It is no secret that we enjoy a good cup of coffee. The last few months you have seen pictures of the trusty Aeropress in a multitude of environments. The importance of the Aeropress has been documented in the list of Most Valuable Items along with the unspeakable hardships of traveling through lands bereft of decent joe. Thanks to a chance encounter with Bolivian roasters Cafe Alexander and a little bit of research on the Cup Of Excellence website, we discovered that the Bolivian Yungas are home to some very, very tasty coffee. The Yungas refers to the general section of the Andes we are currently in, sloping down from the Bolivian altiplano into the broader Amazonian basin. Word on the internet is that the best cafe Yungueño is grown in the Caranavi region, but it turns out they’ve got some major competition from their neighbors to the south near Coroico.
Last Wednesday we made the descent from the capital, La Paz, over 13K feet above sea level, to the town and province of Coroico. It is a short ride but a dramatic change in climate, akin to taking a winter flight from cold, dry New York to sunny and humid Florida. Sort of. After our arrival in the town of Coroico, we rented a small cabin at Villa Bonita, a heladeria and private residence about 15 minutes from the town center on foot. This part of the Yungas is marked by dramatic green hills and valleys. Coroico is situated on one such peak about 5,000 ft above sea level—low enough to be nice and warm yet high enough to keep the mosquitos in check. After chatting with the owner of Villa Bonita, she suggested we pay a visit to her friend Renee who owns Cafe Munaipata, an artisenal coffee production estate in the hills above the nearby village of Munaypata. She also offered to introduce us to her neighbors so that we may visit their citrus orchard and learn more about local agriculture.
The dominant crops in Coroico are citrus, papayas, coffee, and of course, coca, which is legal and regulated under the Morales administration. (Note: coca leaves are legal while cocaine production is very much illegal.) The following post documents our visit to Munaypata, where coffee is produced by hand from seedling to roasted bean. Renee’s operation is very much a small scale, artisanal endeavor. We were shown around the land by one of his employees, an extremely well-informed and friendly woman whose name, unfortunately, we can’t recall. You’ll see her in the pictures included here. We plan to visit more cafeleros in the days to come, but for now, please enjoy this guide to growing, harvesting and processing some excellent Cafe Yungueño!
As Renee’s land is situated on a steep hill, he works with a variety of coffee plants suited for different elevations. To start, the beans are germinated in a compost mound pictured here. The different plants also produce beans of varying flavor profiles. In addition to his own land, Renee sells seedlings to nearby farmers who, in turn, sell some of their harvest back to Renee. After a few weeks, the seedlings are wrapped into little planter bags and transferred over to the vivero (nursery) which, on this farm, is a sort of open air greenhouse. The seedlings remain in the vivero for 7 weeks, after which they are ready to be planted!
According to Team Munaipata, coffee plants require a good three years before they are capable of producing fruit with a decent taste. As well, after about 10 years, the plants begin to diminish both in levels of production and quality of bean. One of the many facets of production that separate the specialty trade from bulk producers is that most growers will continue cultivating plants past their peak. All of the plants are grown using regional organic best practices and the land has also been cultivated with some trees left in place to provide cover for the plants and a sort of habitat bridge for the local bird population. Indeed, a good bit of the crop is consumed by parrots, but the majority of people around here would rather let the birds have their way than use expensive and dangerous chemicals.
Harvesting beans at peak maturity requires a good deal of experience and a careful eye. Each bean needs to be analyzed visually and picked when ready. A single branch, as you saw above, may have 20 beans at different stages of maturity. This is one of the reasons some of the local farmers would rather grow coca or citrus, as harvesting coffee is far more labor intensive. Lex and I sampled the raw fruit which has a sweet and fragrant taste, like a passion fruit. Pictured to the side is the end result: the skin and fruit separated from the bean.
After Ya Pluck ‘Em:
Excellent coffee is all about sorting and selection. At every stage of production, the beans are sorted and the lesser ones are discarded or sold into the bulk market. After picking, the beans are placed in a bucket of water, pictured to the side. A fruit with a rotted interior, or, as happens from time to time, an underformed bean inside, will float to the surface. These lesser beans are discarded while the balance are run through the device you see on the side which pulls the seed (coffee bean) out from the skin and fruit.
The freshly hulled coffee bean is covered in a kind of gooey membrane that needs to be removed before processing. The method utilized at Cafe Munaipata is fermentation, in the tank you see here. The fermentation process dissolves the membrane around the bean and also contributes to the flavor of the end product. The beans are soaked in water and left to ferment for 18-19 hours during the warmer months and about 24 hours during the winter. The water is taken straight from a nearby stream, as the chlorine used to sanitize the municipal water supply would alter the flavor of the coffee.
After fermentation, it is time to wash the beans and, once again, sort out the lesser crop. This time around, the beans are inspected one by one for visual defects, such as cracks or discoloration.
My Beans Are Wet, Please Dry Them!
Next up, the beans are transferred to the secador—a passive solar drier just down the hill from the fermentation and washing area.
Here, the beans remain for 7 to 10 days depending on the moisture content of the bean and climatic conditions. After their time in the solar drier, the beans are measured for weight and moisture content before getting bagged in preparation for the next step on their voyage. The Yungas are a sub-tropical climate, with humidity levels unsuitable for longer-term storage. As a consequence, Renee drives his coffee up to high-and-dry La Paz, where they remain for an additional three months before returning to the farm for roasting. The additional drying time allows for the flavor of the bean to concentrate.
Nescafe, No Es Cafe!
So, let’s see . . . we started three years ago with our seedlings and now we are almost ready for a proper cup of coffee. The machine you see here shaves off an outer encasement of the bean, revealing the magical interior which is then roasted. Renee uses the shavings as mulch to control weed growth, but rumor has it that these discardings are the stuff from which Nescafe (instant coffee) is made. Hence, the expression in these parts that “Nescafe no es cafe, es basura!” Truer words have not been spoken.
Our class in coffee production ended as all things should both begin and end: with a cup of excellent coffee. Needless to say, Renee’s coffee is quite delicious. We purchased a bag to bring with us on the road. As a public employee, I am hesitant to admit it was degrees better than the bag from the local government administered coop we purchased earlier. I visited their office in town the other day and experienced a sharp turn of role reversal.
As most of you know, I am the proud employee of a public agency back in Nueva York. Back home, I coined the term “lone wolf,” referring to the random person who drops by the office expecting an unscheduled tutorial in all things energy conservation related. Yesterday, it was I who was the Lone Wolf at the Cooperativa here in Coroico, where I was gently asked to come back on Saturday when they might have time to chat with me about their work. We are also gathering contacts for Caranavi, where production occurs on a broader scale. Before then, we are headed to a bare-bones “eco-lodge” situated in a nature reserve about an hour from town. The camp is run by descendants from a now-abandoned settlement of refugee Jews who settled in the jungle during the Nazi years. I am hoping to see the mystical Quetzal, a large red bird emblematic of the wild upper Amazon. Lex has her eye on a chocolate-making class. As always, we shall be rocking the Aeropress, now with our bag of wonderful Cafe Munaipata in tow.
So – after such a complete and colorful discussion on how “real” coffee is made, it seem a bit anticlimactic and sacrilegious heading out to Starbucks…
Ha! Better not move to Florida…………….the bugs there
are the size of frogs………………ask Sharon…
Sounds like you’re both having a very interesting time……
love mom w.
I’d at least give yourself the benefit of the doubt and say that you’re an entirely different breed of lone wolf. Curious to know what they thought of the aeropress?
Spectacular! Send me some o’ them greens, I’ll go head to head in a roast-off with Renee.
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