Finding Competition Coffee at Hacienda La Papaya

Kay Cheon, third-place finisher at this year’s United States Barista Championship, recently visited the farm his competition coffee came from, Hacienda La Papaya in Ecuador. He breaks down his trip for us in this photo journal.


Photos courtesy of Kay Cheon

Placing third place in the 2018 United States Barista Championship came as a shock to me, especially in my first year of competition. My goal for the weekend had been to get into finals, but when I looked around at the other competitors I was standing next to before they called the six of us up, I felt like I had already achieved so much.

This is almost to the top of La Papaya, which Juan Peña jokingly terms new Papaya. In the background, young Geisha and Sidra varieties are just beginning to take hold.

Todd, the owner of Dune Coffee Roasters (where I currently work), had talked to me about going to Ecuador to visit Hacienda La Papaya, where Juan Peña had produced the coffee I used for competition. But while I was on shift one day, Todd called and said that Noah Namowicz from Cafe Imports had gotten in touch and invited me to go to Ecuador in two weeks.

I met up with Cole McBride, the 2018 USBC winner who would also be going on the trip, in Houston. Both of us had used coffee from Juan Peña this year, and I was so excited that the same producer’s coffee had been represented in two USBC finals performances. The morning after we landed in Quito, we met up with Piero Cristiani, green buyer for Cafe Imports, and Victor Pagan, content specialist and photographer for Cafe Imports. Even though we were unable to get on our flight to Cuenca to Hacienda La Papaya, we took advantage of the time and explored Quito.

Cole grabs a handful of the natural-processed coffee, taking in the deep raisin-y aromas.

After we finally caught our flight to Cuenca, Juan Peña and Diego Mejía, this year’s barista champion of Ecuador, met us at the airport to take us into town. Our first stop was Sinfonía, the cafe Juan and Diego are working on opening together. Along with Piero, they set up a cupping for Cole and I, from which Cole chose the lot of coffee that he would be using for the World Barista Championship in Amsterdam next month.

Saraguro, the nearest bigger city to the farm, is vibrant and alive on Sunday. On the corner of the city square, a street vendor tries to catch an umbrella that blows around, while folks sell trinkets in the background.

The next day, the six of us drove into Saraguro, and from there it was another drive to Hacienda La Papaya. Juan gave us a quick tour before insisting we would get the full explanation tomorrow. We all got up early on our own accord—some of us walking the farm before the sun came up and marveling at the views. At 2,100 meters above sea level, the views were aplenty, especially when we hiked to the top to explore all the sections—or “blocks” as Juan calls them—of La Papaya.

Ecuador is a large exporter of roses, so it wasn’t surprising to see floral arrangements like this one all around Quito and behind the counter at Cafe Traviesa.

Juan and Diego both gave us a comprehensive explanation of the processes that go into running the farm. These included the processing of coffee, as well as how the farm structures job responsibilities, yearly goals, and progress. All of it was very impressive, and it became very clear that the level of quality of Juan’s coffee is no accident, and instead the result of very intentional and dedicated work.

Our first night in Cuenca, Juan (left) and Diego took us from the airport to Sinfonía, a new coffee shop they have been working to open. Along with Piero, the three are setting up a cupping of La Papaya lots from which Cole will choose his competition coffee.

While Juan and Diego treated us with the utmost hospitality, from serving us first at dinner to answering all of our questions, Piero and Victor were both amazing travel companions, being able to translate for us as well as making sure Cole and I had everything we needed. The opportunities that came with being at origin with all of these people were numerous, from being able to taste coffees with Juan and Diego, to brewing our competition roasts of La Papaya for Juan, to being able to see and touch the coffee that La Papaya is producing. Here are more photos from the farm, along with captions detailing what we did and learned on this trip.

Ecuador and Hacienda La Papaya are unique in that the same coffee plant can often have varying degrees of ripeness. This means pickers have to be diligent in their passes, going over the same sections over and over to pick ripe cherries. Juan explained that this is mostly due to how he irrigates his farm, as well as the surrounding climate.


In the nursery, Cole and Juan kneel by some Geisha seedlings. For those familiar with Juan’s Typica lots, it’s staggering to imagine how floral and delicate a Geisha from La Papaya might be.


In the nursery, Juan shows us a young coffee plant that has yet to be planted out on the main farm.


Juan watches coffee drop into the huller in order to remove the parchment. The wrench he’s holding allows him to adjust how much parchment the machine will remove before Cole’s coffee goes in to be processed.


Coffee blossoms are incredibly aromatic, reminiscent of jasmine or citrus blossoms. At one point, we were treated to a meal where the chefs had gone out to pick these blossoms to use in the dessert.


By taking Brix readings of the cherries, Juan can take an average of the sugar levels in the cherries. The difference in perfectly ripe, overripe, and green cherries is significant, and also noticeable when biting into them.


The morning of our departure from the farm, Juan had separated out Cole’s competition lot into four bags, as well as one bag sorted with a smaller screen size. We were reluctant to check the bags, so we spread them out to carry them on to the plane.


Kay Cheon works as a coffee educator and bartender in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he is privileged enough to share what little knowledge he has with the people around him and taste good things and work on bettering service alongside them. His current favorite drinks are tasty batch-brewed coffee and shaken bittersweet cocktails.

About baristamagazine 2133 Articles
Barista Magazine is the leading trade magazine in the world for the professional coffee community.