A short, unremarkable sunset was nearly four hours behind us when my driver and I approached three Bolivian men on the side of a dirt road in Caranavi. At the sidewalk’s edge, pools of murky water reflected what should have been the warm glow of civilization. Instead, an eerie, tenacious fog muted the solitary bulbs illuminating each tired storefront. My driver Jaime exchanged short but friendly pleasantries with the men before introducing me—la gringa. A small child pressed his face to the glass in a nearby minivan, staring unabashedly. I cannot say I blamed him—the fog did nothing to hide my pale Caucasian skin or the fact that my female frame stood at least half a head taller than all of the men in proximity.
Less than ten minutes after our arrival, my driver unceremoniously turned me over to the men with a quick smile and a reassuring pat on the back before disappearing into the night. I ducked into the minivan with my new keepers and braced myself for a three-hour drive into the inky, mountainous void that surrounded the city.
So began my journey to the heart of Bolivian coffee. I was there as part of my summer internship with Invalsa Coffee, a small business with dual headquarters in La Paz, Bolivia and West Newbury, MA. As a guest to the San Ignacio growers cooperative I would be learning the ins and outs of producing specialty coffee—a small but growing sector of the massive global coffee industry.
For decades, the farmers in this pristine region of the Andes Mountains have honed their growing skills and are now producing some of the finest coffees in the country. Their lots—generally no more than three or four hectares a piece—are lush with sinewy branches, yellow- and cranberry-colored fruit, and waxy, emerald leaves. A thick green canopy swirls overhead, ringing with exotic birds, buzzing insects, and the occasional primate.
I awakened before daybreak each morning and followed the farmers over crisp ridges and through mountain streams to pluck, peel, wash, and sort the bean that runs America. We re-traced our steps in the waning glow of late afternoon, giant burlap sacks draped heavily over our shoulders.
Throughout my days there, I began to discover that even more inspiring than the pristine setting was the remarkable dedication of the farmers, and that the difference between good coffee and great coffee is not necessarily a matter of climate or geography. It is instead a matter of perfection—achieved only by fastidious, tedious, eagle-eyed labor.
To be great, a coffee fruit’s skin must have no blemish, crinkle, and or crack when farmers pluck it from the tree; a blemished fruit allows air to hit the bean prematurely and sour its flavor. Underneath the fruit, the parchment-like encasing that surrounds the bean must have no hint of deformation or discoloration; dark spots and half-empty shells indicate insect pests and disease. For a farmer to harvest a mature organic bean in such a state of flawlessness is quite an accomplishment; the finicky cherries can be irreparably altered by the touch of a rainstorm or a well-placed ray of sunshine. Farmers must take extra care at every step of the way in an already laborious harvesting process to ensure that only the finest coffee beans end up in the specialty bag. When all is said and done, specialty farmers have touched every bean eight or nine more times than the farmers growing a basic shade-grown organic coffee. Even after all this, if rain or fog delays the drying process more than a day or so, a musty flavor seeps into the beans and they are no longer considered specialty material.
Despite the challenges facing the farmers in San Ignacio, they constantly remained optimistic, light-hearted, and vigorous in their trade. Though I arrived to the mountains on the heels of an epic rainstorm that destroyed the majority of their specialty crop before it had even been harvested, the farmers simply dug in their heels and worked twice as hard to separate out the good from the great.
Many places across the southern hemisphere carry similar stories. Every year more and more growers enter the specialty market despite its high barriers to entry, and this may only be the beginning. The complex chemical composition of specialty coffees is only beginning to be explored by connoisseurs, and many predict that over the next 30 years high-end coffee will develop a following to rival that of fine wines.
As these exceptional brews begin to hit espresso machines in couture coffee shops and posh kitchens worldwide, the sticker shock may be hard for some to swallow: an exquisite Colombian microlot broke all records this past spring when its harvest sold at auction for more than $40 per pound. The winning bidders will sell these specialty beans to coffee zealots in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. for $200-300 per kilo.
Is it worth it? After witnessing the hours and hours of extra care each specialty bean receives, here’s what I say–just try it. You’ll taste the difference.
Post and photos by Catherine Owens. To read a more complete account of my adventures check out my blog: www.dustandcoffee.blogspot.com