Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #7.
I had not actually intended on reviewing this coffee, but once a couple of us tasted it, we were so impressed we had to tell you about it. Calama Marka came in first place in the 2005 Bolivia Cup of Excellence competition, and a number of roasters (the now-familiar “Small Axe” cooperative) won the auction lot. We tried it from Paradise Roasters, where it is also available green.
Calama Marka is a small farm, only 4.5 ha in coffee, in the Yungas region (in the central cordillera northeast of La Paz) where the majority of Bolivian coffee is grown. This farm only grows typica, and although the farm is not certified organic, like most of the small holders that make up this area, it is passive organic and described as “nature friendly.”
The beans themselves, roasted to a medium brown without oil, had a candy-like fragrance. It was even more pronounced once freshly ground. One day, I ground a little too much, so I dumped the extra in my commuter French press to take the work the next day. Many hours later, after only a few minutes in the car, the vehicle filled with this coffee’s enchanting aroma.
As usual, we prepared our first run in the French press. For quite a few minutes, it evoked silence. Finally, Risky Kingbird broke the spell. “I am really enjoying this coffee!” he said.
It is beautifully balanced, smooth, with a lush, creamy mouthfeel. Very hot, there is an initial juicy, citrus pulse. From first sip to last, it is full of chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, and hints of vanilla notes, especially as it cools. You cannot come closer to a sweet, flavored coffee without adding extra ingredients. There is an intriguing complexity that is subtle and delightful, like simple but great poetry.
There was not a hint of bitterness, not even in the last pour from the press, not even when I brewed it and left a quarter-inch in the pot to cook for a half-hour. Every pot and cup was superior, even when the beans were past 10 days old.
But there’s more to this story…
There’s a bit of the star-crossed lover aspect to this coffee. We have found true love, but will we ever be able to sip it again?
First, the farmer, Juan de Dios Blanco, was killed in a car crash shortly after he won the CoE. Miguel Meza at Paradise Roasters told me that Juan’s wife is still operating the farm, but he does not know if she will continue to produce and market coffee. Miguel was planning to visit the farm during the 2006 CoE competition, but the program was cancelled, which brings us to the next tragedy.
The coffee growing regions of Bolivia are also coca growing regions. In order to discourage coca growing and provide alternate sources of farm income, USAID has provided funding and support to promote specialty coffee in Bolivia. Sponsoring the Cup of Excellence program was part of that effort, as the recognition and high price of winning coffees at auction are powerful incentives for farmers to improve their crops. That the Bolivian CoE program was a stunning success is evident in the superb Calama Marka reviewed here. According to USAID, by 2003, over 5,000 families improved coffee harvest and post-harvest techniques, increasing their income by an average 38%; this in a country where 58% of the population lives in poverty.
Then the political situation in Bolivia changed, in a way that was not to the liking of the Bush Administration. An article at Trade Aid summed it up:
Bolivia won’t be having a Cup of Excellence competition this year. Why not? Funding for the event has been provided previously by USAID, the main aid program run by the United States government, but this year USAID will not be contributing. Unhappy with the outcome of the presidential elections in late 2005 which installed Evo Morales in office instead of their own preferred candidate, the United States has
withdrawn funding as part of their wider campaign to hurt the Bolivian economy.
Promoting specialty coffee is not the answer to squelching coca production in Bolivia, but the CoE was essentially the best and probably only way for farmers to become individually empowered (versus all their beans being mixed at a cooperative), for them to obtain the prices to truly motivate them to continue to improve their crops, and for these Bolivian coffees to get the recognition that commands attention from the coffee-buying public. This situation is really a shame, as it will do little or nothing to hinder Morales, and much to punish farmers and those of us who have discovered this wonderful coffee. Hopefully, the Bolivian CoE will be held in 2007. For more on the complexity and politics of coca and coffee in Bolivia, see this article in the World Policy Journal. A note from UK roaster Stephen Leighton about the cancellation of the CoE competition is at the Hasbean blog.
Other reviews of the Calama Marka: