillet over an open fire. Santos and Zita do half their quarter quintal, about 12 pounds, in each mechanized fantasy effort. The entire roasting and grinding process takes under two hours. The grounds will stay fresh for up to a year.
Many books have been written on the subject of coffee roasting. I have read none of them. Where I grew up, coffee was a drink only, not a bean. We never saw it being roasted, certainly not in homemade equipment. Here it was, blazing hot copper cauldron, noisy chain and gears, propane roaring and beans slowly getting brown. This system has no fancy thermocouple controls or computer temperature monitoring. The amount of heat applied was surprising. The spinning copper roasting ball was set at a carefully determined speed, much faster than I expected. The beans never stopped moving.
Soon, there was a dense, penetrating, aromatic smoke that alerted the entire valley to our efforts. The intensity of this olfactory experience was startling to a roasting rookie. It smelled of every element in the life of the coffee bush, composted soil, minerals, sunlight, human labor and the dank musk of history. It’s now a fixed scent memory that will forever remind me of Ecuador.
I wore the only watch, and nobody looked at a timer. After about 20 minutes, a wooden spoonful of the beans was closely examined. The color was slowly changing from light brown to a rich, dark tone. At exactly 49 minutes, both Santos and Zita studied another sample and talked in hushed tones. I leaned in to look. My background in roasting told me the beans were somewhere between completely green and burnt black. It was a group decision based on years of experience – none of it mine. The beans were perfectly done. Into a metal pan they went and over to the grinder while still warm.
In any decent coffee fantasy, the guy’s version anyway, there is homemade equipment. The roaster was a cool tool, but the magic fingers coffee grinder was even slicker. Santos proudly answered all my questions through our interpreter, another bilingual B&B guest. Bean rate of feed is important. The hopper must be sloped correctly, and also vibrate just enough to keep the beans moving and evenly spread, cooling as they’re ground. The coarseness was carefully checked in another group decision, the grind adjusted several times and then locked down tight. As the machinery pulsated, we all stood back and watched the metal pail fill with warm, aromatic grounds – organic, friend-farmed, roasted and ground at home. Did I mention cheap? They have about $18 invested in their 12 pounds of locally grown, handpicked, micro-climate, organic arabica Ecuadorian coffee. For Santos, building the equipment was part of the fun. It’s the stuff coffee fantasies are made of.
Without it, no real coffee connoisseur can really dip their toe into the dark steaming waters. It’s an essential tool to the sport of beans – the coffee taster’s flavor wheel chart. Included, are some amazing words to help judge and record your tasting experience. They run the gamut from “fruit, tropical, mango,” to my favorite description, “savory, meat-like,” maybe with the intensifier of “lingering dirty.”
Another flavor wheel choice, appropriate for Ecuador’s coffee industry, might be “dense, deep and complex.” Although the bean is grown in at least 10 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, and exported to more than 25 countries, total production is a tiny fraction of the world’s supply. Here, with an average of 5 to 40 sacks grown per year, coffee comes mainly from small family farms in isolated areas. Local growers are difficult to organize or even contact. There is zero chance they can compete worldwide, growing higher volume, cheaper, robusta varieties. As always, Ecuador is looking for its niche. Many are finding it. Local growers and marketers are embracing the countries varied topography and traditions in creating boutique coffee brands now showing up in the shops of Cuenca. These are high quality arabica coffees from widespread farms in the western foothills of the Andes, the lowlands south of Guayaquil, and the coastal hills of Manabi province. From the north of Ecuador, coffees are being produced with a sweetness and cup profile similar to the coveted Narino beans of Colombia. Survival in the massive global coffee trade will come to Ecuador’s growers just like it has in other economic areas – with hard work from knowledgeable and devoted craftsman whose families depend on their success.
I’ll admit to a certain smugness as I sat on the deck overlooking the red roofs of Baños, Azuay Ecuador and enjoyed a large mug of fresh brewed fulfillment. On my taster’s flavor wheel, I noted our arabica as showing a quick, clean sweetness with hints of caramel and sugar cane. Thinking back, my $8 cup of abuse at the Washington, D.C. Hilton seems different now. The flavor wheel chart needs some additional words, like gratification and gloat, with sharp overtones of self-satisfaction.
It’s not just about money. But at a few pennies per cup, this was truly a Cuenca coffee fantasy.
Author‘s note: Ecuador’s coffee growers face many challenges which now include recovering from recent tragic earthquakes. Please support them by buying their products whenever possible.
Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in hand crafted articles that are relevant to expat life. He, and his photographer wife Dee Fugit, are Cuenca wannabes.
To read Scott’s other articles, click here.