I Like My Coffee Hot!
15 May, 2016 | Anna Grace
The World of Boutique Bolivian Coffee Production
Photo: Anna Grace
A black coffee arrives steaming to the café table I have commandeered as my personal desk this morning. It is a fine, bright Wednesday in La Paz and finally my day can begin. As I take careful sips of the dark burning liquid, I slowly shake off the dregs of the former night's sleep which continue to plague my body. Minibuses crawl past outside and taxis sit impatiently in mid-morning traffic. Pedestrians pass by, clad in business suits, sports kit or casual dress. I pity the caffeine addict who has forgotten his or her coffee this morning, in this ever-moving, hustling and bustling urban centre.
Many people associate coffee with the morning work routine. It is the highly-coveted pickup at the start of a highly-strung day. Others enjoy a more relaxed coffee culture, one in which friends unite over a cappuccino mug or an espresso in boutique cafés. As I sip the remnants of my morning coffee, I look beyond how we consume it and wander to a place of greenery, to the shady tropical forests that are home to Bolivia’s coffee plantations.
Bolivian coffee production takes place in Los Yungas, a region of high-altitude tropical rainforest in the department of La Paz. From above, the trees resemble vast heads of broccoli clinging to the mountainside. Below, the mixture of sun, shade and humidity provides conditions in which coffee plants can thrive. With an annual production far lower than that of Colombia or neighbouring Brazil, mass coffee production is not exactly thriving in Bolivia, but quality coffee production certainly is.
‘I want to show that here in Bolivia, we can produce the best,’ explains René Brugger, owner of Munaipata, an artisanal coffee production company located four kilometres from the municipality of Coroico, in Nor Yungas. He refers to his terrain as SHANTI, which means ‘peace’ in Hindi. And the naming is apt. Birds sing, the sun shines, flowers blossom and the stunning views keep on coming. Even the incessantly biting bugs cannot diminish the tranquil beauty and familial happiness of this place.
Coffee seedlings are guided through infancy to adulthood by dedicated and caring hands. Then the beans are toasted in a top-of-the-range Bolivian made tostadora. Brígida, whose family has produced coffee since before this machinery existed, underlines the importance of coffee for the people of the region. ‘Coffee helps us to study, to support our families and to make savings,’ she tells me.
The work is less lucrative than other local industries, which is why many producers in Los Yungas have abandoned their cafetales in favour of cocales. But the workers at SHANTI stick to their coffee plantations, as they have pride in the what they do. ‘I love coffee.’ Brígida assures me. ‘René does too, he really loves it!’ And that makes three of us. Everyone here is a coffee lover, it seems.
Following a common Latin American trope, the best Bolivian coffee is exported and locals rarely experience the joys that their land bestows and their own hands cultivate. This, however, is not the case with the coffee produced at SHANTI. Although they only have a modest harvest, 95% of it is consumed in Bolivia. Between delicious mouthfuls of llama lasagna and sips of sultana juice, I learn more about how Munaipata came to be.
Before starting his project eight years ago, René was strongly advised against entering the market of Bolivian coffee. His advisors deemed it unprofitable. Needless to say, he did so anyway. 'I like to swim against the current,' he chuckles. René views Munaipata as still being in its early days, but he mentions a scepticism on the part of many locals. 'They see what we are doing here, and they don't believe it will last,' he says. 'They think this gringuito will leave after a few years.'
Their doubts, perhaps, are understandable. In the 1990s, a spate of cold weather saw coffee production in Brazil drop drastically, which made the international price per quintal rise enormously. Many producers came to Bolivia to profit from the favourable weather conditions and high prices. Once normality was restored in Brazil, however, the producers flocked back, abandoning cafetales all over Los Yungas. Given the long-term aims and the passion and knowledge with which everyone at SHANTI speak of their work, there is no doubt Munaipata is in it for the long run.
Despite the rich taste, strong aroma and eco-friendly nature of Munaipata coffee, Nescafé continues to dominate the market. It seems beans, grinders and cafetières are too much of a hassle for most. If the average consumer, however, would stop and consider the skill that goes into producing artisanal coffee, they would see that the wait is no hassle at all. They may even come to enjoy those few minutes it takes to prepare a good cafetière coffee. I certainly do.