There's no better way to learn about a coffee-producing country than to visit, and yet you can spend a lot of time in Bolivia and still not understand the complex relationship between coffee and culture. My first trip to Bolivia was really an awakening to the dramatic landscape, the soaring altitude of La Paz, the very basic lives of the coffee farmers, the complexities of the nations economy and politics.
Bolivian Coffee Attributes
Great Bolivia coffees are delicate, bright and aromatically sweet, the classic "clean cup." They have subtle fruit notes, like pear, apple, apricot, tangerine and lemon. They can develop roast flavors that are malty, chocolatey, nutty (almond and hazelnut, not the off notes of peanut shells), with caramel or honey sweetness. The best flavors really emerge as the cup cools and do not diminish but grow in intensity. Bolivia does indeed have all the ingredients to produce great coffee, especially in terms of altitude (plenty of that!) and seedstock: the plants are almost all traditional Typica varietal, with some Caturra. Much of the production is from traditional organic farming practices, with a lot of the co-ops certified Organic and Fair Trade as well.
There are some quality issues that are being addressed with assistance from USAID, inspired largely by the attempt to limit coca production in the Andes This is expressed through direct farmer assistance and programs like Cup of Excellence. One problem is that the coffee was formerly sent from the main growing regions, the Yungas (a vast fertile region on the east-facing slopes of the Cordillera Occidental - the Western range) including the Caranavi region, to La Paz for processing. La Paz is the highest national capital on Earth, at a whopping 12,500 feet. The coffee was sent up the treacherous road when it was pulped, fermented and washed, but not fully dried.
The combination of coffee that was moist enough to keep fermenting, plus frigid and dry atmosphere at a high altitude, dealt a "one-two punch" to the coffee chemistry, and weird flavors resulted. But now the co-ops are starting to process their coffee themselves, gaining more control over quality, providing more jobs in the community, and sending the coffee over the mountains only when it is in a physically stable condition. These are the nuts and bolts of how a coffee is transformed from an under-priced under-achiever to a recognized name in the market, a distinct origin, a unique cup character at full bloom.
In recent years, some of the hopes for a broad range of top quality coffees from Bolivia, available from season to season, have not been realized. There is an issue with the Typica cultivar, especially when it is grown under rustic conditions by small-holder farmers, who tend to lack the resources for soil and plant inputs as well as great management of the coffee shrubs (pruning, etc). Typica plants seem to have a more exaggerated biennial output, but when you add poor nutrition and other agricultural practices it is a very dramatic drop from a high-volume harvest to a low-volume one. The extremes of high and low crops affect quality in terms of picking and milling as well. The system doesn't function well when it is overloaded with coffee, and the wet mills cannot keep up. Nor do you see the best quality coffees in extremely low harvests, where pickers tend to harvest more unripe cherries along with the ripe ones (they are paid by the volume they pick), and dry mills might relax standards to maximize their output.
Importing the Good Stuff
We have been going to Bolivia for years. Before the Cup of Excellence program took root in Bolivia, I attended a highly educational national cupping competition. You can check out my little odd Bolivia movie if you are so inclined. Lately we have found great coffees, but in fairly small volumes and at top prices. This makes our Bolivia offerings a bit more expensive, but we feel the cup quality deserves the price. And the fact Bolivia comes in fresh at the time of year when the bright Central American coffees are flagging a bit makes them an attractive option to maintain the highest cup quality throughout the year.