Bolivia Buenavista is our featured coffee this month. Completely unique compared to other South American profiles, it is elegant and distinguished and worthy of a close taste. It’s elusive, yet rewarding, and as comforting as the day is long.
Andrew and Steve from our Coffee Sourcing & Roasting team recently visited some of our producer partners in Caranavi and came home with some incredible coffee, bundles of coffee flower tea to share and some interesting takeaways.
Late August 2014
To get to Buenavista in Caranavi, Bolivia, you take a 9-hour flight to Peru from Los Angeles, get up at dawn the following day and hop another 2-hour flight from Lima, Peru to El Alto, Bolivia, flying over Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America. El Alto lies just above the very dense city of La Paz. The climate is cool and humid to semi-arid; just right for growing potatoes, which are a staple crop here.
By the time you land in El Alto, you might be struck with altitude sickness–you are 13,325 feet above sea level, after all. It’s basically like being dropped out of plane on top of a mountain. Couple that with the quick transition to speaking Spanish, and navigating work visa logistics can be tricky.
After arriving in El Alto, we met Pedro Rodriguez and his daughter Daniela, who along with his son, operate five coffee farms and the Buenavista wet mill in Caranavi. They also own and run Agricafe and Agrinuts, exporting coffee and peanuts.
After our hellos, we began the long, treacherous drive down to Caranavi, which is the main source for coffee production in Bolivia. To get there you must drive a formidable road, wide enough for only one car to pass at a time.
It took us five hours to go about 100 miles.
The Altiplano looks harsh and barren. As you descend slowly the landscape begins to change. It starts with small ferns, which gives way to larger ferns and azalea-look-alikes growing out from the rocky walls. When you start to get closer to the Yungas valley, the vegetation bursts into lush greenery.
It was dark by the time we reached the Buenavista Mill in Caranavi. We sat down for a classic Bolivian dinner with Pedro and his family, which was a spicy chicken dish called Sajta y pollo con aji and chuno. Chuno is a dried potato from the Altiplano, with a rich earthy flavor.
We stayed in rooms in the “villa” behind the mill. As we drifted off, we could hear the sound of the slow, cyclical churning of the drying coffee in the drum dryers called gaurdiolas.
We woke up to a beautiful breakfast spread of crepes with caramel and scrambled eggs with cheese and went straight to work.
Pedro runs a tight team. He told us we’d start at 9am, and he was ready. We cupped through three tables of coffee that day.
The cupping lab is perched above the valley looking over Caranavi – a beautiful place to spend the day tasting coffees. After each cupping, we’d break, eat some fruit, adjourn to a separate room and we’d all view our scores and notes on a screen.
There was a constant bustle of taxis bringing cherry to the mill – the farmers hire taxis to deliver the cherry. Pedro pays for the taxis, and the farmer usually stays, has a cup of coffee and watches his lot being cleaned.
Pedro has created a mini-school here, where farmers can cup, learn about best practices, enjoy lunch, and even brew coffee, all within the mill.
The next day, we arrived at Pedro’s farm, and he showed us his unconventional method of growing coffee. The forest has been mostly cleared except for some tall canopy of shade, which is counter to the tangles of wild growth in the jungle that we usually see.
Despite our surprise at his approach, what he was doing was working.
We saw some Caturra varieties planted 7 months ago at a year old, that were already producing flower. Usually it takes two to three years. The flowers of the Caturra plants smell (and taste) like jasmine and the sweet smell hung heavy in the air around us.
We sipped cups of French Press coffee from the farm in the chilly, misty morning, which is the way most of the coffee was brewed while we were there.
Pedro and Daniela laid out coffee cherry for us to taste. It was an unusual treat for us to taste each of the different varieties produced at Buenavista separated out.
The SL28 was sweet but simple and pulpy. The Bourbon cherry was less complex with a candied sweetness, while the Yellow Caturra was floral. The Java variety and the Caturra were our favorites: the Java was juicy and very tropical and the Caturra intensely sweet and complex.
The Bolivian Buenavista now on our menu is made up of Caturra, Typica and Catuai varieties. The profile that we are getting from this season is incredibly delicate and nuanced. It is not a heavy coffee. It is elegant, with lots of champagne grape, lime, cocoa nibs, clove, honey and a buttery mouthfeel. The sweetness is like a sprinkling of white cane sugar.
Sourcing great coffee from this region is getting harder and harder because of competition with Coca, which is easier to pick and often more profitable. Change in climate is proving to be problematic, too – rainfall patterns are changing, which is complicating harvest and delaying coffee shipments.
We’ve also seen poor infrastructure and training, with most producers relying on old trees and a prevalence of Roya (coffee rust) destroying established coffee trees.
Pedro and his team at the Buenavista mill are helping us to remain hopeful, though, with impeccable processing and extensive education.