In Ecuador, a seaside country which straddles the equator, one might be forgiven for thinking that it is all, in fact, beautiful beaches. But here you would be wrong. Ecuador, though a small country, has a wealth of natural diversity that extends far beyond the tiny islands of the Galapagos. A quick Google search of the climates of Ecuador reveals a brilliant ecological patchwork ranging from cold arid deserts to tropical rainforests and even - yes this is real - polar tundra. Amidst all these competing ecosystems, Mario is not exaggerating when he says that the coffee growing regions of Ecuador are tiny, especially compared its neighbours.
Then again, when your neighbours are the coffee powerhouses of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, it’s pretty hard to compete. Which is partly why, for the past decade, Ecuadorian farmers have not much tried. Instead of focussing on high yielding, mostly mid-range coffees like Colombia, or lower grade, mechanically farmed coffee like Brazil, Ecuador has taken a different route. Farmers here focus on lower yielding but much higher scoring lots, competing on uniqueness, quality, and the Ecuadorian reputation. This strategy, when it is successful, can produce some of the most interesting and sought-after coffees in the world. But, like most things coffee, it is high risk, high reward.
These are all facts that Mario is well aware of. As a former rose farmer and trained agronomist, he understands very well that the management of a farm - the daily adaptations to weather, soil, humidity, and pests, among other things – are corners that simply cannot be cut in a place like Ecuador. Quality is so important here that he believes without it there isn’t much point in growing coffee in his home country. ‘There is no profit here for low quality coffee’ he tells us, in part because ‘there is no local market, no café culture’ the way places like Brazil or Bogotá might have. This is slowly changing, he says, but the vast majority of Ecuador’s coffee is still exported, to buyers who are willing to pay the high prices these coffees fetch.
About that – Ecuador is a dollarized economy, meaning that in the year 2000 the government replaced its native currency, the sucre, with the US dollar, a move widely reported to have saved the Ecuadorian economy from runaway inflation. This, combined with strong labour laws and higher quality (but low yielding) tree varietals means that Ecuador’s coffee can be eye-wateringly expensive. In spite of this, Mario is not sympathetic to those who might be put off by high prices. To him, good coffee ‘should be as expensive as whiskey’, treated by farmers and consumers alike as a product whose very scarcity should drive prices up, not to mention the time spent coaxing out the product’s quality through the many months it takes to grow.
Scarcity is a real consideration when it comes to Ecuadorian coffee, a country which exports less than 1/20th that of its neighbour Colombia. The country’s meagre exports are partly due to their inability to compete on price at the low-to-mid range quality level. Therefore, farmers must do what they can to elevate their farm’s uniqueness. For Mario, one method are his trees themselves, as he grows only typica mejorado, a cross between the Bourbon and Gesha varietals, both with reputations for excellent quality. He raises all his own trees from seed he harvests on the farm, a practice he seems not just confident in, but befuddled as to why more farmers don’t follow suit. To him, selecting the strongest plants and taking advantage of their natural adaptation is the best way to encourage strong trees well suited to your particular environment. This process may be a contributing reason as to why his coffee’s terroir – the flavours associated with his particular provenance and processing style – are so unique.
The man himself, on his farm, Finca El Meridiano. Photo Credit: Mario Hervas
This idea of terroir is key to understanding Mario’s approach to coffee, we discover as we chat with him further. Unusual fermentation styles? Not for him. Experimental varietals? Nope, he’s good. His goal, he says, is ‘to maximise the flavour of my origin’, which he believes can be clouded by the use of extended fermentation times, honey or natural processing, or many of the other zeitgeisty processing methods currently in vogue throughout the specialty coffee world. He would only consider a change to his processing methods, he says, if it would help accentuate the innate characteristics of his farm. And even then, he might only try a new method with ‘2%, maybe, of the total harvest’.
Then again, with the results we taste in the cup this year, we don’t think Mario needs to change anything at all. His already rigorous processing techniques – for example, he only uses brand new, clean Grainpro bags for fermentation – are the sort of exacting methods that are common in beer brewing, but remarkable in coffee. A lot of this is thanks to Bairon, the general manager on the farm and Mario’s right-hand man, and the person responsible for executing many of the physical steps in the coffee’s production. He works side by side with Mario, going with him to coffee conferences and exhibitions, learning about the wider industry and chatting with fellow farmers and customers. This engagement is what Mario calls ‘the new age of coffee growers’ – those farmers and workers who are actually visiting cafes, drinking their own country’s coffee, and working to improve their understanding of the supply chain beyond their place in it.
Caravan has bought Mario’s coffee for five years in a row, making us officially the longest running customer he has in the UK. Each harvest can present its own challenges, and like all other types of agriculture, some years are better than others. Therefore it is truly astonishing to find a farmer who produces coffee at Mario’s level year after year – an accomplishment that we are honoured to present to our customers, and to celebrate ourselves with each morning’s cup – until the last bean leaves the roastery, all too soon.