Coffee has a long history in Ecuador. It was introduced in the early 19th century and became its main export in the early 20th century. But coffee from Ecuador has never been included in the list of top quality coffee origins, mostly because of poor harvesting and processing practices.
Like other nearby coffee-growing nations, Ecuador has ideal altitudes and climate for coffee, and a lot of old heirloom Typica variety trees. A great Ecuador coffee is balanced, bright, and has a clean taste overall. Ecuador has moderate body, and can feature floral notes on rare occasions. Like its neighbors, Ecuador is harvested counter to the Central America crop, so it arrives in the US at an ideal time to replace Centrals that might be getting tired in the cup.
Coffee Takes a Back Seat
As other Ecuadorian exports (bananas, oil, shrimp) exceeded coffee in importance, hope that the quality of the coffee would improve dimmed. They managed to continue to ship low grade arabica and robusta coffees, finding a market among the institutional and commercial roasters of the U.S. and Europe who are more concerned with price than cup quality. Low grade arabicas are dry-processed in Ecuador, called "bola," and have a hard, earthy flavor. I found that some supermarket roasted/ground coffees like Pilon and Bustelo use a lot of Ecuador bola coffee. But coffee formerly employed about 15% of the rural population.
Challenges Along the Way
As I mentioned, Ecuador has everything it takes to grow great coffee. Positioned between Colombia and Peru, the interior mountain ranges have plenty of altitude, good weather patterns, and ideal soil for coffee. But a great coffee can be ruined at any stage in the process, from the tree to the cup. Many of the problems are with a lack of adherence to quality standards in the wet-processing, drying, resting (reposo) and then dry-milling of the coffee. A bit too much fermentation in the wet mill tanks, a rain storm drenching the coffee when it is on the drying patios, moist low-altitude conditions during the reposo, or badly adjusted dry-mill equipment can all ruin a wonderful coffee.
Poor infrastructure, delays in shipment, tainted shipping containers ... there is one way to produce good coffee and a thousand ways to ruin it! So the new efforts by the Ecuadorian Agriculture Department and farmer Co-operatives focus on education, improved equipment, and adherence to high standards.
I did travel to Ecuador a while back, and we take at least 2 trips a year since then. Check out the travelogue section of our Coffee Library page for the photos.