Welcome to the Galápagos Islands. 13 major islands, 6 smaller islands, and numerous islets that are full of unique biodiversity, some of which you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
And while coffee may not be a plant exclusive to the Galápogos Islands, something about it here is unusual. It’s widely accepted that coffee grown at higher altitudes is better quality – especially when it’s close to the equator, like this archipelago is. Yet specialty-grade coffee is grown at surprisingly low altitudes here, from 200 to 300 m.a.s.l.
So I spoke to Wilson Gonzalez of Productora de Café Galápagos to find out more about coffee in the Galápagos Islands – and why altitude isn’t always an indicator of quality.
Lee este artículo en Español: Café de la Isla Galápagos: Por Qué la Altitud No lo es Todo
Coffee trees growing under shade on the Galápagos Islands. Credit: Expigo
What Does Altitude Have to Do With Coffee Quality?
Although coffee grows in hot climates, coffee grown at cooler temperatures will often be better quality. This is because the beans will ripen more slowly, developing more sugars and complexity as they do so.
Generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the cooler the temperature. However, this will vary depending on the country’s latitude. The farther it is from the equator, the cooler the temperature usually becomes.
For this reason, a coffee grown at a lower altitude in Hawaii could have more sweetness than a higher altitude Venezuelan (or it could not – there are many factors that affect sweetness, including plant species/variety, production and processing methods, and roasting/brewing).
High-altitude coffee is also known as hard beans, or dense coffee, and it will affect how the beans need to be roasted. While roasters, baristas, and consumers all see high altitude as a sign of good coffee, it can result in decreased yields for producers.
So, given that the Galapágos Islands sit on the equator, why do they break the rules?
Galapagos Islands. Credit: Demis.nl with modifications by Michiel1972 via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Coffee Production on The Galápagos Islands
First of all, a quick overview of coffee production on these islands: Wilson tells me that, around 135 years ago, the first coffee seeds were brought here from French colonies in the Caribbean (stopping in Panama along the way). These were Bourbon seeds, and Bourbon remains the main variety grown on these islands today.
Other varieties were introduced 40–50 years ago by emigrants from the Loja Province of Ecuador: Caturra, Typica, Catuaí, Sachimor… You’ll mostly find these these on Santa Cruz Island.
Wilson Gonzalez checks coffee trees. Credit: Expigo
Harvesting & Processing
The main producing islands are San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz; more than 90% of the archipelago’s population lives on these islands. As of such, they account for 80% of the archipelago’s coffee.
All the coffee is organic; it has to be, since the majority of pesticides and agrochemical products were banned by the Ecuadorian government in the Special Law of 1998. William tells me that it’s also all hand-picked, and the vast majority is washed processed, with dry processing accounting for the rest.
What’s more, the Galápagos Islands are one of those few regions with two coffee harvests a year: February to March and November to December. This is thanks to the Humboldt current.
Expigo’s coffee mill on the Galápagos Islands. Credit: Expigo
Sea Currents & Altitude
The Galápagos Islands sit on the equator, meaning there’s intense sunshine from 6am to 6pm, with little variation throughout the year. Add to that low altitude, and you’d expect poor-quality coffee.
Yet although the islands receive intense sun, they don’t receive intense heat. In fact, William describes the climate as similar to what you’d expect at 1,200–1,300 m.a.s.l. Even in the hottest months, the temperature rarely reaches above 30/31°C. And in July to September, the dry season, it can drop below 20°C.
William explains that this because of the Humboldt Current. A low-salinity ocean current, it flows north along the west coast of South America from the Southern Cone up to northern Peru and out to the Galapágos Islands. It brings with it cool marine breezes that bring down land temperature.
This is part of the reason why low-altitude coffee from the Galápagos Islands can taste and roast like high-altitude coffee from other parts of the Americas.
Coffee trees growing on the Galápagos Islands. Credit: Expigo
What Does Coffee From The Galápagos Islands Taste Like?
William tells me that coffee from the Galápagos Islands is typically sweet, with a caramel flavor, medium body, high aroma, and nice acidity.
Part of the reason for this delicious profile is the unique microclimate, with the cool sea breezes and ocean current. It can also be attributed to the varieties; for example, Bourbon tends to be sweet. Then there’s the careful processing and production methods.
Soil quality is another key aspect: the Galápagos Islands were created from the frequent eruption of volcanoes over time. The layering of these – at the time, underwater – volcanoes built up until they emerged from the ocean. Volcanic soil is rich in nutrients, such as nitrogen, which is particularly important for growing and harvesting coffee.
If you were to look at the low altitude of the Galápagos Islands, and their position on the equator, it would be easy to write them off as a bad region for coffee production. Yet many factors influence coffee quality: altitude, yes, but also ocean/air currents, geographic location, local microclimates, soil, processing, and more.
Whether it’s from Brazil or Ecuador, it’s important to always look at range of information available about a coffee. Or, even better, judge for yourself based on how it tastes in the cup.
Written by Richard Rodríquez.
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