Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #43.
Coffee reviews have been a little sparse lately. The focus of reviews here is evolving, with an emphasis on educating about corporate coffee, and on sustainable coffees with great backstories or associated projects. This coffee is one of the latter.
Café Chocó Andes is about more than just coffee. This project includes multiple international partners working not only to improve coffee quality and move toward organic production methods, but also has reforestation, biodiversity, ecotourism, and educational components. It is part of the larger Chocó-Andean corridor project, which seeks to create a network of protected areas, both natural and restored and managed, from northwestern Ecuador to the Pacific coastal mangroves.
Location and background
The Café Chocó Andes project takes place in northwest Ecuador. This is an area of very high biodiversity, and the Maquipucuna-Rio Guayllabamba Important Bird Area (IBA) is located here. Over 350 bird species have been recorded in this IBA, including the near-threatened Toucan Barbet (top) and the vulnerable Giant Antpitta (middle). The bulk of the IBA consists of the Maquipucuna Reserve, founded in 1989 by the non-profit Maquipucuna Foundation. The reserve is 6000 ha and located about 50 miles northwest of Quito. It is surrounded by another 14000 ha of protected forest, much of which is undisturbed cloud forest. Altitudes range from 1000 to 2800 meters, thus encompassing coffee-growing zones. It includes an ecolodge and scientific station.
In the late 1990s, the University of Georgia’s School of Ecology and the Maquipucuna Foundation began a project to preserve the area’s biodiversity while improving the livelihoods of residents. Goals included reforestation and creation of forest corridors to improve habitat, especially for migratory birds, and working with coffee farmers to re-establish shade trees and convert to organic production. Over 50,000 coffee trees have been planted since 2000, and over two dozen farms have received organic certification. Other sustainable cottage industries help diversify local income and prevent habitat destruction: beekeeping, paper making, hand-crafted jewelry, jam production, and shade-grown cacao. The project now includes over 160 coffee farmers and 400-plus cacao growers.
The importance of the shade coffee is reflected in research that takes place on these Maquipucuna Foundation-owned lands. A recently published paper  by University of Georgia and Foundation researchers looked at the response of resident forest birds to disturbance and canopy cover in this area. It found that 18 species of specialized forest birds sharply declined in areas with less than 21 to 40% canopy cover. The authors noted that this threshold level is the same as the 40% minimum canopy cover recommended for Bird-Friendly and Rainforest Alliance certified coffee.
Around five years ago, additional partners, including the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Georgia Museum of Natural History, and the Georgia Environmental Education Alliance established Our Shared Forests (Nuestros Bosques Compartidos in Ecuador). This bi-national education program for schoolkids focuses on awareness of migratory bird species that the two countries share, such as Summer Tanager, Blackburnian Warbler (right), and Red-eyed Vireo.
The Macquipucuna Foundation’s coffee is roasted by 1000 Faces Coffee, located in Athens, GA. This particular microlot comes from one of the farms owned by the Foundation that is part of the Café Chocó Andes project; Finca Orongo in Pichincha province, near the community of Palmitopamba. At one time, it was completely deforested. It consists of typica and caturra, and is grown at 1400 to 1700 meters.
This coffee is not certified organic or shade-grown, although it is grown under these conditions. Coffee & Conservation readers know that I have mixed feelings about certification, in particular because I don’t believe requiring small producers who grow coffee in perfectly environmentally-sustainable ways should have to pay for it. Many are unable to cover the costs (especially if we as consumers are unwilling to make it worthwhile) or even have the skills and time to manage the paperwork. 1000 Faces has strong opinions along these lines regarding organic and shade certification, born out of their direct relationship with farmers.
The last time we reviewed an Ecuadorian coffee, we weren’t especially impressed. That was a Caribou selection, and it was from Loja. Although it wasn’t a dark roast, it was a tad darker than we tend to like. 1000 Faces roasted this coffee lighter. The roast level indicates medium, but it was on the lighter side. This lighter touch served the coffee well.
This was a solid, middle-of-the-road coffee that reminded us of a good Colombian or Central American coffee. The sweetness was subtle; 1000 Faces describes it as raw honey which seemed apt to me. There was an interesting smoky accent which appealed to some panelists, while others perceived it as ashy. It had a quick and pleasant finish that I associate with a solid, reliable breakfast cup. Nothing else stood out to tasters, but I will say that it was a coffee that seemed to taste better a little further past roast day (at around ten days) than really freshly roasted. It mellowed and had a more rounded and balanced personality, losing some of the ashy notes that we detected at our first tastings. It was much better than the Caribou Ecuadorian selection; we gave it 2.75 motmots.
- Set aside 20 minutes, and look at the short film Slow Coffee, which is all about this coffee and the partnership between the Macquipucuna Foundation and 1000 Faces.
- Eco-Exchange, Rainforest Alliance: Kids and Conservationists Unite in Ecuador and GeorgiaTo Benefit Cultures, Farmers, Forests and Birds.
- 1000 Faces blog: Ecuador journal entries, includes info on Finca Orongo.
- National Geographic Geotourism Challenge 2009: Macquipucuna application with many details on Foundation partners and initiatives, includes a video.
 Mordecai, R. S., R. J. Cooper, and R. Justicia. 2009. A threshold response to habitat disturbance by forest birds in the Choco Andean corridor, northwest Ecuador. Biodiversity and Conservation 18:2421-2431.
Toucan Barbet photo by Michael Woodruff via Wikimedia Commons; Giant Antpitta photo by Andy Jones, Cleveland Museum of Natural History; Blackburian Warbler by Petroglyph, all under Creative Commons licenses.