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Bolivia’s Back!

A country that has so, so much going for it in terms of quality coffee production, but that has had the deck stacked against it in so many ways for the past 20 years. I <3 Bolivia!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love the country and the coffee of Bolivia. If you’re not sure, check out this video below I delivered on the tamper tantrum tour of Asia presented in Taiwan:

The potential and the quality of the coffee is undeniable, but the quantity of the coffee has been on the decline for years.

Despite this, we have been working hard with the Rodriguez family to promote and increase production. Bolivia’s past is interesting although it’s a commercially viable coffee exporting country, it’s production has always been small. The conditions, although challenging, are exceptional for growing coffee, and this produces a very rich agriculture built on a long history of farming on a very difficult and difficult terrain. In 1991, there was a government led initiative to encourage the endogenous population to participate in coffee farming, which led to a fractured system counter-intuitive to quality. The arrival of the Cup of Excellence Program in 2004 allowed buyers to find the quality coffee for which Bolivia was already known, but that had become difficult to source.

The main problem for producers was (and, to some extent, still is) that they are unable to make enough money to be sustainable. To subsidize their income, they looked to other crops, mainly coca (the crop that is used to produce cocaine, legal in Bolivia). Encouraged by the government, coca is four times more profitable and is much easier to grow than coffee, and this sadly led to coffee producers turning their back on coffee or, even worse, abandoning their farms.

Coca farming involves a lot of chemicals and fertilisers that are not good to the soil and land, so farming coca leads to the soil being infertile and overworked. Over time, coca-farmed land is unusable for any crop. Bolivian governmental support for growing coca has led to a break-down of relations with the USA, who had previously supported Bolivian agriculture and economy in the early 2000s. The resulting war on drugs in Bolivia has since led to many initiatives to help coffee farmers, with things like the Cup of Excellence being financially supported by USAID.

As if these difficulties weren’t enough to overcome, the arrival of leaf rust in 2013 (a fungus that attacks the leaves of a coffee tree and makes it impossible photosynthesize) meant that the country lost over 50% of its production that year alone. The combination of both government policy and leaf rust means that Bolivia’s coffee production has dropped by over 70 % in the past ten years, leaving the county a minor player in the world of coffee.

This means that to find the very best coffees from Bolivia, we have to pay a much higher than normal price compared to other coffee producing countries—but this isn’t a bad thing. The small volumes available and current demand for great coffees mean that, for once, coffee producers are on the front foot.

The Rodriguez family own their own mills, processing and exporting coffee for farmers in the Caranarvi and Sud Yungas region. The family have been sourcing coffee from small coffee producers for three decades, but the steady decline of coffee production has put the sustainability of their export business in jeopardy. Without the intervention of people like the Rodriguez family, however, the future of coffee production in Bolivia is at risk of disappearing.

In 2014, the Rodriguez family bought a number of farms in Caranavi region to showcase their practices and educate other producers in sustainable farming, as well as increasing the overall volume at their mills. One of the farms is La Linda and there are a number of varietal and processing experiments going on.

Bolivia La Linda Experimental Washed Caturra (£7.50)
This is a wonderfully sweet and fruity coffee, raspberry Starburst meets sweet orange with red apple on the finish. Super delicious and a shining example of the wonderful things a bit of experimentation can do.

Bolivia La Linda Washed Caturra (£7.50)
Think sparkling white wine with some candied lemon around the edge of the glass, then on the aftertaste pineapple cubes. A deliciously fruity and bright coffee.

Bolivia La Linda Pulped Natural Longberry (£10.00)
Those candied lemon pieces that are covered in white sugar with a clean and delicate finish of rosewater and floral notes.

Bolivia La Linda Natural Caturra (£8.00)
This is a liquid rhubarb and custard sweet, with a bit of dark rum thrown in for fun! A really creamy and boozy coffee.

And some old favorties return too, and many more to come over the coming weeks!

Bolivia Teodocio Mamani Washed (£7.00)
Expect a lovely fruit sweetness, with orange jelly wobble mid-palate that finishes with peach juice.

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Viva Bolivia!!

Costa Rica La Pira

Don Carlos is an eccentric, and an innovator and an experimenter. He doesn’t follow the rules he makes them–listen to our chat as we walked around the farm earlier this year.

From this January’s trip, one of the highlights for me was to meet up with Don Carlos from Finca la Pira in Tarrazu, Costa Rica.

You see Don Carlos is an eccentric, and an innovator and an experimenter. He doesn’t follow the rules he makes them.

The walk around was lots of fun, and I recorded our conversations, so you can share a little of the trip here.


You can also see the Flickr pictures here 

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Some things have changed since we first opened our doors, but my thoughts on sourcing travel and relationships haven’t really.

The most common question I ever get when meeting someone for the first time is “Why do you travel so much?” I hate flying, it’s been a phobia I’ve had for many years, and I am a terrible road passenger moaning and groaning. I rarely cup when I’m at origin, as the differing protocols, different water, and your body clock and diet all messed up means you can not do a good job at the cupping table. Coffee often tastes better when you’re in the sun, with friends, having a blast. If it tastes good in Stafford on a rainy Tuesday night, then it will taste good anywhere.

And lots of coffee roasters buy their coffee without ever setting foot on an airplane. So why do I put myself through the torture of traveling to origin? 2016 brought 129 flights all over the world and many many air miles, with 2017 not looking a lot better with 13 already in the middle of February.

Well it’s not for the airline food or my love of airports. We buy directly from over 50 farms and over 20 different producers in 9 different countries. Add to this the relationships we have with importers who still need love and attention to make sure the great coffee keeps flowing, and we continue to work together.

The advent of the internet has made this much easier to manage these long distance relationships and much of my day is spent firing emails and whats apps backwards and forwards. But for those of us that have had long distance relationships, this doesn’t work for all the details. Seeing the whites of the eyes of the person you’re dealing with fixes many of the problems and challenges, and also gets across your points of view, and a chance for you to hear theirs.

Let me give you an example. On my trip a few weeks ago to Central America, I spent the day on a farm we have been buying from for a few years. By now, I’ve been on a lot of farms and have gained knowledge from experienced growers on parameters and processes.

I ask similar questions everywhere I go: “What varietals do you grow?”, “walk me through the way you process the coffee”, “What kind of drying times are you getting?”. The farm in question answered the last question differently to other places I work with, farms all with a similar set of conditions. But the farm in question dried their coffee much quicker than normal.

Now it could be that this is best for this farm and mill, and I’m always very careful to not prescribe to producers what they should do. I use the mantra that if they turned up to my roastery and told me how to roast, I’d be quite annoyed at them, and I think they would feel the same for my advice if delivered wrong. Email and short messages can often be misconstrued this way, even more so when English is often the second language.

But they were super interested in this idea, so within 5 minutes, we were splitting a lot, and using half of it as a control sample doing what they normally do, and the other half slowing down the drying process to see what difference it will make. It could be that few learn nothing apart from what they are doing is amazing, but we could both learn what slowing down that drying process does to the coffee. We are both excited to see the result and how it turns out, both learning, and something that just doesn’t happen on a Skype call, and could be delivered in a way that was “wouldn’t this be interesting” instead of “do this do that”.

Another trip a couple of years ago, I took one of my favourite producers (and one of my closest friends) Alejandro Martinez (or Finca Argentina fame) to Honduras and Nicaragua to learn more about how they do things there. From the visit, he has built new relationships too, with experienced farmers, a resource for some new varietals to try on his farm and someone to bounce ideas off who knows what they are talking about (aka posed to me and my crazy thoughts.). The trip was so successful that when I left for home, Ale stayed with the producers, and learnt a little bit more with them.

Relationships are difficult, not just coffee ones, relationships in general. We all screw up, we all make mistakes. But you know, when you visit someone, all those screw ups and mistakes kind of get forgiven, as you get to understand the person, their challenges, and their strengths and weakness, and you learn to work as a team. But they also learn your weaknesses and you buy yourself so much goodwill.

I make lots of mistakes, I make lots of wrong calls and fly off the handle all the time. Catching up with my mates at origin is not only lots of fun (and it really is) but a chance for them to forgive my mess ups, an important piece of apparatus in my sourcing toolbox.

Brexit hangover

There’s been lots of talk recently about Brexit, but what does it mean for coffee?

Price, nobody likes it when prices go up (apart from the person who benefits), but what if no one is benefiting?

Normally there’s a winner somewhere, coffee producers raising the money they charge, roasters wanting to make more money, costs rising so some other sector is getting more money (packaging, shipping, fertilisers etc). But this time, it’s the result of a vote 4 months ago that we’re now having to react to.

After the crazy party of a referendum we all woke up with a bit of a political hangover and to a new world, I think something that was missed is the new face of consumerism. On Friday, June 24th we saw what the markets thought of our decision, the stock markets and the currency markets both plummeted. The stock markets quickly recovered and we’re seeing record highs in the FTSE 100 and other measurements, but currency remains at record lows. When I first started to understand buying coffee in dollars I remember the £ being worth around $2 as my mental marker. Easy conversion times. Even before Brexit we had seen big changes in this, and previous visits to $1.35 to £1.00 were scary and horrible. Today the mid-price for the $-£ sits at 1.2276 (the new most opened app on my phone is XE) and record lows are reported every day, and just when you think it’s bottomed out ($1.29 was my guess) you see more and more drops.

What does this mean? Well, all our coffee is bought in USD/$. Part of my job as a green buyer is also to hedge against the dollar (this means buying dollars when I think the price is good or to protect from huge market swings). Before Brexit, I spent a couple of days reading about what the outcomes might be from different votes (yes my life is this interesting) and worked out some scenarios. I think it’s fair to say that no one really knew what might happen, as there is no precedent for such a huge vote, but you can take a stab in the dark. If we take ourselves back to Wednesday, June 22nd the day before the vote, all things pointed to a remain vote being most likely. The forecasted reaction to this would be a small jump up to $1.50 to £-ish and some stability back in the UK markets. The case for leave meant some uncertainty and a drop, but a drop some people had at $1.10 – $1.20 others more $1.30 – $ 1.40. I had to make a decision that day to buy some $ and think we might leave and protect myself from this change, or ride it out expect a remain vote and see a chance to sell some dollars at a slightly higher price.

My decision was to do nothing, sit tight, didn’t have anything arriving for the next 4-6 weeks and see what happened. Well, what happened was well documented (I think we will all know where we were when we heard the result), and was the biggest loss on currency and some of the lowest exchange rates on record. What also has happened is that I’ve become a currency junkie, constantly checking for small changes in the $-£.

On that morning some importers who had already bought coffee raised their prices because of the swing, I even heard of some roasters doing the same. To me, this seems crazy for coffee that’s in store and had already been paid for at the older (much juicier) exchange rate, and also a little opportunistic. We didn’t, we sat and we waited and we watched, and that’s been the last 4 months, waiting and watching.

In that four months we had to buy some dollars, some big purchases, some smaller hedging ones to try and buy when I thought the market was good, and selling when I could see an upward swing. But since Brexit I’ve bought around $400,000.00 of currency to buy coffee. $400,000.00 today will cost you around £325,865.58 but back on June 22nd that same $400,000.00 would have cost £268,456.38, a difference of £57,409.20.

Let me take a moment to say that figure again, £57,409.20. That’s £57,409.20 that didn’t go to the farmer, £57,409.20 that didn’t go into my pocket, it just disappeared in currency exchange. It’s sad, really really sad.

What does this mean for Has Bean? Well, it means that our prices are going to have to go up. Not right now, but on new coffees as they come in, you will see some of our prices rising, and as we start to use these coffees in blends, their prices will rise too. This will also have a knock-on effect on subscriptions too, it’s something we’re going to have to address, but we’re riding it for as long as we can, waiting for the market to settle, and seeing what we can do to offset it as much as possible.

Don’t think coffee is the only thing that’s going to get more expensive. Many things are bought in dollars, oil typically bought in $ will increases at the pump, a low barrel price is keeping this under control for now, but pre-Brexit this would have been much cheaper at the pump and prices we’re seeing now are 15-20% higher than we would have expected at previous currency rates. Currency effects so much of what we consume, the scary one on the news this morning was wine from Australia.

So, what’s the future? Well, I wish I knew. Good trading results and unexpected news post-Brexit are making the pound actually better than it could have been. The UK economy has not taken the dive that many predicted so maybe we should be happy at $1.22.

But the market remains volatile. Something as simple as a speech can have an effect on market confidence. In the recent conservative conference every time our prime minister spoke, the £ plunged with talk of hard Brexit and dates of March being set for invoking article 50 to leave the European Union. This isn’t a political statement by me, more a sign of the fragility of the market and the confidence it has in a post-EU world, and something we will have to prepare for.

I wanted to warn you about what was coming, and let you know that this is not a roaster getting greedy, or a farmer making deserved coin, but we will be looking at our pricing as we go, and keeping it under constant review. We won’t be the only ones doing this so expect coffee to get more expensive, but sadly not for the right reasons. We live in uncertain times, but one thing remains, life is too short for bad coffee.

A Bolivia monologue 

A few weeks back I was lucky enough to spend some time in Bolivia. Bolivia has become one of my favourite country’s in the world to visit, and in fact was my 10th time in ten years.

No where in the world is like Bolivia, the landscape, the people and the unique issues surrounding coffee production and export.

Whilst there I recorded a little piece on it for Tamper Tantrum (a podcast between myself, Colin Harmon and Jenn Ruglow aimed at the coffee industry) which was a monologue on the trip and the future of Bolivian coffee. Its been a few weeks since I recorded and released it, but remembered this week I forgot to really talk about it here, so I thought I’d embed it below I hope you enjoy it.

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El Salvador and the “Quality Coffee Event 2016”

I know many readers here will have seen my blog post, about the disappointment of the Alliance for coffee excellence cancelling a number of next years program in Africa and Central America.

One of the ones that disturbed me the most was the El Salvador program, which is one thats been super close to my heart. This was the the first cup of excellence program that I was able to buy the number one coffee (2007) and purchase that I followed through with a long term relationship (and many since). This has also be a a country that has been hit hard by the leaf rust epidemic thats swept through some of my favourite growing areas, and effected many of my friends who we buy coffee from.

It was also the place that I had emails reaching out to me, from producers (read as three separate people) who read my blog post and were compelled to contact me, expressing how upset they were that the program wouldn’t be coming and how some of them had been working on special lots to enter the competition, and their work was to be wasted.

So instead of a negative blog post about how bad this is, it’s lovely to report that the Consejo who are the supporting body for the Salvadorian coffee community have written to me and said that they plan to hold a national project to carry on the local specialty discovery program in house, and carry on the hard work done over many years of COE programs. Sure the protocols will be different I am sure, and some of the way its implemented will be different, but I am sure with a good group of people searching through samples for quality and using protocols and procedures, there will still be a very good opportunity to find true quality coffee and help producers find quality buyers.

I’m also really excited that the Consejo have asked me to be one of the judges for this program this year, and I am more than happy to offer my help and support to make sure something happens.

Dates are yet to be confirmed and I ma sure there are many hurdles to overcome, but I am excited to be involved, and I’ll be offering as much support as I possibly can, and very excited to be asked to be involved.

Watch this space!!!!