Editor’s note: This article was first published in Roast Magazine’s Sep/Oct 2021 issue, and is reprinted here with permission.
Author’s note: I remember the first time I talked to Felix Chambi of Cooperativa San Juan. It was a fall afternoon late in 2019; we had been texting back and forth and he decided to call. True millennial that I am, I panicked but got up the courage to answer the phone. What started with awkward introductions ended as a multi-hour conversation. In Felix, I found a true expert in Bolivian coffee: his parents and grandparents had grown coffee, and he had been an active participant in the birth of the third wave consumer and barista culture in La Paz.
Two years later, Felix surprised me with another phone call. This time, it was to invite me to participate in this year’s Taza Presidencial – Bolivia’s coffee competition. To say I was thrilled is an understatement; I’ve dreamed of going to Bolivia for years; the opportunity to taste this origin’s best coffees and lead the tasting as Head Judge was simply a dream come true.
Freshly back in the office from this adventure, I’m as excited as ever for the future of Bolivian coffee, and the opportunity to bring these coffees to roasters here in the US. Bolivia is full of passionate and consummate coffee professionals, and I’m looking forward to continuing to connect with this growing market.
Look out for more content and fresh coffees in the coming months; for now, please enjoy this brief introduction to the Bolivian coffee market, originally printed in the September/October 2021 issue of Roast Magazine.
Specialty Coffee in Bolivia: The Growth of an Industry
Bolivia is at a pivotal moment: In the cities, people are drinking specialty coffee; something that’s only become available to them in the past ten years but is growing more popular by the day. La Paz has dozens of coffee shops, and Bolivians are drinking and enjoying specialty coffee grown and roasted right in their own country. In the countryside, people are planting coffee at an unprecedented rate; it’s likely we’ll see a boom from this origin in the next few harvests. After many cycles of neglect, the intense competition of other cash crops, and a lack of infrastructure to produce quality coffee, this new wave is surging against all odds.
For this article, I spoke with four Bolivian coffee professionals who share an intense passion for coffee. Each of them is uniquely invested in the growth of the Bolivian specialty coffee market, both in terms of internal consumption and in terms of production for imports. We’ll explore the historical context of how coffee farming developed in Bolivia, the unique challenges coffee has faced in this origin, and the new wave of Bolivian coffee.
“In Bolivia, there’s enormous potential,” says Estefany Escobar, who started as a barista and now works directly with coffee farmers. “We’re still in diapers; that doesn’t have to be a disadvantage, it means that there’s a lot of opportunities to grow and to prove ourselves…With this growth, I hope that Bolivians can feel proud of their own coffee. I want them to identify with the coffee we produce because it really is of excellent quality.”
In Bolivia, coffee has always struggled to compete with other, more profitable crops—most notably coca. Based on projected increases in production, long-term government investment, and a growing interest in specialty coffee within the country, Bolivia is on the cusp of emerging as an important and consistent producer of delicious coffee.
Bolivians are intensely proud of their coffee—it is an indelible part of Bolivian culture. Coffee’s arrival in Bolivia was not carefully documented, leaving the impression that it has always been there. The large haciendas that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in post-independence Bolivia used it as a border hedge to delineate property lines or cultivated it in small quantities for personal consumption. Typica was the first variety to arrive in the country, likely through porous borders (most of Bolivia’s neighbors produce coffee) or brought by conquistadores and the people they had enslaved. Today, Bolivians even make a point of identifying this Typica as an “indigenous” variety, mostly to differentiate it from other varieties of coffee that didn’t start to arrive in the country until the second half of the twentieth century.
While coffee has been cultivated in Bolivia since the early twentieth century, coca has always been the king of exports. Coca has important cultural significance in the Altiplano and, with little processing and up to four harvests, a year is an incredibly easy-to-grow cash crop with an eager international market. Extreme dependence on one crop is precarious, however, and monoculture is not the way most agriculture is practiced in the country. For the last 150 years or so, Bolivia has searched for crops that can compete with coca and supplement their economy. But the tenacity of the coca leaf—both as a cultural product and as one intensely desired by international consumers—should not be underestimated. By the turn of the twentieth century, coca made up more than 95 percent of Bolivia’s exported agricultural product. Other crops were exclusively consumed in the local market and were never prepared for export.
Manuel Baudoin was one of many researchers searching for products that could bolster the regional economy. As early as 1915, he became a vocal proponent of crop diversification in the large haciendas, emphasizing the importance of coffee and fruit trees, corn, maranta roots, and other products that could enter the market as alternatives to coca.
Baudoin’s book Brief Notes on the Yungas and Tropical Bolivian Agriculture is the first to mention the quality potential of Bolivian coffee and notes the detrimental effects of deficient processing techniques. He observes the indiscriminate collection of fruits, over-fermentation, and the difficulties of drying the seeds fully. While coffee was not affected by plagues or pests at this time, Baudoin notes the lack of training for farmers as one of the main obstacles to preserving cup quality. Having observed other coffee auctions that allowed cup quality to drive higher prices, he laments the lack of this kind of competition in Bolivia. Nearly 100 years later, his insights still ring true.
An Introduction to Coffee in Los Yungas
The epicenter of specialty coffee production, despite its unique challenges, is Los Yungas—a tropical and subtropical forest just on the Eastern slopes of the Andes. It has a wide range of altitudes that can change abruptly as a result of steep climbs and sheer cliffs. In stark contrast to other, much drier parts of Bolivia, Los Yungas has a complex ecosystem of flora and fauna that form a tropical and sub-tropical forest. The region is dense with vegetation and has been an agricultural center for centuries.
The geography of Los Yungas is challenging to navigate, and the lack of infrastructure has kept it relatively isolated for a long time. To this day, there is only one way in or out of the area—a two-lane highway known as “el camino de la muerte” or “death road,” in large part because of its hairpin turns around sheer cliffs and its nearly vertical slopes. This road connecting Los Yungas to the capital of La Paz was built in 1935 by Paraguayan prisoners of the Chaco War, the bloodiest war fought in South America during the twentieth century. Work on the highway was so brutal and conditions so extreme that many of the prisoners’ bodies were buried directly into the road, according to local folklore, lending another meaning to its name. Today, this route remains the only way to access Los Yungas by car and is also a tourist attraction particularly favored by adrenaline-seeking bicyclists.
In her landmark work Notes for a History of Coffee in the Yungas of La Paz published in 2016, María Luisa Soux notes that improved access to the city was instrumental for Yugueños, increasing their ability to export their agricultural products. However, despite the best efforts to diversify crops, coca still provided stability and financial security that neither fruit trees nor coffee could compete with, especially as these new products—coffee in particular—required unfamiliar techniques and technology. The Coca Customs reports from 1942 show that coca yielded ten times as much income as any other crop, leaving all alternatives (coffee, quinoa, fruit, wood, and minerals) far behind.
In the 1950s, an influx of new producers flocked to Los Yungas as part of the land redistribution resulting from the Agrarian Reform Law of 1953, which coincided with a surprising dip in demand for coca. The Ministry of Peasantry and Agricultural Affairs began promoting “alternative development” programs for new farmers, incentivizing crop alternatives to coca—coffee being among them. In 1956, this organization published a pamphlet titled “How to Grow Coffee,” which used simple words and drawings to show how to plant, cultivate, prune and process coffee. According to Soux’s research, this pamphlet seems to be the first governmental effort to improve coffee quality and further commercialize production. Still, in most cases, coffee seemed to require too much effort and investment to be a worthwhile alternative for farmers.
In the years that followed, Bolivia saw the first scientific studies of coffee funded by the Department of Agriculture in the 1960s. The results confirmed that volumes were extremely low, and profits were small. They also showed that dependence on the global market made income particularly volatile. Small farmers were often at the mercy of larger companies who could use their market control to fix prices. A study known as the “Abruna Report” in 1976 found similar issues, including the lack of technical knowledge and investigative research, faulty lines of communication, unjust and unfair market practices, and poor processing capacity. Many of these obstacles remain in place today.
With the implementation of further regulations around both the production and exportation of coca in the 1980s, so-called “alternative development” programs were implemented, in which the government actively promoted other crops to supplement and replace coca. Coffee was identified as an ideal substitution, and several different projects took on the task of promoting coffee in Los Yungas.
These projects left lasting impacts on the coffee industry of Bolivia, one of the most significant being that new coffee varieties entered the market. While Bolivia has traditionally cultivated Typica, the 1980s saw an influx of varieties, most notably Catuai and Caturra from neighboring Brazil. These plants presented new challenges, including outbreaks of coffee borer beetle (la broca) and difficulties with the humid and rainy climate. The 1989 coffee price crisis caused by the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) did nothing to help the situation, leading to C-market prices as low as $0.49 in 1992. With small production quantities and low-quality coffee, Bolivia was hard-pressed to compete against market giants like its neighbors Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. Rampant corruption from the cooperative boards, tight margins, lack of infrastructure, and the eternally enticing coca cash crop continued to disincentivize coffee farmers from staying in the industry and led to a precipitous drop in coffee exportation by the mid-1990s.
The Start of Specialty Coffeee
At the turn of the twenty-first century, a new market strategy emerged to make coffee more profitable and attractive to producers: to grow high-quality coffee that could yield price premiums, and to seek out solidarity markets willing to invest in this origin. With this goal, USAID and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime began supporting projects focused on increasing coffee quality through selective harvesting and improved processing practices, under the condition that coca production would cease completely or be reduced as much as possible. These coffee programs focused on Organic coffee aimed at the European market.
It was in this context that Mauricio Diez de Medina first discovered the coffee industry while working in Bolivia’s financial sector. In 1999, some Colombian consultants, who were working on a pilot quality program with a coffee cooperative in Los Yungas, invited him to join them on a farm visit. Their goal was to prepare farmers for a new market they called specialty coffee.
“We went to Caranavi and, for the first time in my life, I saw how coffee was cupped,” says Diez de Medina. “I saw producers delivering their beans—all this movement. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
When they pulled off to the side of the road for lunch, in the mountainous but verdant area at around 2500 meters above sea level, one of the Colombians said wistfully, “Coffee would do well here. This could be the highest coffee farm in the world.” That was it—Diez de Medina was hooked. A year later, he was planting coffee on that very spot.
Diez de Medina continued to rely on the support of his Colombian friends. To this day, he’s grateful for how much knowledge they shared with him. With this information, he was able to implement a more systematic approach to coffee growing than Bolivian producers were doing at the time. Even so, there was a steep and costly learning curve for him as he learned from his mistakes and realized how heavily the lack of appropriate infrastructure and machinery for processing hindered the quality of his crop.
Within his first few years of production, Diez de Medina was able to find buyers in the United States, selling coffee to Allegro Coffee Roasters in Colorado, and eventually to Intelligentsia as well. Diez de Medina was very intentional about his entry into the industry. He traveled to the Specialty Coffee Association’s annual Expo and other industry events, making friends and connections around the world. He was impressed and inspired by the quality control labs in the United States and Europe, and he invited many members of the coffee industry to join him on the farm for visits.
In 2004, Bolivia hosted its first Cup of Excellence (COE) competition. For Felix Chambi Garcia, this was a pivotal moment. He comes from a long line of coffee producers; his grandparents were some of those who came to Los Yungas as part of the migration from the Altiplano after the Agrarian Revolution of the 1950s. Although he had spent his life on a coffee farm, COE opened his eyes to a whole new world. “I had no idea what coffee was like from the farm onward,” says Chambi Garcia. He fell deeply in love with roasting, guided by COE Head Judge Paul Songer. By the following year, he was named the competition’s official roaster, and continued to be involved for the duration of COE in Bolivia.
Diez de Medina attended the auction as an observer for the first time in 2005, completely new to the scene. Chuckling, he confesses that he even brought some samples to the event to give out to potential buyers, although he quickly realized this was not the correct venue for that kind of thing. Even as he was gaining his footing, he recognized the value of the auction. Not only did it facilitate important transactions, but with the international jury staying in the same hotel for a week, it allowed Bolivian coffee professionals to make lasting friendships with the global coffee community.
Despite the unique challenges it presented, Diez de Medina set the goal of winning a COE competition himself. However, his farm was at such a high elevation that the timing of his harvest caused him to miss the COE cupping completely; he would have to compete with the previous year’s harvest. With focused attention and considerable resources, he began carefully managing storage practices—vacuum sealing parchment and keeping it at a consistent temperature in humidity-controlled warehouses that were under 24-hour surveillance. He continued to adjust protocols and achieve better results each year, until finally winning first place in the 2009 Bolivian COE competition.
“That may have been the happiest moment of my life, winning Cup of Excellence,” says Diez de Medina. “It was tough—incredibly difficult to achieve—but I think it put me in the best position as far as the market and the industry. Roasters started seeking us out, wanting to buy our product.”
But with the election of socialist president Evo Morales, tensions between the United States and Bolivia rose and this—among other internal factors—led to the demise of the COE event in Bolivia.
Bolivian Coffee Culture
Shortly after COE ceased in Bolivia, Diez de Medina became fascinated with the world of coffee shops and baristas, learning about roasting and extraction from his wide network of friends. In 2011, he opened Roaster—the first specialty coffee shop and roastery in La Paz, Bolivia. When asked what motivated him to open this business, Diez de Medina says, “It started as a kind of social responsibility. Everyone knew that we had won this important prize and would ask me where they could drink my coffee. They were hearing that Bolivia had high-quality coffee, but there was nowhere to try it. I had no answer for them; roasters at that time were only roasting non-specialty defective beans. The only thing I could say was, ‘Come over, you can drink good coffee at my house.’”
James Avila is a hydraulic engineer who has spent the last decade digging deeper into the specialty coffee scene. “We are a producing country,” Avila says. “To speak of coffee is to speak of Bolivian culture.” But what is Bolivian coffee culture? I asked all of my interviewees how Bolivians drank coffees; Avila’s was by far the most informative. “Do you have a moment? I’d like to go get something.” He steps away from the monitor and comes back with a glass jar filled with a black paste.
“Are you familiar with alquitrán?” Avila asks. “You know, the stuff they use to pave roads?” He’s talking about tar. I respond in the affirmative, although with some hesitancy. “This is just like tar,” he confirms. He turns the jar upside down to show that the substance is completely solid. Opening it, he uses his fingers to try and loosen a bean or two, without success.
“It’s coffee that has turned into a kind of paste—totally solid and hard—that ends up feeling like black tar, stuck together with sugar,” says Avila. “These beans still have parchment on them, there are some twigs and leaves in here, and I see a few whole cherries. This coffee is ground and, since it was roasted with sugar on it, is obviously sweet. You could even say that it has a somewhat pleasant aroma. Without sugar, it wouldn’t be the least bit tasty.”
Café tinto, as this drink is often called, is completely black. Avila says that one of the complaints they get in specialty shops is that the drink is the wrong color—it is not dark enough.
“What I’m realizing is that we’re changing the custom of drinking poor quality coffee, teaching people,” Avila says. “Maybe they won’t drink a coffee with a cupping score above 85, but at least it will be freshly ground, roasted recently, not burned, and prepared carefully as a pour-over or espresso. We’re slowly awakening a curiosity around trying new flavors in coffee. We’re learning to taste and enjoy our own products.”
Escobar, who started in the coffee industry a few years back, recalls telling her grandmother that she was going to work in coffee. Horrified that Escobar was leaving her career to focus on a beverage, her grandmother had said, “Sweetheart, there are only three kinds of coffee in the world; I can’t imagine you would want to study them. There’s café suavito [smooth], café oscuro [dark], and café con leche [with milk]. There are no others.”
Most of Escobar’s family and friends—with the exception of her grandmother—drink specialty coffee now. There’s a natural curiosity for this product, made right in their own country, that leads people to ask questions, try new things, and taste new coffees. While the clientele regularly patronizing specialty coffee shops in Bolivia tend to be middle or upper class, coffee professionals—who are often from lower-income brackets—have been able to spread the word of good coffee to their networks, breaking the consumer patterns of social status or age.
Diez de Medina was extremely intentional with his coffee shop, Roaster. Although the space was small, he made sure to give it plenty of atmospheres—offering coffee brewing devices from all over the world, regular trainings, and lectures, and eventually a food menu to pair with the tasty coffees.
Avila, who opened a shop in his hometown of Oruro, says, “What we’ve tried to do is design the space so that when you enter the specialty coffee shop, you’re entering a different world. The barista, the equipment, the space you’re being served in should be different than anything else you’ve seen before.”
With Roaster, Diez de Medina wanted to make a cultural shift and pioneer a new market. “It can’t be that we know so much about coffee but aren’t able to share it with our fellow Bolivians,” he says. He wanted to make a market that showcased the best that his country had to offer, and there was a lot of responsibility tied up in this endeavor.
“A raw product that’s been so carefully processed can’t be given to a neophyte,” says Avila. “They’ll ruin months or even years of work. This last step in the chain, the barista, is paramount. Training the barista to make the flavor of these carefully grown coffees is paramount.”
Once again, Diez de Medina tapped into his global connections. Klaus Thomson, the 2006 World Barista Champion from Denmark, trained the baristas, giving Roaster a whole methodology for how to train new coffee professionals and enthusiasts. Since opening in 2011, Roaster has trained more than 6,000 people in barista skills, as well as coffee culture, history, and roasting. La Paz features dozens of coffee shops now, not to mention the expansion into other cities—and most of them have some connection to Roaster.
There’s a cyclical effect at play in Bolivia. The creation of a specialty coffee scene has increased the number of consumers and sparked interest in coffee across all demographics, and a workforce of younger people is finding its way into the industry, starting as baristas and moving into other areas of the trade as their skills are developed.
The Distance Between the City and the Country
Even in producing countries, there is often a significant distance between the consuming and producing side of the industry. Escobar remembers the first time she went out to the field. “More than differences, they’re really injustices,” she says of the realities experienced by the farmers who are producing the coffee. “For example, they were still so happy that there was electricity and plumbing. I’ve had electricity my whole life, as have my parents and grandparents. [These farmers] had only gotten it five years ago.”
There’s a marked difference in the level of education and access to technology as well. Recently, Escobar was on the farm helping producers attend a class that was happening remotely because of the covid-19 pandemic. The class ended with an online test. After setting the producer up on a computer, she quickly ducked out of the way so that the proctor wouldn’t see her on camera (there were strict rules about cheating). The test was to be an hour long. After just a few minutes, the producer had gotten up and said, “OK! I’m done.” He was halfway out the door before she got to the computer, sure there was something wrong. To her chagrin, he had only answered the first question. As she scrolled down to the dozens of questions left unanswered, she realized that her friend had no idea how to use the computer mouse and did not know that he could scroll down to see more than what was directly on the screen. Of course, the producer had never used a computer before.
“Now I realize that it’s privilege and that I’m lucky enough to count myself among those with a lot of privilege,” says Escobar. “There has to be a way to overcome these barriers so that we all have access to the same information, or if not the same information, certainly the same level of respect despite our differences. These are fundamental issues in coffee because the producers are the foundation. Without them, we don’t have anything.”
Chambi Garcia, who is from Los Yungas and is tightly connected to the coffee growing community there, says he’s seen an influx of young people coming back to the country to plant coffee. People who have dipped their toes in the waters of specialty, who may have worked in a café in the cities, and who became obsessed with coffee—a common occurrence for young professionals in the industry—are looking for any way to stay involved. While their passion and experience are largely centered on the consuming side of the supply chain, opening a roastery or cafe can be cost-prohibitive. But perhaps their family has land back home that can be converted into coffee production. For those who are from Los Yungas and have land available to them, this is a much more accessible way to entrench themselves in the industry. More coffee is being planted every year in Los Yungas, largely by people who are invested in the specialty market.
By 2014, without the market access provided by the COE auction, a lack of necessary infrastructure and access to training in order to yield high-quality coffee, and the resulting low returns, coffee production had fallen to some of the lowest export levels seen in the country. Chambi Garcia claims that coffee was in danger of extinction. In 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture asked him to organize something like the COE—a national coffee auction that would help producers makes sales and reach the international market. Chambi Garcia, who had spent years helping to organize the COE auctions, was able to create a cupping competition on a shoestring budget, and the Taza Presidencial cupping competition was born.
Producers were thrilled to have this platform, and Chambi Garcia noted that the internal competition was a good driver for increased quality. As a consultant for several cooperatives, he’s implemented a ranking system based on cup score even outside of the Taza Presidencial, precisely because he’s found that getting ranked below others pushes producers to improve systems for the next harvest, continually improving quality.
In 2017, Garcia was able to put together a “coffee salon” for then-president Evo Morales, introducing him to specialty coffee and explaining the purpose of the auction system of Taza Presidencial. As a result of this meeting, the Bolivian government finally began to invest in the coffee sector, especially in infrastructure, research and training, and increasing production. While the government has been peripherally involved in coffee production for years, coffee has always been part of the alternative development programs aimed to move people away from coca production. This project marks the first time the Bolivian government has invested directly in coffee, and the first time coffee farmers have been able to count on government support.
There’s just one hitch in the auction system. “In the last few years, the first and second place winners stayed in Bolivia,” says Escobar. “It’s a point of pride that the best Bolivian coffees stay right here in Bolivia, and so the ones who end up paying the most are Bolivians themselves.” In the 2020 competition, the Taza Presidencial broke records—the first-place coffee sold for $160 USD per pound. It was produced by Albano Calle in Los Yungas and bought by a Bolivian coffee roaster for service in their cafe.
Diez de Medina fears that the Taza Presidencial is missing something crucial that COE brought to the scene. “There are no international judges, no one comes from abroad to attend this event,” he says. “The auction has no international buyers. These coffees end up being purchased by the national market.” Thus, Diez de Medina believes that the high prices from this year’s competition will have very little real impact. “We’re lying to the producers. Sure, you can auction off 70 pounds of coffee at $100 dollars a pound, but that’s not reality.” In his mind, the goals of this kind of auction should be to attract the international industry and to improve overall quality. Instead, he finds that producers are preparing very small lots for this competition—lots that never end up reaching international markets, as Bolivians themselves want to keep them.
Production is set to continue increasing in Bolivia over the next few years, as new farmers begin their first harvests. One of Bolivia’s main challenges is its incredibly low production, and it is yet to be seen what increased volumes will mean for this coffee industry. There will be some growing pains as infrastructure for processing, warehousing and exporting catches up to support increased volumes, but plans are already underway for new washing stations and continued training for producers.
Nationally, the industry continues to evolve. In 2020, Bolivia hosted its first national barista competition, with astonishing results. Chambi Garcia and Diez de Medina, who organized the competition, expected it to be a kind of dry run—just for practice while they improved systems and increased outreach. “I said to Felix, ‘Let’s do this first competition so we can learn. We’re going to get things wrong, but at least we can start somewhere,’” recounts Diez de Medina. To their surprise, over 100 competitors signed up—baristas from all over the country who performed at an extremely high level. The access to internet search engines and recordings of previous World Barista Championships was instrumental. “We realized that our community has gotten pretty big, and that here in Bolivia—and especially in La Paz—we’re at the same level as any other industry in the world. We have good cafes, good baristas, and we have great coffee.”
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