An earthquake stuck the Quito airport just before I was set to depart the U.S. My flight was delayed several hours while the airport and runway were inspected for structural damage. Upon boarding the plane I gazed with bewilderment at duct-tape fastening the panel above my head. Condensation dripped from the ceiling onto passengers, Delta’s form of Chinese water torture. I heard that mudslides in Quito damaged homes and buried people, so I expected to land in a scene from the apocalyptic movie 2012, but life appeared normal when I arrived on the ground. My next flight departed for Loja early in the am, so I plugged in my gadgets and sleep camelled it in a corner of the airport in preparation for the next day.
When landing in Loja I peered out the window and found arid and Spartan mountain tops. The topography reminded me of Haiti, but unlike my other trips to origin, I found Ecuador to be extremely safe. I felt an emotion, a presence emanating from the populous that was contagious and uplifting. Citizens were united by their dear leader Raffael Correa towards the goal of rebuilding their country and maintaining their independence from the cruel grasp of western capitalistic imperialism. President Correa has made many promises to the citizenry, namely to provide clean water and electricity to every home in Ecuador. In addition, he has vowed to completely eradicate illiteracy via the implementation of Cuban reforms. Fortunately, I saw evidence that he is making good on these promises. As I traveled towards southern Ecuador, I noticed what must have been millions of dollars spent on transportation infrastructure. I arrived near the city of Palanda, with other CoopCoffees members, and off-loaded my belongings at an eco-tourist lodge located on a nature reserve. As soon as we all arrived, we were whisked away to a series of intense coffee cuppings at the office of APECAP. We were there to act as international coffee judges for the annual Bucamoros coffee competition. I took my participation as a coffee judge very seriously and was honored to participate. We cupped eight to ten coffees per round, from a total of 33 of the region’s best coffees. Participants included Piero Cristiani of Café Imports, Adam Shaw of Deeper Roots, Felipe Gurdian of CoopCoffees, Tom Valentine and Chris Durai of Bongo Java, Joey Pitello of Just Us! and myself.
After a short rest, our group awoke at the Eco-tourist lodge and hiked up a mountain to view an endangered species called the Jocotoco. The Jocotoco, rhymes with choco-loco, is a flightless bird that mates for life and only lays one egg per year. Only nineteen couples are known to exist in the world. The lodge owner called the bird by name and it came to him. He fed it grubs and we snapped photos in amazement. Mr. Jocotoco, you changed my life. After seeing an endangered species running wild in the jungles of Ecuador, I’ll never be able to go to a zoo again. We moved on to our task of scoring and narrowing down submitted micro-lots, and then toured an archeological site called La Florida. There we viewed structures dating back to 5,000 B.C. The site was known to be the home of domesticated Cocoa and a burial ground for kings and lords.
The final ten best coffees were cupped and ranked for the day’s prize ceremony and coffee auction. I sat in front of the gleaming citizenry of Palanda with other importers and roasters including Joe Lozano of Third Coast Coffee, Andreas Felsen of Quijote Kaffee, and Nadine Heymann of Five Roasters. Bidding started at $3.50# and was fierce. Felipe and I communicated with each other in coded elbow bumps as we bid on our favorite coffee lots. Spectators were shocked by the prices their coffees fetched. The winning coffee was conventionally grown and sold for $5.25#. Second place sold for $6.75#. Third place (conventional) sold for $6.00#. Fourth place sold for $4.10#. The top two organic lots were grown by the grower group Procafeq, a group producing coffee near the fabled village of Vilcabamba. Both Felipe and I won the coffees that we liked the best. I won us 15 bags of the 4th place winning Procafeq coffee and Felipe won the 8th place coffee for CoopCoffee members. Both of these coffees were absolutely stunning. The average cupper’s score for our lot was 86.9. After the auction, we smiled ear to ear and high-fived; we were the perfect team! In fact, the auction was a success for all involved. Farmers received fair compensation for their work, we got the coffee we wanted, and our discerning customers are going to get the quality of coffee they demand. The Bracamores auction will be held again September 2015 and I hope that our customers will become more involved in this process. If café owners attend the event, we can complete the entire coffee circle of grower, roaster, and customer in a way that everyone benefits from! Following the auction, all international coffee judges and auction participants were gathered up and shipped off to the small town of Zumba.
Once in Zumba, we participated in additional cuppings with the grower group ACRIM. ACRIM is a smaller group than APECAP but just as militantly organized; it’s probably no coincidence that their managers are named Stalin and Hitler- FACT. Hitler took us up to 6,100ft where we traversed the shadows of virgin forest to view a majestic waterfall glistening in the sun like Atahualpa’s hidden gold- http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/lost-inca-gold/ Later we visited coffee farms where I found a few surprises I thought to share. One farm had a yellow caturra plant that showed no signs of Roya damage. It seemed this mutant had strong genetic resistance. I also found that unlike coffee growers in the rest of the Americas, ACRIM and APECAP growers were not concerned about the devastating effects of Hemileia Vastatrix and were still planting their heirloom coffees. How is that possible? Farmers applied an organic spray to plants bi-annually called Timorex Gold.
The president of APECAP, Cozumel, provided Andreas, Nadine and I tours of coffee farms surrounding Palanda. He told us that one farmer member grows coffee at an altitude of 6,900ft! I have to see that! Andreas informed me that he purchases organic coffee grown by nude indigenous tribes in the Amazonian jungle that are only reachable by canoe! How cool is that?! Cozumel led us to a farm he shares with his father. We parked our truck on the side of the road and slid down a muddy cliff towards a raging river. I heard what sounded like wind howling between the mountains but instead found a tribe of mantled howler monkeys. Cozumel’s farm is used for training purposes, and despite the farm’s low altitude and high humidity, his coffee suffers no Roya damage and routinely cup-out at 86pts. When Cozumel introduced us to his father, his father asked where we were from. When the old man heard that I’m American he stared at me with bewilderment, confused that he couldn’t see my horns.
This was unfortunately my last day in coffee country. We stopped in the city of longevity for lunch, and then headed back to the city of Loja for my flight to the states. The exporter Fapecafes was located just one mile from the airport, so we decided to drop-in. Fapecafes mills and exports coffee for ACRIM, APECAP, and Procafeq. They had a plethora of milling, grading, drying, bagging, and sorting equipment, all in good repair, but I found little space for housing bagged coffee for delivery. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I hold a cup to my lips and with every sip of Ecuadorian coffee I’m transported to scenic views of that amazing country. I can’t wait to share this amazing journey of seed to cup with you.