Photo by Vesa Härkönen.
If you walk into a Cuencan grandmother’s kitchen, you’ll likely be presented with one of two options: instant coffee or cafe pasado. Cafe pasado is coffee prepared using the region’s traditional technique: a long coffee sock used to pass water through coffee grounds. This concentrated coffee can be saved for days and prepared with hot water or steamed milk. You’ll see grandmothers serve this coffee alongside bread with cheese or nata, humitas, tamales, or tigrillo. For the younger generation, and the majority of cafes in town, instant coffee such as Nescafe, Buendia or Cafe Oro is the go-to option. Many foreign residents and travelers are puzzled by the prominence of instant coffee, which has a less-pleasing taste and lower caffeine content. Why does instant coffee dominate the market?
Sandra Van Noten, owner of Puro Café, took the time to talk with me about the culture of coffee in Ecuador. Despite the country’s bountiful land, suited for coffee farming, Van Noten had to search far and wide to find the highest-quality coffee to serve at her café, located behind Cuenca’s Todos Santos church.
The diverse climates and altitudes of the country give Ecuadorian beans a variety of flavors that other countries cannot attain. Knowing Ecuador’s potential for growth in specialty coffee, what makes instant coffee so attractive to businesses and consumers? Firstly, instant coffee is a much more affordable option for Ecuadorians, since coffee is still more expensive here than it is in many parts of the world. Secondly, instant coffee is convenient and quick to prepare. Unlike the traditional technique of cafe pasado, a cup can be prepared within seconds. Lastly, the instant coffee industry uses excellent marketing techniques, which continuously attracts new consumers to the affordable, accessible product.
According to the USDA, after the disbanding of the public-private Ecuadorian Coffee Council, COFENAC, the Ministry of Agriculture developed a $70 million “Reactivation of Ecuador’s Coffee Cultivation Project” to revive the domestic market — which means there’s only room for the specialty coffee industry to grow.