By Patrick HiegerWhen we talk about the gastronomic movement that’s happening in Bolivia, that’s focused on rescuing products and making sure there’s more attention paid to the small producers who have never really stopped producing the exotic products that make Bolivia so rich, it’s easy to focus much of our attention specifically on food, and the culinary side of gastronomy. But, when the coffee buyer at a restaurant like Gustu tells you that the coffee industry in Bolivia is fading fast and could, theoretically, go extinct, it makes you see that gastronomy, and rescue, involve a much larger picture.
Post Tambo we took the time to catch up with Ely Abel, the impassioned coffee buyer for Gustu and key player in the Melting Pot foundation, to find out more about this industry that’s in need of some serious help. Just as chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari are focused on bringing the best product into the kitchen at Gustu, Ely wants to make sure that the industry she’s been part of for several years now sticks around, and that the small lot farmers who are the back bone of Bolivian coffee get their time in the sun.
It’s a long read, but she brings up some points about coffee, and the food industry as a whole, that might make you think a little more deeply on that morning cup of joe. Pour yourself a cup, dig in, and get ready to have your mind changed about just how important the producer is to the bigger worldwide culinary picture.
Before we get into coffee, let’s hear a little more about you. Tell us where you’re from originally.
I’m originally from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, which is Lancaster County. I’m sure you’ve heard about Lancaster. It’s known for its dairy and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, like shoo fly pies. That’s where I’m from.
In February of this year, it was two years. So it’s been two and half years. The way I ended up here starts with studying abroad. About five years ago, I studied abroad here. I was studying International Development and, in that degree, they encourage you to study abroad, so I was looking at what countries to go to. Bolivia just stood out to me because I was curious, the fact that the country is so full of diversity of culture, language, food, climate zones.
I was like why did I never hear about this country? It rarely ever comes up in the news in the United States, and it was coming up then because Evo had just won the elections and I thought it was interesting that it was the first time someone of Aymara descent became president. It was just like us in the States, where someone that was African descent could become President. So, I chose Bolivia and, of course, I fell in love with it. I always wanted to come back, so after I graduated I kept looking for ways.
The way I came back was with the World Health Organization. It was a consultancy. They were making a database on the indigenous peoples of Bolivia. It was actually a work in progress, so they sent me down from Washington to help push it through and actually launch it, which we were able to do. After that, I wanted to stay longer, but I didn’t want to stay with a big organization.
I ended up working at Agro Takesi, which opened The Roasted Boutique coffee shop here in La Paz. I was surprised that my first job was in coffee, even though I had a degree in development, there was more need for coffee skills. I thought I was going to leave, but Gustu felt like the project it was destiny for me to work there. That’s how I stayed here.
You ended up with Gustu because they had an opening?
Yeah. Well, I had resigned at my other job at Agro Takesi. I wanted something more than just making coffee. I love making coffee, but I wanted there to be a reason. I don’t want to just serve coffee to people, and they enjoy it. That’s very nice, of course. At Gustu, there is something more. I’m teaching coffee to give Bolivian youth the opportunity to realize their country has wealth. They’re worth having their voices heard. So, yeah.
I had met [Gustu] at Roasted Boutique. I had resigned, and they said maybe I should send my resumé. So, I sent it, and I started out as the cashier and barista for six months. Then they moved me to the Melting Pot foundation as the project official, but I am still the, the official term would be, Gustu´s Green Coffee Buyer and Barista. So, I pick all the coffee lots, and I train all the service team in coffee.
I did. It was always my side job. My first job in coffee is hilarious. I was a sixteen year old, really bored spending the entire summer at the beach with my family. My mom told me to get out and get a job, so I worked at a coffee post in an amusement park at the Jersey shore boardwalk. That’s how I first started working in coffee. Obviously it wasn’t specialty, but I realized that I liked that it’s kind of like cooking, you’re making drinks, making the coffee taste good.
After college I got serious about it and I did classes with Counter Culture coffee in the States. They’re based out of North Carolina. After school, I was trying to get a job with the World Health Organization, but they were saying it might not work out. So, while I waited I got a job at the Big Bear Café in D.C. With them I started training with Counter Culture coffee. They have a whole program of espresso, milk chemistry, cupping, brew science.
So, do you have a specific certification from Counter Culture?
I actually didn’t get my certification. You can get a barista certification where you have to do your own signature drink, and prepare cappuccinos and espresso for three judges. I didn’t end up doing it because I ran out of time and left for Bolivia. When I did learn a lot was with Agro Takesi. They brought a barista champion from Denmark, Troels Overdal, to train with. But, I don’t have a certification. I will get my Q grader cupping certification next year.
Let’s talk about Bolivian coffee. What makes it so special?
That’s a great question, and there’s a lot of reasons. With coffee you’re trying to protect what Mother Nature has given us. Bolivia has incredible environmental conditions in the Los Yungas region. It has the combination of altitude, good rains, temperate climates at those high altitudes, and also what happens is that a lot of the farms are just naturally small micro lots produced by families throughout Los Yungas. Some are organized in collectives,. Other countries are larger farms, but here they’re little farms, and the majority are at 1,500 meters of altitude or higher. The highest farm is at 2,400 meters.
What happens at that altitude is that the bean takes much longer to mature, so that same green bean gets more chemically complex. You’re getting to more sweetness and complex flavors. The unique note of Bolivia is that it’s always a very bright cup, and always has lemony acidity. And you can’t copy that. It’s just Mother Nature giving her unique coffee profile from all the environmental conditions.
Yes. It could become extinct, Bolivian coffee. Every year, Bolivians are producing less. Farmers are getting frustrated for different reasons. They can’t make a living off coffee. There really needs to be programs where a farmer can get technical assistance, so that they can understand that their farm is a business, so that they can make money. I can’t imagine being in that position, where I’m betting on everything I do for the entire year for one harvest. Specialty coffee is one harvest per year.
Bolivian coffee is specialty in Los Yungas. It’s hard to do commercial coffee because of such high altitudes. The bean is taking much longer to grow. For that reason, producers are choosing to produce other things.
I don’t even think it’s about demand, because there’s a lot. Intelligentsia is here, Stumptown comes, 49th Parallel came. The world’s best roasters are always coming for the coffee.
For example, when I went cupping, 49th parallel wanted more lots and Agricafe, a great Bolivian processing and exporting company, was saying there’s not enough coffee. So then you say, if it’s not demand, it’s because there’s not enough supply. There’s not enough supply because these small producers can’t make a living. They need technical support.
There’s also been an issue, which is a very un-talked about issue, which is organic coffee. There’s a famous agronomist out of Costa Rica who says that organic coffee is a poor model. It’s going to make producers poor, because organic fertilizers are very expensive, and they’re very susceptible to any kind of disease like rust leaf, which can just kill your coffee production.
That’s been happening in Los Yungas. Farmers trusted organic coffee farming because they thought they’d get more money, but they have constant low productivity from causes like disease or this year the high level of of rain,. it’s tough being a producer.
At Tambo there was a lot of talk surrounding rescuing or highlighting forgotten products. Are there any programs in place to save or encourage more coffee production?
There’s a few, like the Bolivian government´s organism INIAF, but not as many as there used to be. The issue is there’s always a gap in these programs, something missing. A lot of times the producer is told how to produce better, but then he or she does not know understand how this model will help him or her right away. Or the model doesn´t combine the two necessary components of both productivity and quality. So, I think it’s being able to unite the specialty coffee industry with the producers being able to make enough money. Quality and productivity.
AgriCafé started an interesting program. They literally began a farm to show their producers how they can grow their coffee and make money. They’re showing them how to not be organic, but also to not overdo the pesticides, of course. How you can control the ecological setup on the farm. Keeping space between the plants so that all the nutrients do go to your plants. Simple things to show the producers you can actually do this. That’s a cool model that I’m interested to follow up on. The farm just started to show harvest this year.
I haven’t seen the statistics this year, but our suppliers and producers were saying that the production could have lowered as much as 60% this year. This was a combination of extreme conditions of heavy rains and farmers choosing to produce something other than coffee. the production rate is slowing quickly. If the old farms are stopping production, many of these micro lot farms over 40 years old, if they’re not planting new trees because they don’t know that if you plant now you get profit later, it could be in a few years that there’s no Bolivian coffee exported. It’s very possible. It could just be the wealthier person who decided to start their own farms. It won’t be the small-scale, family micro lots.
For example, we won´t have discoveries like Adriana Burgoa from Nueva Llustain Caranavi. Her coffee is like, how is this possible? She’s just a little producer trying to do it right, and her coffee is cupping at around 89. It’s amazing. So, you might not have those little micro lot gems that just spring out of nature just because of where they are, how they’re doing it, and the ground giving it a unique cup profile. You’re not going to have that in the future.
Yeah, it’s awful. One of the statistics that I talk about is that Nicaragua is the poorest country of Central America, and it’s an eighth the size of Bolivia. An eighth. Bolivia is the poorest country of South America, and Nicaragua is exporting over a million sacks of coffee. Bolivia is exporting just over 100,000. (A sack is about 60 kilos of green coffee.) What’s crazy is that coffee is the second most traded product in the world. It’s a powerful product.
Is the key to success, then, making the farms profitable?
For me, yeah, it’s the producer. You hear about Aida Batlle out of El Salvador. She’s famous now. Everyone talks about her. She had the money to invest in her father´s farms and she wanted to invest in her country and return to her country. These are the models of how you can be a famous producer. And why not? Not just the barista or the chef need to be famous. It’s the people who have to physically work hard every day. Who have to hand pick every bean themselves. There’s no other way to make specialty coffee. You have to be able to recognize when it’s mature. Then process it. You also have to trim throughout the year, and groom. The producers need to be able to make good income. They need a transparency model, not the covering up term of direct trade.
It’s as important as wine, but it’s not getting the same recognition.
Yep. Everyone drinks coffee in the morning. It’s more traded than wine.
Getting back to Gustu, and all the work you’re trying to do with Bolivian gastronomy, what role can the restaurant have in helping with this coffee crisis?
Well, we’re not a roaster or processors. But, we are still finding ways to directly address the issue. This year we are shooting for all micro lots in order to have transparency and build relations with exactly where our coffee comes from. We will sign contracts with the producer, processor, roaster and Gustu to have the percentages right there. In the future, we want to support the provision of technical assistance. However, not just technical assistance like this is how you should do it, but also the passion about it. I want to go down there and get them to try their own coffee so they understand the barista culture, that fiery passion.
The students here in the city had no idea that there’s a profession in coffee. There is and it’s a really fun profession. What’s cool is that for someone who’s not had the best education their whole life it’s an easier profession to get into, because it’s very hands on,. Our students are really enjoying it, like they’re enjoying being in the kitchen.
So coffee is yet another in a long line of products in Bolivia that needs, not fixing, but help in general.
Yes. It’s my dream. I want to leave a legacy and be able to see something happen. But, I want to say, too, that it’s in the hands of the roasters. They’re super focused on getting their perfect cup of coffee and they can tell you how sweet and delicious it is with these nutty and raisiny notes. Then you buy it because you don’t actually know that much about coffee, but it’s great, and look at the micro lot, it’s organic. That’s not the true story. It’s a micro lot but it’s owned by an already established, wealthy family. Or it could be a micro lot that’s not going to be there the next year. Or it’s an organic micro lot that, with luck, the grower was able to have a good year. There’s gaps in the visibility. People think it’s very visible, transparent, the trade, but it’s not. There’s a lot of details missing.
I would call on the roasters that do have the purchasing power to do more with their producers. To work harder and take risks, too. Not only the producer should have to take risks. The roasters should, too. Give technical assistance to their producer, and guarantee that they’ll keep buying from them year after year, even if it’s a lower productivity.
I never thought about it that way.
Well, that’s what’s cool about being in an origin country. You think about things differently. There’s definitely a mental shift that needs to happen. More awareness. More education.