November 26, 2020

Specialty coffee in Chile: Growing against the odds


In Chile, issues with affordability, accessibility, and a lack of awareness have historically meant relatively low levels of specialty coffee consumption.

However, in recent years, things have started to change. Today, both specialty coffee shops and roasters are breaking through in a country that has historically mainly consumed instant coffee and tea.

To learn more about why this has happened, what challenges the industry faces in Chile, and how it could grow further, I spoke to some baristas, roasters, and other coffee professionals. Here’s what they had to say. 

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A History Of Coffee In Chile

Between 1840 and 1914, it is estimated that some 50,000 Britons emigrated to Chile. They took with them a number of British customs, among which was tea drinking.

As a result, today, Chile is one of the largest consumers of tea in the world, and by far the largest consumer of tea per capita in South America.

In comparison, ICO figures from the past decade show that, on average, coffee consumption per capita in Chile is just 0.75kg. The country has also never really produced coffee, as it generally lacks the necessary climate and elevation.

However, Euromonitor reports show that overall coffee consumption dramatically increased by 175% between 2011 and 2018. Furthermore, it is projected to grow by 40% in 2020 alone.

Why Is Specialty Coffee Consumption Low?

However, in spite of this growth, soluble coffee still makes up 98% of all Chilean coffee sales. And beyond historic consumer preferences for instant coffee and tea, there are other challenges facing Chile’s burgeoning specialty coffee industry. 

The first is accessibility. More than 50% of all Chilean specialty coffee shops are located in Santiago, with 62% of cafés restricted to just three regions across the country. 

Alejandro Inostroza is co-founder of El Café Circular – Artisan Roast Chile in Santiago. He explains that there is little incentive for cafés to launch outside of these areas, as start-up costs are high. 

“If you want to import your own coffee, you have to pay a 19% tax rate upfront, without even selling anything yet. Then you also have to pay for shipping, storage, and customs.

“Even if you pay several thousand dollars for your green coffee, you’ll need to spend thousands more before it reaches your facilities. And as the local market is small, there isn’t much interest in importing small quantities into Chile.”

Gabriela Sanhueza is Head of Operations at Tallercafé, a café in Valparaíso. She says that to keep coffee accessible, she lets consumers pay what they can afford, and says that this is the best way to introduce specialty coffee to consumers. She adds: “[Even when] people consume quality coffee, the average consumer still doesn’t understand much about it.”

Covid-19: A Force For Change

Many in the Chilean coffee industry feel that Covid-19 has accelerated the growth of specialty consumption by forcing cafés to get to know customers and their needs better.

Cristóbal Canales is the Customer Relationship Manager at Artisan Roasts. He tells me that before the pandemic, you could assume that people visiting your café would have some coffee knowledge. 

However, today, he says, it is different. “[Now] we are taking coffee to their homes. We [find that we] need to offer more information and education on coffee. We’ve called every one of our clients to find out what’s behind their choice and preference.”

Live Instagram videos and Zoom sessions have helped keep to cafés in contact with customers. Gabriela notes that it’s important “to offer customers a taste of the experience of being in [a] café”.

The global rise in home brewing has also spread to Chile, too. Despite this, however, some of the most popular café beverages in Chile (such as the cortado and the Chilean cappuccino) can’t always be recreated at home.

Gabriela says: “[Now], people understand that spending money on a home espresso machine isn’t worth it. They’ve started to make filter coffee at home. If we hadn’t had to stay at home, we would have seen a much slower evolution in coffee consumption.”

Carlos Medina is the Head Barista at Elephant Coffee and is Chile’s 2020 National Barista Champion. He agrees with Gabriela, noting that Covid-19 has caused filter coffee to increase dramatically in popularity.

“Usually, 70% of the coffees we sell are espresso-based drinks like lattes,” he says. “When we opened a year ago, we only prepared one or two filter coffees daily. Now we’re making up to 15 each day.

“Once the lockdown lifts, there will be increased demand for filter coffee, as it’s what people can prepare at home.”

Similar to other countries around the world, research shows that a large percentage of Chilean coffee consumers have become interested in vegan options.

Expocafé figures show that 61% of surveyed cafés in the country use lactose-free milk, while plant milk can be found in 42% coffee shops. Gabriela says increasing these numbers is a challenge, because it’s hard to find plant milk that can be textured easily. She adds that local coffee competitions don’t yet have a category for non-dairy milk, making it difficult for baristas to participate.

Chilean coffee consumers are also becoming increasingly focused on the environmental impact of their coffee consumption. Many cafés are starting to educate consumers on how to responsibly dispose of their coffee grounds, as the majority of grounds end up going to landfill.

“We want to create awareness on how to reuse the coffee grounds or safely dispose of them”, Gabriela says. 

Alejandro tells me that in 2016, in Scotland, he and his wife founded the Circular Coffee project (and subsequently Artisan Roast Chile) which collects used coffee grounds. These are then used to create fertile soil and grow mushrooms, shared with craft organisations to make purses and bags, and may even be used to create biofuels and essential oils in the future. 

A Challenging Environment For Chilean Baristas

While Chile’s specialty coffee scene is growing, it still has a way to go. Carlos says the industry is in its adolescence and still looking for its “identity”. In the past, he says that he’s struggled to find work in specialty cafés as his experience working in chain cafés was often looked down on.

Gabriela adds that many baristas don’t feel that their role requires special preparation or training, and that most training events or classes tend not to be popular. She tells me that while there’s an interest in the origin of the coffee, how it’s processed, and specific brewing methods, the more technical elements such as water quality are often neglected.

She also says that a lot of café owners in Chile view baristas as waiters who serve coffee; she says they don’t understand the importance of precision when brewing filter coffee or properly dialling in espresso, for instance.

Rodrigo Gorigoitía is the President of Chile’s National Association of Coffee Professionals and Lovers (ANAPAC). He says that many cafés aren’t aware of how demanding operating a café can be. He adds that if you don’t have a good understanding of specialty coffee, it can be difficult to appreciate how skilled your baristas are.

Obstacles For Cafés And Roasters

The main challenge for specialty coffee roasters and cafés in Chile is the supply of good quality coffee. Alejandro explains that a lot of small businesses are “forced to buy their coffee from the few big local importers” and that “you’ll often see low-quality beans sold at high prices”.

He says that in the future, he hopes that specialty coffee businesses can collaborate and realise that they’re not competing against each other, but rather pushing the industry forward to ultimately change consumption trends.

Gabriela agrees that collaboration is key. She says: “As specialty coffee consumption isn’t yet well-established, we can’t view each other as competitors. We have to work together.”

Finally, Rodrigo notes that at present, Covid-19 is still making life incredibly difficult for many cafés and roasters. “[At this time], the goal for most cafés is survival,” he says. “Our focus is on helping them with this. Even after [Covid-19] restrictions ease, we want to help them access funding and run reactivation programmes.”

Our interviewees agree that consumption will change in the public arena as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many consumers will have had time to explore specialty coffee at home and develop a taste for higher quality products. 

As Chile’s specialty coffee industry grows, its key players will need to communicate and collaborate to keep this momentum going. Ultimately, this means improving accessibility for consumers and working together to bring specialty coffee to a wider audience.

Enjoyed this? You may also like Micro Roasts & Coffee Imports: Introducing Chile’s Roasting Scene

All quotes translated from Spanish by the author.

Photo credits: Gabriela Sanhueza, Carlos Medina

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