The New Wave of Bolivian Coffee
Bolivia’s story with coffee is unique and still unfolding. This year, Royal has contracted coffees from this origin for the first time in over a decade.
A new generation of coffee farmers dedicated to producing high-quality coffee are taking the stage in Bolivia. For the first time in the country’s history, green coffee production has funding and support from the federal government. With the rise of the internet and mass communication, there is – for the first time – access to information that can fuel the search for knowledge of these curious and dedicated young coffee professionals. Bolivia’s coffee future is bright, and we are honored to bring some of these coffees to the US for the first time.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Felix Chambi Garcia for my podcast Cafetera Intelectual. He’s a third-generation coffee farmer in the Caranavi region of los Yungas, one of the main coffee producing areas in Bolivia, and has been our main contact at Cooperativa San Juan. Although he grew up on a coffee farm, it wasn’t until he learned to roast with Paul Songer during the first Cup of Excellence (COE) competition in Bolivia in 2002 that he fell in love with this industry. “That’s where I found this passion, from this other side – the transformation of the roast. That’s where I really fell in love with coffee”. Since then, he’s become a seasoned cupper, roaster, coffee producer, and cafe owner. He’s uniquely and unabashedly invested in the future of the Bolivian specialty market, and his coffee roots run deep enough that he’s able to see the history and patterns of coffee professionals that came before him. He is determined to improve his country’s product year after year and pour it into the cups of people all around the world.
Coffee’s History in Bolivia
According to an article Felix wrote for the Colonia los Yungas, a specialty coffee association connecting 50 families to in country consumers, “Brief History of Coffee in los Yungas,” coffee has been in Bolivia for hundreds of years – the border it shares with Brazil makes this more than probable. But for many generations, the shrub was an afterthought, sometimes used as a hedge–fence to delineate properties.
In the modern era, coffee’s story really begins with Bolivia’s Agrarian Revolution in 1952. During this time land was redistributed from wealthy landowners to the largely indigenous laborers, who received microplots of land and became full citizens for the first time. A mass migration of young people came from the Altiplano (often called “campo”, or countryside where ranching is more common than farming) westward toward the Yungas. The concept “la tierra es de quien la trabaja” (“the land belongs to those who work it”) became a tenet of the new Bolivian state and remains in place today.
As for those migrating en masse from La Paz to los Yungas, most had no experience in agriculture, and the government provided very little guidance. Felix’s grandparents were part of this new influx of people to los Yungas, and they tell stories of how little information they had on what to do with their new land. For many years, new-found farmers would grow things just because they heard the crop had done well in other regions. One year they would try papaya, another banana – implemented haphazardly, and with the sole goal of yielding the largest crop (and biggest payout).
Coffee vs. Coca
Coffee requires a high initial investment of time, capital, and equipment, and offers significantly delayed gratification compared to other agricultural products. Although there were several attempts to promote coffee production in the region, it just didn’t stick in the early days of los Yungas. There were too many other crops that were easier to grow and harvest, with easier access to the market. Most notable among them is coca.
Coca is native to South American and can be found in most Amazonian and Andean countries. It has important cultural significance to the people of the Andean altiplano. It is a part of daily life, with its own customs and uses that are intimately intertwined with Bolivian culture, where it’s called “la hoja sagrada”, the holy leaf.
As far as agricultural production goes, it’s much easier than coffee. Coca can yield three or four harvests a year. It requires very little processing – leaves are picked and dried and sold. It requires less labor, less time, and the market is easily accessible. As a farmer, it can be hard to say no.
Of coca farmers, Felix says “Clearly they aren’t looking to the future. Coca erodes the soil very quickly; it removes all the nutrients. They’re only thinking about the generation that is currently growing coca, and not about the next generation. That’s the saddest thing.”
In addition to soil depletion, since the 1980s the Bolivian government has been actively disincentivizing the production of coca. There are strict limits around who can produce it commercially, and how much farmers can produce for personal consumption. The implementation of government led “Alternative Development” programs worked with farmers to switch them to alternate crops and away from coca. Coffee was among the crops promoted by these programs, but it was never given the attention it needed to take hold.
Bolivia’s First Wave
The global demand and high prices for coffee in the 1970s drove many farmers to invest in coffee production, along with the encouragement of “Alternative Developments” and support from NGOs like USAID and the UN. Felix’s parents were part of this generation – the children of those who migrated from La Paz during the Agrarian Revolution, who themselves began to grow coffee in the 1980s. Although there was still very little training and information, coffee stuck around long enough to get its first exports and in the early 90’s Bolivia reached its highest volume production to date – around 150,000 60kg bags annually.
The effects of this surge of coffee production were palpable; Caranavi, once a tiny rural town, became a fully-fledged city. But as producers finally turned a modest profit on this fickle crop, they often chose not to invest locally in their farms and continued production, but in La Paz.
Across Latin America in the last decades of the twentieth century, people migrated en masse from the countryside to cities and capitols, and Bolivia was no exception. Many coffee producers invariably spent their money in the cities, buying property and sending kids to urban schools. In most cases, the next generation would not return to the farm.
Meanwhile, by the 2000s coffee shrubs planted in the early 1980s were starting to show their age and production slowed down drastically, causing farmers to look to alternative crops once again. Despite the advent of cupping competitions (including COE), coffee production continued to decline. In fact, by the second decade of the 21st century, Bolivian coffee was in danger of going extinct.
But there is a rebirth of coffee in Bolivia, one whose fruits are just beginning to ripen, bearing with them excitement and hope.
The New Wave
Mauricio Ramiro Diez de Medina won the last Cup of Excellence competition in Bolivia, which took place in 2009. Originally from the finance industry, he fell in love with coffee around the turn of the century and has contributed enormously to the growth of Bolivian specialty coffee. In 2012 he opened Roaster Boutique, the first third wave coffee shop in Bolivia.
Soon a smattering of other roasters and specialty shops opened across La Paz. With them, a new actor entered the scene: the barista. When young and enthusiastic baristas choose to stay in the industry, it’s because they are passionate about the final product. Mauricio saw the potential and wanted to make sure baristas were starting off on the right foot. “‘It only takes a matter of seconds for a barista to turn a high-quality coffee bean into a terrible coffee” he says in this interview. He brought World Barista Championship competitors to train his staff, and in 2016 Bolivia had its first SCA certified baristas. This segment of the industry has only continued to grow, with more and more roasteries and cafes opening every year.
Inspired by new cafes, young Bolivians are becoming enamored with all things specialty coffee. And although their passion starts with roasting and brewing, growing coffee is much more accessible to them – while they may not have the investment capital to build a roastery in the city, many of them do have plots of land in the Yungas. This is how coffee production gets reinvigorated in producing countries: city kids go back to the countryside and begin planting. With this new influx of coffee producers, we anticipate seeing a significant increase in the amount of coffee harvested in Bolivia in the next few harvest seasons as coffee shrubs planted three or four years ago begin to yield fruit.
And for the first time, this increased dedication to quality on the part of new growers is now matched by government interest in coffee crops. Bolivia is now providing federal support and strategic planning for this sector. The “Taza Presidencial” competition, a regional cupping competition meant to replace the still inactive COE, has been taking place yearly since 2015. After an audience with former President Evo Morales in 2017, the National Strategy for Comprehensive Sustainable Development now includes a coffee strategy that has its sights set on increasing production, reaching a target goal of 2 million bags of coffee per year, and finding new markets.
In addition, farmers finally have access to the information they’ve hungered for, in large part due to increased internet access. In a world of constant communication, Bolivian producers are finally able to participate in the global coffee community.
These relationships are life–giving. For Felix, a recent visit from a friend from El Salvador came to train producers on post-harvest processes, including how to start using experimental processes. Felix is proud to be exporting his first naturals and honeys this year – up till recently, Bolivian farmers primarily produced washed coffees.
Quality in the time of Bolivian Coffee
In 2015 Felix began working with cooperatives like San Juan. Although the Coop was founded more than 15 years ago, they hadn’t exported coffee for several seasons and were in danger of dissolving. With his experience in the COE competitions and his commitment to ever-improving quality, Felix began implementing strict quality control practices for all the coffees he works with. Every lot is cupped and scored, and producers receive feedback after each harvest. He’s noticed that one of the best ways to get producers to continue improving is to add a little competition to the mix -coffees are ranked against each other rather than just scored. Top scorers are pushed to retain their ranking the next year, and producers at the bottom of this list feel driven to climb up the ranks. He is committed to getting higher quality each year and works intimately with the producers to ensure that.
Everything is primed for success: Bolivians are returning to the coffee industry after a long period of decline. The people who choose to enter this workforce are often young, educated, and most importantly they understand the importance that high-quality green coffee has on the final cup. They are committed to furthering their training – there are many SCA certified baristas now, and Bolivia just hosted its first CQI course in coffee processing. National barista and cupping competitions are returning, and Bolivian coffee professionals can’t wait to send their first champion to compete in the World Barista Championship. Internal consumption is up too – with specialty roasteries opening, the Bolivian consumer is becoming ever more discerning.
We’re excited to support Bolivian farmers and excited to see how the specialty coffee industry there continues to develop. Look to our menu for details on each of these fabulous coffees!