Coffee in Galapagos: Evolving To ThriveTwo hours by plane from the Andean coffee regions of Pacific South America lies the Galapagos Archipelago: 19 islands and 215 tiny islets, straddling the equator one thousand kilometers west of continental Ecuador. Famous for inspiring Darwin's On The Origin of Species, the volcanic islands are home to a staggering array of creatures and climates, many of which don’t exist anywhere else on the planet.
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Were it not for the results in your mug, coffee cultivation in the Galapagos almost needs to be seen to be believed, as the environment is quite alien compared to normal coffee-growing locations. Coffee here is produced on the south-facing slopes of the islands, between 130 and 550 meters above sea level, making it some of the lowest-grown coffee in the world. How can good coffee be produced at such low altitudes? The answer is the Humboldt Current, a cold-water ocean current that flows north along the Pacific coast of South America, bringing cold air (and churning up nutrients) from the coast of the Magallanes region of Chile up towards northern Peru, and over to the Galapagos. From June to December, the current creates a cooling marine breeze that mitigates the equatorial heat, creating an island microclimate that replicates the favorable growing conditions found in the Andean foothills. Despite the low altitude and proximity to the Equator, daytime temperatures during the second half of the year rarely exceed 28C, while at night temperatures can dip as low as 12C; this diurnal temperature variation is exactly what one would expect to find in continental Ecuador or Colombia at farms between 1,400 and 1,800 masl.
Native coffee growers on the islands say the first Bourbon seeds arrived more than 100 years ago from the French colonies in the Caribbean, while Caturra, Typica, Sarchimor, Catuaí and Catimor eventually followed from the Loja Province in continental Ecuador. Due to the isolation of the islands, farms here historically have had little if any access to agricultural education or training, resulting in unconventional approaches to farm management. Coffee trees are often planted at around 100 trees per hectare, when in other Latin American origins the average is between 3,000-6,000, depending on the variety. Many of these trees are also extremely old, with an average yield of around four bags of green coffee per hectare – compared to an average of 15 bags per hectare in Colombia. Lack of access to farming education also led to an absence of fertilization plans or disease controls. Even though farms here do have volcanic soils, the soil is extremely rocky and possesses little if any organic matter, making fertilization crucial. However, no soil analyses were being carried out to determine what nutrients were being depleted through agricultural pursuits. The farm practices observed by these small-scale island producers were very basic; selective harvesting based on ripeness was not considered, nor was having the appropriate drying infrastructure.
While the circumstances of coffee production on the Galapagos are unique in many ways, the islands are experiencing the same demographic transitions affecting other coffee growing countries. Traditional coffee producers are getting older and are passing on their farms to their sons and daughters, and this new generation is keen to improve on the work of their parents, with a heightened focus on improving the quality and, ultimately, the reputation of Galapagos coffees, via upgraded harvest infrastructure and implementing better practices and techniques. They are even pruning and renovating their farms to increase productivity. These changes have been catalyzed in part by the arrival of our PECA team, who, inspired by the living laboratory that is the Galapagos, have opened a facility for growers to share knowledge, and to help educate producers who are passionate about seeing the quality of their coffee evolve.
It’s worth noting these efforts must be made while minding the Archipelago’s stringent agriculture regulations, and the repercussions of past farming practices must be considered. Other challenges include a dearth of available workers, making labor scarce and expensive. On the Island of Santa Cruz, pickers can easily receive nearly four times as much as pickers in Colombia and twice as much as those on continental Ecuador. As a consequence, the cost of production here is one of the highest in the world, and the coffees are priced accordingly. Fresh water during the picking season is also scarce, forcing farmers to harvest not just their coffees but also harvest rain when it falls, as droughts are sure to follow. If they don’t collect enough water to wash their coffee, they must use salt water, which can impart an umami flavor to the beans. Due to the high ambient moisture prevailing at all times in the island, dry processing coffee – instead of washed, is not a viable option.
Galapagos is an incredible place to grow coffee, but as with so many picture-perfect coffee-growing settings, environment alone does not ensure a successful crop; farmers have to work hard to achieve good quality. Last year, farmers suffered from long droughts, losing large portions of their crop due to lack of water. The awareness of this issue has been magnified, and producers are looking for ways to conserve water at all costs. The attitude of the people from The Galapagos naturally leads to well thought out and conscious farming practices. Here they truly value the environment above everything and will sacrifice taking the easy road to achieve something if it is not in line with the ethos of preserving the land. High costs lead to high prices but with all the effort that goes into producing coffee here, we think it is more than worth it: a cup profile marrying subtle yet salient salinity with a rich molasses sweetness, as unique and intriguing as the wildlife which has captivated visitors since the HMS Beagle.