Bean & Bean Origin Trip: BoliviaPosted by Bean & Bean on
In December of 2022, our founders Rachel and Jiyoon were invited to Bolivia in an event that hasn’t taken place in over a decade: a private auction held by the Los Rodriguez family in partnership with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence. The last time a Cup of Excellence competition was held in Bolivia was in 2009, making this auction truly special. Read on to learn about Bolivia’s coffee-growing history and Rachel and Jiyoon’s experience in Bolivia!
History of coffee in Bolivia
Like its neighbors Peru and Brazil, coffee has been in Bolivia for hundreds of years, dating back to around the early 1700’s when the coffee plant was introduced to that part of South America by Spanish and Portuguese traders. However, whereas coffee production became a major crop for both Peru and Brazil by the early 1800’s, it wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that coffee started to become a significant agricultural export for Bolivia.
This turning point can be traced to 1953, a year after the Bolivian National Revolution which saw the dissolution of the Bolivian oligarchy and the implementation of radical socioeconomic models that shifted more power and rights to the indigenous Bolivian population. In 1953, the newly reformed Bolivian government enacted the Agrarian Reform Law which broadly redistributed land previously owned by the wealthy ruling class to thousands of indigenous families. With guidance and incentives from the new government, young people migrated en masse from the urban neighborhoods of La Paz to the countryside of Los Yungas (also known as the Bolivian Andes) to take up all manner of farming—including coffee.
Fast forward 50 years and coffee production has grown from an afterthought—it was often used as a hedge divider between homes—to about 138 metric tons a year. Of course, this still pales in comparison to Brazil’s staggering 3 million metric tons a year (which is ten times Peru’s export volume). But what Bolivia lacks in quantity, it makes up for with its spectacular quality. It should come as no surprise: the geography and climate of Bolivia’s coffee-growing regions are near perfect for cultivating extraordinary coffee.
Coffee producing regions in Bolivia
Essentially all of Bolivia’s coffee production is centered around two areas: Caranavi and Samaipata.
Almost all of Bolivia’s coffee is grown in the Caranavi Province in the Yungas region. This area is located in the Andean mountain range in Bolivia’s west where it borders Peru. The terrain here is characterized by dense tropical forests and a landscape of deep valleys nestled between towering hills; it’s atop these staggering peaks that coffee is grown. Coffee in Caranavi grows at higher elevations than most other origins, around 1800 masl to 2100 masl. This high altitude, combined with particularly warm, humid daytime conditions and cool, windy nights, creates an ideal climate for slow and consistent cherry maturation. This results in exceptionally sweet coffees. Expect to find clean, well-structured coffees from Caranavi that sing with bright, fruit-forward flavors and bracing acidity.
Samaipata is located in the eastern half of Bolivia and is situated where the Andes slope down into the lowlands of the Amazon basin. This is an emerging coffee growing region in Bolivia. the coffees that are coming from Samaipata are nothing short of world class. The soil is rich with nutrients and the climate can experience extreme temperature swings from day to night, resulting in dense coffee cherries with markedly higher sugar content. This results in coffees that are deeply complex and full-bodied with notes of dark, red fruit, cacao and caramel.
Cup of Excellence in Bolivia
By the early 2000’s it was clear that Bolivia had the potential to produce some of the world’s finest coffees, and the specialty coffee industry was keen to elevate Bolivian coffee to new heights. Years of development programs and farmer training initiatives culminated in the first Cup of Excellence competition held in Bolivia in 2005. Unfortunately, intense anti-American sentiments held by the Bolivian government made funding for CoE—which is financed by USAID—extremely difficult, and 2009 was the last year the competition was held.
Coffee farmers in Bolivia, however, have been undeterred in their pursuit of excellence. Over a decade later, one of Bolivia’s foremost producers, the Los Rodriguez family, have finally been able to partner with the Alliance for Coffee Excellence to once again showcase the best that Bolivia has to offer.
The Los Rodriguez Private Collection Auction
We were deeply honored to be invited as part of an international jury to judge such a special auction, especially as Bolivian coffees are ones we haven't had the opportunity to truly experience.
A long flight from New York to Bolivia, with a layover in Colombia. Followed by a *very* windy 4-hour drive from La Paz to Caranavi.
Before the international jury arrived, the national Bolivian jury had already cupped and graded 130 coffees from the Los Rodriguez farm and selected 43 top scorers to present. We’d be cupping these coffees over the next 3 days.
Day 1 was devoted to calibrating our palates across all the judges to ensure more consistency and accuracy from judge to judge. We do this by comparing scores and descriptors from all judges across several rounds of cupping to determine a range of low to high scores. A wide range indicates that judges are not fully aligned and that there could be some disagreement that needs sorting out before moving onto official scoring.
On the second day we cupped all 43 coffees. Cupping is how coffee professionals score coffee and you can read more about that here.
On day 3, we cupped the top 15 across 3 categories (5 from each category): Exotics, Gesha Washed and Gesha Natural. We judged the coffees within each category separately, rather than blindly tasting one processing method against an entirely different one.
As Jiyoon says about her experience: “I had little exposure to Bolivia as a coffee origin but through this auction experienced the full spectrum of colors, flavors, and attributes that Bolivia coffee offers – both in Caranavi and Samaipata. There were beautiful geshas and SLs but also exceptional Caturras and Catuais hitting Bolivia’s unique terroir. The commitment to tradition and pursuit of innovation on the Los Rodriguez farm is evident through the coffees featured on the family’s 2022 collection.”