Bolivia is back, baby! Specialty coffee-drinking OG's will be rejoicing over the return of some excellent Bolivian coffee to the specialty marketplace: It's been a long hiatus for a number of reasons that we'll discuss below-mainly coffee rust disease. This Archangel Honey in particular is a prime example of the easy-going easy-sipping White Chocolate, Apple Pie, and Walnut profile that we remember from the good old days, and we're hoping desperately that it's a sign of good things to come from this beloved origin.
El Arcángel was planted in 2015 and had its first harvest in 2017. One of the things that’s unique about the farm is that the red and yellow caturras were grown separately from the other varieties so that the distinctive qualities of each are preserved and highlighted in each lot. The farm gets its name from an unusually large and majestic tree that sits at the highest point of the farm appearing to observe the land from on high, resembling the protector archangel. The coffee was planted here in such a way that leads to harmonious growth and harvesting practices. It is felt to be a place of great peace; an oasis that exudes beauty and tranquillity as if watched over by a divine presence.
Bolivia general info:
Bolivia has an interesting coffee history and although it was exporting close to 85,000 bags in the early 2000s, Bolivian coffees almost disappeared at the end of the last decade. In 2018, only 23,300 bags were exported. A tiny portion of these were sold as Specialty grade.
The reasons for this are multiple but the main one was the coffee rust that hit the coffee regions very hard and decimated many farms. After that big loss, and after the decision of the government to allow the production of coca in some districts of Bolivia, many producers decided to start growing coca leaves (the base ingredient in the preparation of cocaine) instead of coffee. Coca is a lot more profitable than coffee per hectare and you can harvest it about 5 times a year which gives income to the producers and their family throughout the year.
A lot of the coffee in the country has been traditionally grown under organic conditions. However, the lack of knowledge and training led to farms that look more like forests, with coffee trees that carry very few leaves and even less cherries. Many of the producers think that organic farming means not doing anything in your parcel than harvesting. That also contributed to the big drop in production.
It’s therefore very difficult to find Specialty coffees from Bolivia these days. Bolivian coffee harvest runs from April (below 1,000 masl) to October (up to 2,000 masl).
Caranavi known as the capital of coffee is located in the lush forest of the Yungas region. This is where the famous Death Road follows the Andes Mountains from the dry Altiplano to the lush green forest of the Amazon jungle. All the exportable products from the region have to travel this treacherous road to be processed and exported from La Paz. In the 1950s, the government gave parcels of 10 hectares of tropical land to people and as a consequence, many people moved to Caranavi region and became farmers. This unique region has two climates and is home to the most fertile soil and consequently where the majority of coffee in Bolivia is produced nowadays. However, producers only plant 2 to 4 hectares of their plots with coffee trees, the rest remaining wild forest.
Every Wednesday in Caranavi is market day and people come in from their small communities to buy basic goods to stock up for the week; it is also the main place to sell recently harvested coffee. This coffee is commercial grade and is sold as a ‘honey’: pulped but not dry to one first middleman. The traditional supply chain structure in Bolivian includes many middlemen until the coffee gets exported and selling their coffee to the Wednesday market in Caranavi is most of the time the only option for producers to sell their commercial crop.
The ICE arabica price does not have much impact on the national trade as Bolivia isolated itself from the international market. The Caranavi market level is the one dictating prices in the whole region if not in the whole country.
Agricafe is owned by the Rodriguez family (our partner there since 2016) who started this business in 1986. At that time, the family used to rent wet mills in Caranavi region, buying cherries from 2,000 producers and in 2001 they built their current wet mill, called Buena Vista, in Caranavi. Very quickly a dry mill in la Paz was built and the family started exporting operations. In 2012, a few years after the national drop of production, they decided to buy land and start farming as well. They now have 8 farms in Caranavi region (60 ha) and 5 farms in Samaipata region (60 ha). This year, they have lost 2ha of farm in Samaipata because of heavy rains leading to landslides. Up to 300 people are working for the company at the peak season. They also hire agronomists from different countries as consultants every year. They produce coffee, process it at the wet mill then dry mill and export it themselves directly to us. They bet on a great vertical integration system to shorten the supply chain and make it more transparent and cost efficient. In 2019, the won the SCA Sustainability award in the category ‘Best Sustainable Business Model’.
Aside from experimenting a lot on the processing, the family is also investing a lot in agronomy research doing some trials with grafting and using different varieties (over 50). After a few years now they realised that the best results in the cup/field were given by Java and Geisha grafted on Robusta root systems. They are therefore already renovating some of their parcels with these plants.
An oenologist from Argentina is managing the wet mill this season and they are experimenting yeast use in processing. The naturals and honeys (honeys are only prepared upon demand) dry on beds for a week before they are placed into mechanical dryers that recreate day/night light to ensure a low and consistent drying without rain issues. More beds have been built this year; every single bed has its own tunnel with plastic sheet to cover in case of rain. Although it rained a lot before the harvest (7,000 mm instead of usual 2,500mm), the weather during the harvest has been really good and it’s been easier to produce naturals this year.
When they reach a moisture content of 12% and after a few hours of resting, all coffee is bagged with Ecotact and Jute/plastic bags and sent to the dry mill in La Paz with sample bags on the side. The lots sit there in parchment until they are prepared for export.
After milling, cupping and after making sure the moisture content is around 10%, the coffee is bagged in Ecotact and jute bags before being exported through Arica port in Chile.