Bolivia is one of our favourite origins, and one that we feel very lucky to represent.
The coffees from Bolivia are spectacular – they are always incredibly sweet and clean. They are the kind of coffees that you can drink, cup after cup, and keep coming back for more. We love their versatility and the diversity of their profiles. Some have a straight up sugar cane and toffee sweetness, with a balanced acidity, silky mouthfeel and heavy, dark chocolate body. Others are more complex and winey, with lovely notes of berries and butterscotch bursting from the cup.
Overview of Coffee in Bolivia
Bolivia has the ideal conditions for producing exceptional coffee. The micro-climates found in the Yungas Valley are well suited to high quality coffee production, with nutrient-rich soil, high altitudes (1,400 – 2,100m above sea level) and wide daily temperature ranges.
Part of what makes Bolivian coffee so distinct is that it is one of the highest altitude and lowest latitude coffees produced in the world. The region’s remoteness has also meant that hybrid coffee varieties have not been introduced and, as a result, there are an abundance of high quality Typica and Caturra varieties that are known for their exceptional flavour.
Currently, the best coffee in Bolivia is grown in Los Yungas (which translates to “warm valley” in the local Quechua language), along the Andean mountain ranges. This region begins a few hours northeast of La Paz and stretches all the way to Peru. Most of the coffee we purchase is from around the Caranavi province (which sits 1,400 – 1,800m above sea level) and from South Yungas (which sits a little higher at 1,600-2,100m above sea level).
Most of the producers in this region descend from the Aymara people, an indigenous nation that has a tremendous respect for the land, and was committed to organic farming practices long before there was any commercial incentive in it. The farms are tiny – typically between one and five hectares in size. For this reason, most of the farm management and harvesting is done by family members.
All coffee on the farms is picked carefully by hand, in small quantities. Due to the high altitude and the varieties grown, the coffee cherries tend to ripen very slowly and at different rates, which means the farmers must do many passes throughout the season to ensure that they only pick cherries that have reached full maturity.
It’s common for many small farms to be grouped together in a ‘colonia’ (settlement). The sense of community in these settlements is very strong, and neighbouring farmers often collaborate and work on one another’s farms during the harvest.
The harvest in Bolivia runs from May to December, peaking in June and July in Caranavi and September and October in South Yungas.
History of Coffee in Bolivia
Coffee production in Bolivia dates back to the 1880s. For many years, most coffee farms were owned by wealthy land owners, until a government-led reform in 1991 resulted in small parcels of land (1.5 – 8 hectares in size) being redistributed back to 23,000 families.
Bolivia has the perfect conditions for producing great coffee, but for many years the quality was very poor. This was largely due to the combination of a lack of infrastructure and the country’s challenging geography. In the past, producers would pulp their coffee on their farms and then transport it to centralised processing stations, located far from coffee-producing areas. Often the coffee (which was still wet) would be exposed to extreme and changing temperatures as it was transported through varying altitudes and climate conditions on its long and winding journey through the mountains.
It wasn’t until just over a decade ago that quality coffee started to be produced in Bolivia. This was kick-started by US-funded programs (interestingly, as part of their anti-drugs campaign), which included building coffee washing stations and providing farmers with access to training facilities and financial assistance. The arrival of the Cup of Excellence program in 2004 also greatly helped to propel the industry forward and raise the profile of Bolivian coffee. As a result of these initiatives, quality-conscious producers started to emerge and, with them, some spectacular coffees.
The Future of Coffee in Bolivia
Coffee production in Bolivia has always been relatively low. When we first started sourcing coffee in Bolivia in 2010, annual exports were around 70,000 bags (which, to put it in perspective, is equivalent to the annual output of one large farm in Brazil). Over the last few years, this production has halved to a devastating 30,000 bags per annum.
There are several factors contributing to this decline. One is that coffee competes with the local coca industry, which harvests all year round, is easier to pick and often yields higher profits for farmers. In the long term, the coca plantations have a devastating impact on the communities and the land; untouched rainforest is often illegally destroyed to plant coca, and a lack of shade trees leads to huge problems with erosion. The excessive use of biocides by coca producers – in an effort to bolster their crops – also renders the soil infertile over time. The land is then abandoned as nothing else can be grown there.
The absence of a centralised body that supports and promotes coffee production also threatens the vitality of the coffee trade in Bolivia. Unlike in other coffee-producing countries such as Guatemala and Brazil, coffee producers in Bolivia receive no support from the government or national agricultural bodies. Historically, a lot of support was given to Bolivian coffee by the US (in an attempt to encourage the growth of alternative crops to coca) but two years ago, President Evo Morales (himself an ex-coca grower) stopped all US aid to his country.
These factors, along with poor infrastructure, changing climate conditions, the presence of roya (leaf rust) and traditional, less sophisticated farming practices have led to a significant decrease in production over the past decade. The good news is that there is hope for the future of coffee in Bolivia, thanks to the vision, determination and hard work of Pedro, Daniela and Pedro Pablo Rodriguez of Agricafe.
To combat the falling production, the Rodriguez family has adopted a two-pronged approach. First, they have identified the need to help increase the average producer’s yield.
Currently, the average output of a producer is 2-4 bags of coffee per hectare. To have sustainable production, they should be producing 30-35 bags of coffee per hectare.
To address this, the Rodriguez family has introduced a program called Sol de Mañana, which focuses on giving producers the training and skills to improve the quality and quantity of their output.
In addition, the Rodriguez family has started to invest in its own coffee farms, planting dozens of hectares of coffee trees, with plans to further expand. This endeavour guarantees a healthy supply of coffee, and also works as a model for local producers of an efficient, sustainable and profitable farm.
Both these strategies have required huge investments of capital, time and resources from the Rodriguez family. But they genuinely believe in Bolivian coffee, and care deeply about the producers they work with and their ability to realise their potential.
And we are right there with them. The coffee in Bolivia is way too special and close to our hearts to let it disappear. We want to be able to buy beans from the same producers every year, for many years to come. In the short term, this means paying higher prices, to make it viable for our favourite producers to stay in coffee as the building blocks are put in place to help them increase their yields and annual production. By demonstrating this commitment, we hope that they will continue to invest in coffee production and maintain their focus on quality, and that, with time, a more sustainable and vibrant future can be built for coffee in Bolivia.