Newslettter: Why we work in Ecuador

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Red Fox was in Ecuador last month for a brief visit at start of the harvest season. We went to check in with the farmers and partners we work with, to talk through what went well and what didn’t with last season’s shipments, to ask how farms weathered El Niño, to hear how families & businesses were affected when the earthquake hit the coast in April. We also went with some existential questions for ourselves about Red Fox’s place in Ecuador, about whether working there makes sense for us in the big picture. Ecuador has been part of Red Fox’s portfolio since the beginning, and we have longstanding relationships there that mean a lot to us. But it’s also a challenging origin for us, in that Ecuadorian coffee is very expensive, and expensive coffee is hard to sell.

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We pay more for coffee in Ecuador than we do in any other origin except Kenya. It’s crazy. It’s hard to justify paying so much for South American coffee, especially when there’s a wealth of great coffee to be had for a fraction of the price in neighboring Colombia or Peru. And it’s a challenge to make the case to customers that Ecuadorian coffee is worth the price, even when we’re offering beautiful, unique, and excellently prepared coffees from dedicated producers and inspiring farms.

So why is coffee so expensive in Ecuador? One factor at play is simple supply and demand. Compared to its Andean neighbors, Ecuador’s share of coffee production is tiny. Total production in Ecuador, according to the ICO’s stats, was 700,000 bags in 2015, compared with 13,500,000 bags in Colombia and 3,200,000 in Peru. Take out the robusta, commodity-grade arabica, and what’s going to the soluble market from those numbers, and the slice that is specialty coffee is tinier still. Competition for that small slice is strong and growing. Ecuador’s precarious, oil-dependent economic climate has stifled investment in farms and hurt overall yields for the past few years. Put those things together and you get a recipe for escalating coffee prices.

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But another piece of the puzzle in Ecuador is the cost of producing coffee there. Coffee farmers everywhere struggle with the cost of production, with access to credit and seasonal cash flow, but the particular economic and political realities in Ecuador make it a special case. Ecuador switched its currency to the US dollar in 2000, after hyperinflation and a banking crisis left the economy reeling. In recent years, the strong dollar has made Ecuadorian exports more expensive. That, plus the collapse of oil prices, on which Ecuador’s economy has depended since the 70s, has contributed to a decline in export revenues to which President Correa’s government has responded by restricting imports and raising taxes & tariffs on foreign goods. This matters to coffee producers and to the price of coffee because every truck, jeep, bag of fertilizer, and piece of machinery or farm equipment that has to be imported comes with an an additional premium that drives up production costs.

The cost of labor is also much higher in Ecuador than in other coffee-producing countries. Minimum wage has more than doubled since Correa was first elected, from $170/month in 2007 to $354/month in 2015, and benefits like vacation, bonus payments, and contributions to health care and social security are mandated by law and enforced. For coffee producers in Las Tolas, the total cost of wages & benefits for a full-time farm employee is around $22/day. Compare that to labor costs in Colombia, for instance, where wages can be as low as $4/day — you can’t, really. It’s a whole different world.

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We left Quito feeling strongly that Red Fox still belongs in Ecuador, that we have a role to play in the coffee industry there. If we’re serious about wanting to build a resilient supply chain that benefits everyone in it, how can we write off Ecuadorian coffee as too expensive when those high prices reflect a labor market in which farm workers are receiving more? Part of why we do what we do is because of our belief that there is a model out there in which coffee production can support and sustain individuals, families, communities, and perhaps even economies as a whole. If Ecuador is a test case, then we’re up to the challenge. Our first step is to better understand what the the true costs of coffee production look like, and to attempt to accurately represent those realities to customers and consumers alike.

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What does the future of speciality coffee look like in Ecuador? We don’t know for sure, but know we want to be a part of it because we find so much inspiration there. The talented producers and their commitment to helping their communities and the coffee industry grow; the incredible biodiversity; the ideal coffee storage conditions in Quito; the exciting varieties, from Sidra lot separations at La Yumbada to the Pacamara and Java that taste better grown in Las Tolas than anywhere else on the planet; the deep agronomic know-how of Arnaud Causse and his beautiful farms in Las Tolas and Guayllabamba, where something amazing— from experimental organic fertilizers and shade trees, to essential oil distillation for herbal insecticides, to beehives full of coffee blossom honey — is around every corner… all of it reminds us of why this is work we love.

Here’s to the season ahead.

Cheers,

Julia

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Sample Roasting

 

Hi folks, Joel here! I often get questions from customers about sample roasting, so I wanted to share some thoughts on our approach and the protocols we use at Red Fox.

An important part of what we do here at the lab everyday is evaluate samples, and it’s necessary for us to have protocols in place to help us accurately assess quality. Our protocols for sample roasting are designed with the goal of achieving consistent results, so that we can compare many, many samples, as accurately as possible, across days and weeks and months.

When a sample arrives here at Red Fox, we first measure its moisture content and water activity (aW). Moisture content is literally how much water is left in the coffee after it is dried. A coffee seed has a moisture content of around 60% when it’s first put out on the drying table or patio. As the coffee dries, the moisture content is brought down to 9-12%, usually over 7-21 days.

Water activity, simply stated, is a measurement of how bound that moisture is inside the coffee seed. There seems to be a relationship between how quickly a coffee has been dried and its aW. That is, coffee dried very quickly will often have a higher aW, while coffee dried more slowly will have a lower one. We pay attention to moisture content and aW because they tell us something about how a coffee was prepared and how the quality might change over time, but also because they give us clues as to how that coffee will behave in the roaster.

Higher-moisture coffees need more energy to get going and I will often introduce them at a higher temperature. (Density plays a role in this as well, but I am focusing on higher-grown, relatively dense coffees here.)

A coffee with a higher aW needs less energy during the latter part of the roast (especially going into and out of crack), while coffees with a lower aW need more energy to achieve the same line.

At Red Fox HQ, we have a two-barrel Probat sample roaster and we use a 90g charge to achieve the roast times we are looking for. For a coffee at 10% moisture content, I’ll introduce the sample at 350F on the analog temperature display, with the air fully to tray and a high flame. (For the broadest audience appeal, I’m assuming we’re all old school and don’t have any fancy thermocouples or data-loggers on our sample roasters). Once the coffee has turned yellow (lost all green shades), I’ll increase the air to drum to about three-quarters open. This happens between 3:15-3:45. At first crack (shooting for between 7:00-8:00), I will open up the air even more. If I’m working with a coffee with a higher aW, I’ll also lower the flame setting at crack. The idea is that during crack a coffee with a higher aW will really want to race once it goes from endothermic to exothermic. By increasing the air flow and lowering the flame, I’m trying to mitigate that. The opposite is true for a coffee with a low aW, where it almost acts like a heat sink and needs more energy to finish (in my case, less air to drum). I’m sure we’ve all roasted a coffee that seemingly takes no effort at all and easily follows the ‘standard line’ without abnormally big air/gas changes — that coffee was probably well-dried with solid moisture content and aW. Depending on the coffee, I’m looking for a “development time” after crack of anywhere from 1:15-1:45.

The metric we use to measure roast degree is percent weight loss or:

1 – (end weight/starting weight)

For example, a 90g charge with an end weight of 79.8g is:

1 – (79.8/90) = 0.113 or 11.3% loss

We are finding that we generally like samples to fall between 11-13% loss. Lower than this range and we start to taste grainy, cereal-like flavors (underdeveloped). Higher loss will begin to take on roasty/bitter flavors (overdeveloped). That being said, lower-moisture coffees can take a lower % loss and will take on roasty flavors faster (e.g. a coffee with 9.2% moisture could taste fine at 10.75% loss, but might start to develop roasty flavors at 13% loss). Similarly, higher-moisture coffees can take somewhat higher weight loss before showing roasty flavors and will taste underdeveloped at 10.75% loss. If you want an easy answer in the struggle between under- and overdevelopment (in sample roasting), then 11.5%-12.5% loss is almost always just right.

Note that these are standards we’ve developed at our lab on our equipment. The specific times and temperatures may not work for you, but the principles will. Even more important is creating a standard protocol, so that you can properly evaluate each sample you receive. If every sample is roasted to different standards, it will be difficult to accurately assess the quality. How many offers have been passed up because the roast was off?

Lastly, I want to mention our intentions when we sample roast. We are not necessarily looking for what the coffee will ultimately taste like as a production roast, but rather we are evaluating each coffee for sweetness, brightness, and body with clarity of flavors and whether any defects are present. This roast style is meant for cupping specifically and will not extract fully in most other brew methods.

I would love to hear your thoughts on any of this and welcome a continued discussion.

Best,
Joel
These protocols have been informed by Scott Rao’s “The Coffee Roaster’s Companion” and by roasting and cupping thousands of sample roasts. That being said, everything is impermanent and they will likely change as we refine our technique and understanding.