Producing coffee has always been a tricky enterprise. Coffee trees are notoriously finicky and labour intensive to raise, no matter where they’re grown. They prefer certain soils, certain temperatures, and certain elevations – or so we thought. In the past decade, lessons we are learning from places like the Galapagos Islands are changing what we know about coffee, a species which turns out to be more adaptable than we think.
Located 560 miles from the mainland and with a population of only 25,000 people, the Galapagos Islands are still perhaps best known for the writings of a young scientist. While Darwin’s visit may have turned this tiny archipelago into an academic and tourist destination par excellence, unfortunately it did not keep two centuries of visitors from causing damage to its fragile ecosystems. Today, the islands are under constant bombardment from climate change, invasive species, pollution, and depletion of their natural resources.
The role that the economy plays in the islands’ protection is paramount. Like all ecosystems, the people best positioned to protect and nurture the Galapagos are those who already live and work there. Though only 3% of its land is used for farming, agriculture supports the livelihoods of some of the most important stakeholders on the islands. The importance of farming is even more clear in the past two years with the arrival of the Covid pandemic and the sudden halt of tourism, the lifeblood of the local economy.
Though coffee was introduced to the islands over a hundred years ago, it has never been an area of significant attention by the locals or from conservationists. On the island of Santa Cruz, there are a total of only 214 hectares planted with coffee, divided amongst 50 producers. It is possible these producers were under the radar for a long time partly because of the low quality reputation of island-grown coffee, which tends to be more romantic sounding than actually great tasting.
When Caravela, our import partner who sourced this coffee, first received samples from the Galapagos back in 2015, they had low expectations. With an elevation topping out at only a few hundred meters and a high cost of production, the technical team at Caravela assumed the coffee would be commercial grade at best. However, though those first coffees were far from perfect, when they tasted them they were surprised to find notes of cola, florals, and a subtle but present acidity which had them intrigued.
Following this introduction, Caravela sent someone from their quality and technical assistance programme (PECA) to gather more information. They learned that despite its low elevation, the islands’ position within the Humboldt Current means that cold air flows up from the southern coast of Chile, creating a chilling effect that imitates the low night-time temperatures of higher grown coffees, a condition the trees need to thrive. Combined with its nutrient-rich volcanic soil and heirloom coffee varieties, the quality potential of the archipelago had been vastly underestimated – an overlooked and forgotten microclimate which could, in fact, produce some of the world’s most unique coffee.
Over the past six years, the PECA team have performed numerous visits to farms, hosted workshops, helped farmers gain organic certification, and increased average farm productivity by 35% and rising. The cost of production on the islands is enormous in comparison to the mainland of Ecuador, meaning that farmers need to secure a very high price for their coffee in order to make a profit. Creating value in the form of better quality and higher yields helps to protect the farms from falling into disrepair – which in turn helps the local economy and the surrounding ecosystems.
This particular lot of coffee is part of Caravela’s work with female coffee producers, the earliest adopters of specialty coffee production on Santa Cruz who saw its intrinsic value to their communities. Female farmers, often heads of their households, face extra challenges as entrepreneurs in a traditionally male environment. Their dedication and attention to detail are what inspired Caravela to create a women’s-only coffee from the Galapagos, dubbed ‘Volcánica’ after the tempestuous but nurturing land that supports their farms. Four women – Maria Elena Guerra, Maria Kastdalen, Marina Caimiñagua, and Teresa Gaona – combined their best coffees from this year’s harvest to create this delicious and unique lot that represents the best of what the islands’ have to offer: a place and a cup unlike anywhere else in the world.On behalf of the producers of this coffee and as a recognition of the importance of the Galapagos for their role as havens for vulnerable species and to our understanding of the natural world, Caravan has donated £2500 to the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the UK’s only charity working solely towards protecting the archipelago. Learn more about their work including projects to restore damaged ecosystems, protect and rehome endangered species, and make the islands 100% plastic free by visiting their website: galapagosconservationtrust.org.uk