The place where Bionay Bravo Fernández lives is bordered by mountains. What is seen from the gray asphalt of the E-50, the Pan-American Highway, is a landscape populated by trees of all kinds. From banana groves full of green fruit to gutarnas and myrtles. Everything except coffee. But it is there. What’s more, there are hundreds and hundreds of trees. Moreover, the people of the town where Bionay lives breathe coffee, collect, wash, dry, suffer and enjoy the fruit of these small plants that are sheltered in the shadow of ancient arups and massive guayacanes.
EXPRESO recently visited Chaguarpamba, one of the seven Lojano cantons in which people live from the production of coffee. The province is 16. It was in search of the origin of that product whose aroma populates these days the commercial center of Guayaquil, in a kind of fever, with more than 30 places where this dark brew is prepared, with bitter and fruity flavor, in different portions and various combinations. There are not only coffee shops, but also craft shops where they distribute it ground, ready to take home and filter it.
In short, the fashion of having a cup of coffee in Guayaquil has its origin to hundreds of kilometers: Loja. It is one of the 22 provinces where it is grown. A sector that, like Zaruma (El Oro) and Montecristi (Manabí), has been the historical benchmark of coffee in the Puerto Principal.
Carlos Calderón de la Barca, a Mexican living in this city since time immemorial, recently remembered the time when he traveled in small boats to Puerto Bolívar (El Oro), took a van, went through Zaruma and reached Cariamanga, to bring the grain that later would sell in small fused with the mark the Conqueror. It was a time when there were no roads and there were no soluble ones either.
In the line of Cariamanga is Chaguarpamba, in what could be considered the lojano coffee axis. An area that is spread over seven floors, from 1,270 meters high to 1,960 meters. This geographic condition allows the Lojanos to manage a kind of brand: tall coffee. Thus they try in these days that its production of origin is recognized, such as the Mexican tequila or the French cognac. They speak of a coffee that is distinguished by its fruity aromas, sweet flavors of red fruits and panela, a citric acidity, with a medium and creamy body, which after tasting the drink leaves a clean and lasting taste on the palate.
For each floor there is a coffee with different organoleptic properties, experts say. One of them, Manuel Romero Sánchez, considers the Loja coffee the best quality in the country. It does not affirm any person, is the owner of a cafeteria in the center of Loja (Indira) and 14 hectares of land, of which five produce a grain that put in water won the last edition of the Golden Cup, the emblem of the quality of the grain in the country, before representatives of 13 provinces.
His farm is precisely in Chaguarpamba. A kind of small portion of the city, populated by only 7,161 inhabitants. Something like La Garzota or Los Esteros, from where each week the grain is sent to Guayaquil. How much? It is not possible to specify it. In any case, about eight people are responsible for moving large trucks once a week part of the production of the canton where Bionay Bravo resides, along with what is harvested in Olmedo, Alamor, Cotacocha, where Ovidio López is from, one of the transporters that every Monday are stationed in the corner of Manabí and Quito. “Here come the owners of the grain to remove it,” says Rodrigo, brother of Ligio, who until four years ago managed the agency of the Development Bank in his city. Today it is used as a travel assistant.
A selection is made at Enrique Ayala’s farm. The best grains start the journey to Guayaquil.
“We deliver. We know their names, but we do not know if they are for coffee shops or stores, “says Ovidio, the owner of the 2006 Hino truck that covers the 400 kilometers to Guayaquil (almost 10 hours), to distribute what others sow, harvest and who, like a baby, walks in the sun during the day and is covered at night.
Of this city, Ovidio remembers buyers like the Villacís brothers, heirs of Hipólito Villacís Mero, who in 1952 opened his business selling coffee powder. “We are five brothers who have premises,” says Jim, who has his business in Los Ríos and Aguirre streets, which is one of the 15 stores (small sites) distributed in the commercial center of the city and surrounding areas. Places where roasted coffee is sold and it is ground in old Hobart mills.
These, in addition to the coffee shops, represent the final leg of a trip that has not yet concluded. Well, every day, people like Víctor Manuel Lizalde, a retired policeman and announcer of a radio program of chichera music, are worried about going to the little family farm, which begins precisely in the back door of his parents’ house, at the foot of the Pan-American Highway, in the care of a crop that is harvested once a year, whose price is defined thousands of kilometers away: on Wall Street if it’s Arabica coffee and on the London stock exchange if it’s the robusta.
Although many farmers have a somewhat tragic vision of coffee, because they say it is affected by plagues (royal), low prices and the income of Peruvian and Vietnamese grains, in a contraband system that fights the use of the Pan-American Highway and it crosses all Loja in trip towards Guayaquil, there are those who assure that the panorama is changing. “If four and a half years ago there were 3.5 and up to 5 quintals per hectare (due to the age of the plants and the affected areas), today it is 9.7”, says Pablo Soto Ludeña, who heads the group of nine technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries that travel the small farms carrying advice.
This, as part of a state program that seeks to renew crops. Up to June 2017, 6,425 new coffee trees were planted. Last year it reached 7,000. It also tries to change the idea that you cannot live on coffee.
About the price, there are those who consider the quality of coffee. Currently the lojano coffee in Guayaquil (roasted and ground) is sold at $ 4 per pound. On farms, still green, the peasant is paid 80 cents.
A reality that is not felt when in Guayaquil someone takes to the mouth a sip of that bitter and fruity liquid. Well there are so many people involved in this seed, attentive to the cultivation, harvesting, drying and transfer, in such a complex subject. “Quality depends on how well each of the stages of that process was cared for,” says Bionay Bravo, who has taken the production very seriously. So much so that he took it to Chile and won a contest that allowed a Mexican company to prepare the presentation of its brand: Chaguarpamba Café.
Guayaquil reaches almost 70% of green coffee reaches up to 7.5 km, where it is roasted on large machines until it is cooked with a uniform and precise cooking. This is also part of the care.
It is she who explains the delicate task, a kind of tyrannical lottery, which involves producing this grain that ecstasies not only to the people of Guayaquil but to the entire planet, where up to 400,000 million cups are consumed per year. “It depends on things like the composition of the land, the quality of the plant, the roulette of the climate, the harvesting (grain that remains in the soil implies a pest risk) and drying,” he explains.
Everything so that it has the quality that allowed Manuel Romero to sell a sack of coffee in 2,000 dollars last year; and so that people like Mónica Villacís, who inherited the expertise of the father, founder in the 50s of a series of local shops selling ground coffee in the city, can recognize its benefits just by hearing the sound of the grain falling on the table. “I recognize the degree of humidity,” he explains, “because a lot of humidity is not good either.” By its smell it also identifies how substantial its flavor will be before the grain is roasted.
After this, what follows is to serve yourself a cup and feel in the taste of this liquid (a kind of fuel that moves the world) the compendium of so many human stories and faces sundered by the sun; of people who sleep thinking about coffee and wake up dreaming about it.
It is toasted in one place
Almost all the coffee consumed in Guayaquil is toasted in one place: Café Conquistador, a brand that was born in the 60s. Each day, up to 90 quintals of the grain are baked, owned by small distribution corner shops, cafeteria chains and seven brands of ground coffee and beans. The company owns three German Probat machines.
The coffee shops, last stop
Ming Dong Cao, born in Hong Kong, managed a shoe factory when he fell seduced by coffee. A charm that led him to open a business related to this grain. For this he teamed up with his sister Stephanie. Currently, Asian Coffee Roaster is one of the fashion sites. He made an inventory about all the mechanisms that man has managed to extract the essence. The Dong Brothers is one of the many coffee shops that have opened in Guayaquil in recent years, from national chains with more than 60 stores in Guayaquil (Sweet & Coffee) to traditional ones such as La Palma.
The great majority, offering national product. “We have chosen lojano coffee because it is very clean. It has a very nice flavor, “says Ming Dong, who consumes up to two quintals of the grain each month.
On the corner of Eloy Alfaro and Capitán Nájera, next to Malecón 2000, since 1992 there has been a place that has become traditional. It is called ‘El rincón del café’ and is owned by Jorge Reinoso. When the waiters are asked to the origin of the grain, they assure that it is the best quality that exists in the country: “It’s lojano, sir”.
Lojano merchants who are responsible for touring the farms of the seven cantons where coffee is grown in this southern province in search of the best grain, such as Jorge Aldean Criollo, Enrique Ayala Benavides or Arturo Montesinos, say that many of their shipments are destined the big cafeteria chains, in addition to the small shops that offer the ground coffee.
A kingdom for the Arabian
The age of the lojano coffee grower is the highest among the producers in the country: 64 years, when the national average is 54. This shows the absence of a generational change. Loja is one of the 16 provinces that cultivate Arabica coffee, with 20 varieties of seeds. This finds a higher yield in the Sierra region due to the fact that the number of average productive branches is higher than in the other regions.
The Lojano producers have won nine out of eleven Tazas Doradas in recent years, with plantations of Quilanga (2), Olmedo (3), Espíndola, Puyango, Calvas and Chaguarpamba.
The other seed species planted in Ecuador is the robust one, which is harvested in 11 provinces. Orellana and Sucumbíos have the highest production. In Cañar, Los Ríos, Santa Elena and Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas their crops are relatively young. Those of Guayas and Pichincha are the longest.
In the case of Loja, the cantons producing coffee are Chaguarpamba, Olmedo, Alamor, Cariamanga, Quilanga, Amaluza, Vilcabamba and Puyango.
As for the generation of work, 46,533 people throughout the country are linked to coffee. 68% are men and 32% are women.
Exports of unroasted and roasted coffee in 2017 reached 5,130 tons. The main problems that affected the productivity of coffee plantations in 2018 were pests and diseases (50%) and lack of water (28%). (I)