Ecuadorean barista blazing new trail

Updated: 2015-07-13 04:11

By Li Jing(China Daily)

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Ecuadorean barista blazing new trail

Diego Mejía is Ecuador’s 2014 national barista champion,coming in China to promote coffee from his country. Zhou Zhaohui / for China Daily

Diego Mejía is Ecuador's 2014 national barista champion. Since he got involved in the coffee business, he said his life has changed amazingly.

Among the surprises, he got a chance to visit China.

"One month ago when I got the invitation, I couldn't believe it. It is my lifetime dream to come to Asia and I didn't realize it could happen so fast," said the 25-year-old at a coffee shop in 798 Art Zone, an art community in the Beijing. "Although I have been here for only two days, I have had a love of the city."

He wore an apron all afternoon, serving coffees made from Ecuadorean coffee beans at a coffee promotion event organized by Pro Ecuador, the country's official institution to promote exports and investments. The tanned-faced young man wore a smile like sunshine, with his voice pitch going higher when talking about his fresh experience in Beijing.

"My country produces one of the best coffees in the world, but it is not yet well-known and I am committed to promoting it everywhere," he said.

Mejia started to learn coffee brewing two years ago.

"I used to be a chef," he said. "But I think there are too many chefs in Ecuador, yet few baristas, so I joined the industry. It is such an amazing world to explore and I've been doing a lot of coffee brewing and roasting research."

After a year, Mejia won first place in the Ecuador National Barista Championship in 2014.

"I am lucky and it is amazing how coffee has changed my life for good," he added.

In April, he represented Ecuador to compete in the World Barista Championship in Seattle in the United States, becoming the second Ecuadorean barista participating in this cupping event, where he presented specialty coffees from Ecuador's Finca Maputo, just two hours from Ecuador's capital, Quito.

"Specialty coffees have just started in Ecuador and we are working hard to advance the culture," Mejía said.

"Specialty coffee" is a term to describe beans of the best flavor, which are produced in special microclimates. Specialty coffees are grown in special and ideal climates and the unique flavors and tastes are a result of the special characteristics and composition of the soils in which they are produced. The specialty segment is the most rapidly growing portion of the coffee industry. In the US, specialty coffee has increased its market share from 1 percent to 20 percent in the last 25 years.

"A lot of farmers are concerned about this new trend," he said. "We are teaching farmers to grow high quality coffee and doing research to improve the quality." Living in a coffee-producing country, he has the opportunity to be very close to farmers.

He said in the future he would like to see better treatment for coffee growers and equal recognition for them, roasters, baristas, cuppers, and every single person who worked hard to provide people a good cup of coffee.

Although coffee has a long history in Ecuador, where it was first introduced in the early 19th Century, the small South American country has a tiny size of coffee yield, due to a lack of proper plantation maintenance and soil exhaustion.

Actually, the country is blessed with all the right coffee growing parameters.

Jennifer Murray, a coffee expert who has been to Ecuador, said "The country has very high altitudes, volcanic soils and old Typica varieties. On top of that, the majority of coffee producers here are quite small and hands on, so there's lots of potential for a really high-end, focused product."

When Mejía talked with Chinese, he found people in China didn't know anything about Ecuadorean specialty coffees.

"Almost nobody knows coffee can be sweet, even with a peach sweetness, which is the signature feature of Ecuadorean high-quality coffees."

He said there is great potential in the Chinese market. After the stop in Beijing, he went along with Pro Ecuador to Guangzhou for the road show trip.

"We are the pioneers of the industry and one of the first to promote Ecuador specialty coffees," he said. "There is a lot of challenge and I know I am ready for it. Because our land gives us amazing coffee, we should take advantage of it and be grateful as well."

He will attend a new barista championship held in Fushan town in Hainan province later this month, which he sees as another good opportunity to promote coffee.

Andres Armas, a representative from Commercial Section of the Ecuador Embassy in Beijing, said coffee exporting from Ecuador to China is minimum and so far there is no Chinese company investing in the industry in Ecuador. "We are here trying to open up the Chinese market and welcome Chinese to come to invest in Ecuador," he added.