Let’s be honest – I absolutely love a good coffee and we travel with our small coffee press and search high and low for the best coffee available at every new place we visit. The Danish-Bolivian couple who run Café MagicK where we stayed recently, pay a lot of attention to the quality of their food and the presentation and the events they produce. Plus, we think they serve the best coffee in La Paz. After several deep conversations about the coffee standards, Stephan shared with us information about the beautiful organic coffee farm which supplied the cafe. Just then, we added another location to our “must-see” in Bolivia list.
Early Saturday morning we boarded a bus for the three hour trip from La Paz to Coroico, where the Munaipata Organic Farm is located. We traveled over the new paved Yungas Road which was built in 2006 as an alternative to the famous Death Road where thousands of bicycle tourists test their fate every year.
Our little bus passed dozens and dozens of helmeted mountain bike riders making their way to turn off to the original dirt road pass as we remained on the paved road. I looked at Miro and asked him once again, “are you sure you don’t want to do the Death Road Bike Tour?” I held my breath, hoping to every conceivable god he didn’t change his mind. Then without hesitation, he replied with, “Mom, anything with the words ‘death’ and ‘road’ in it does not appeal to me”. Whew! What a sensible kid!
The Yungas Road is one of the few routes that connects the Yungas region of northern Bolivia to La Paz. Upon leaving La Paz, the road first ascends to around 4,650 meters (15,260 ft) at La Cumbre Pass, before descending to 1,200 meters (3,900 ft) finally arriving at the town of Coroico. The three-hour bus ride offers a quick transitioning scenery starting at the cool Altiplano terrain ending in the high rainforest as it winds through very steep hillsides and atop cliffs.
The farm, located in the little town of Coroico, has long been a favorite with visitors and residents of La Paz. The town is situated in the center of steep, forested mountains surrounded by orange and banana groves, coca farms and coffee plantations. From every side, Coroico offers stupendous views, where from the distance you can see the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. Even though our visit to Coroico was brief, Omar and Daniela told us there are wonderful hikes and birdwatching opportunities in the countryside surrounding Coroico.
If we had more time, Miro and I would have loved to stay and explore the area leaning of the of the cultural history of the surrounding communities including Charobamba, which was established by Jews escaping Nazi Germany. Also interesting is Tocaña, which is known as the Afro-Bolivian community established by former slaves who gave Bolivia its famous “saya” dance. And finally just a short ways away is Coroico Viejo, where Coroico was originally established before indigenous attacks caused the inhabitants to move their town.
But this day was dedicated to coffee and I couldn’t be happier.
Upon our arrival at the Coroico bus station, we walked up what seemed like a mountain of stairs to reach the main square. There, I was acutely aware we were lower in altitude from La Paz. Although I was still out of breath, it did not feel like my heart was going to jump out of my chest and caught my breath rather quickly.
After asking a few locals for directions, we made our way from the center of town to a side street about six blocks away, where we boarded a small pubic van. After about twenty minutes on the dirt mountain road, we were dropped off at the front gate of Cafe Munaipata and the organic farm with the same name.
Our coffee tour began with a beautiful meal served at Cafe Munaipata. Before we arrived we made our choice between a lasagna or llama steak. Miro and I chose the cheesy option and Omar and Daniella chose the meat. (Both looked and tasted wonderful.)
Our meal started off with the most delicious quinoa salad, accompanied with a frothy jamaica (hibiscus) drink. The main course was incredible.We finished our meal with a delicious scoop of homemade coffee ice cream. Overall, our meal was complete, satisfying and divine.
After lunch the tour of the grounds began. We were joined by another two people, making our tour complete with six people. Andres was our passionate guide and shared his love for the entire coffee process, from planting to roasting. Later, we met Renee who owns the artisanal coffee production estate.
The Munaipata Organic Coffee Farm covers three hectors, which consists of hillside and flat land. Coffee plants require 50/50 shade to sun ratio so you will find a variety of other trees throughout the farm. Each coffee plant is grown using regional organic best practices and including a variety of citrus trees and other local non-fruit bearing trees which provide shade for the coffee plants as well as a natural habitat for the local bird population. Andres told us that a portion of the coffee crop is consumed by parrots, but that that is the price for opting to remain organic and not using dangerous pesticides and chemicals.
From the start, we noticed many different elevations which must represent several different microclimates. Throughout the Munaipata farm, we found several varieties of coffee plants including catimor, arabica, criollo, and caturra. The different plants produce beans of varying flavor profiles.
Andres talked about the life cycle of the coffee plants; each plant can live between 65-70 years. Each coffee plant will take about three years to produce fruit. We observed the plants with thicker stocks indicating that were older. Those plants had off shoots that were ripe for cutting and replanting to start new plants.
Alternatively, we learned that coffee plants needed to mature at least ten years to be ready to harvest fruit for seeds. We also learned that that ten year period marks the point that the plants begin to diminish both in levels of production and quality of bean.
It seemed as if Andres knew each plant personally throughout the three hectare farm and knew the age, and variety as if he was looking at his own family tree. One of the many benefits of touring a speciality trade organic farm is learning the differences between their process and the practices of most bulk producers. Growers who bulk produce coffee, often cultivate plants past their peak. Munaipata does not and the evidence can be found in the rich flavor… but more on that a little later on.
From Beans to Seedlings
We learned about the process of harvesting seeds. The beans are germinated in compost, some in larger bags, some in smaller boxes depending on the season, variety and current needs of the farm. Munaipata farm retains many of the seedlings for planting on their property, but they also sell a portion to nearby farmers.
After a few weeks, the seedlings are wrapped into little planter bags and transferred over to the nursery which is an open air greenhouse. Depending on the time of year, the seedlings remain in the nursery area for a period of seven weeks up to ten months, after which they are planted or sold.
Optimally each coffee plant should be planted one to two meters from one another, however through natural germination and growth, there are several plants that do not retain that distance.
Picking the Right Bean
It takes an experienced eye to know when the fruit is ripe for picking. Not too early, not too late. Each bean needs to be analyzed visually and picked when ready. A single branch, may have 20 beans at different stages of maturity. Andres showed us the color and size of the optimal bean, but even to the naked eye not every bean passes the final test. In fact, each coffee bean must pass through our or five tests that indicate the quality of the bean necessary to reach final product.
I asked Andres how many kilos of fruit (coffee bean) does it take produce one kilo of Munaipata coffee? He estimated it took 46 kilos (just over 100 pounds) to produce 7-8 kilos (roughly 15 – 18 pounds) of coffee. WOW!!!
Nothing is wasted. During each stage of production, the beans are sorted and the lesser ones are removed from the batch. The unused beans are either turned into mulch or fertilizer or, depending on the state, sold into the bulk market.
But nothing is ever wasted.
The Water Test
After picking, the beans are placed in a bucket of water to pass the float test. A fruit with a rotted interior, or an under formed bean will float to the surface.
After the lesser beans are separated, the remainder are then run through the device which hulls the beans, meaning he coffee bean is separated out from the skin simply leaving fruit.
Next comes the fermentation process.
After the coffee beans have been separated from the husk, a sort of gooey-like membrane is left surrounding the bean. The purpose behind fermentation is two-fold. First, to dissolve the membrane around the bean and second, to contribute the flavor of the final coffee.
Cafe Munaipata uses a fermentation tank, basically a large water container that can be covered. (For the purposes of our demonstration, the beans were pre-fermented in a smaller plastic container, seen above.) The beans are soaked in water sourced from the natural spring, which is chemical and chlorine-free. The beans are left to ferment for 15-20 hours during the warmer months and several hours more during the winter, but each batch is unique and not brought out of the fermentation process until it is “done”.
“Andres, how do you know when the fermentation process is done,” I ask?
“Experience,” he replies.
Once it is determined the fermentation process is final, the water that used is funneled to an onsite “distillery” that separates the toxins from the water so it does not contaminate the natural spring. The distilled water is drained back into nature and the toxins are stored. Miro and I were so impressed with the attention to preserving the natural balance of the ecosystem.
After the fermentation process is complete, time for one more test; washing the beans and removing the beans that are not of top quality. Beans that have defects, discoloration or cracked do not make it to the drying phase.
Just as the Incas dried many of their crops with the dry air of the Andes, the wind and sun, the coffee at Munaipata is treated in much the same way. The farm built a special drying room called a “secador”, on the edge of the hill, allowing the moving air to circulate through the “secador” and dry the beans. The “secador” utilizes passive solar drying methods with stacks of racks each containing five kilos of beans.
The beans dry for a period of seven to ten days depending on the moisture content of the bean and climatic conditions. After their time in the solar drier, the beans are measured sorted once again, the bad ones removed from the batch, based on weight and moisture content and any hints of mold contamination.
Bagging and Storage
After the beans are dried, they are placed into ten kilo bags for storage. Munaipata has created a special arid storage room. We toured this room and witnessed rows of bags stacked from floor to ceiling, each marked with dates. Each bag must be stored from three months to a year before roasting.
Rich Rich Roasting
After a three month (to a year) slumber, the beans are ready for the roasting process.
We warmed up the roasting machine, to 150C.
But before the beans can be placed into the roasting machine, their out outer encasement must first be removed. Beans with the outer husk still in tact are refereed to as “cafe pergamino”.
After the outer case is removed, the beans are called “cafe oro verde” or green gold because of the golden green color that is revealed. To a coffee lover, the richness of placing beans into the roaster and experiencing the aromas is a little slice of heaven.
Eight kilos of cafe oro verde can be roasted at a time. A standard roast required thirty and for the slightly darker European roast, thirty one to thirty two minutes are required.
And with that, we are just about a half hour away from finally tasting.
The Best Deserved Cup of Coffee. Ever.
Our tour ended and our group convened back at the restaurant. I was ready to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of coffee. And after three hours of walking around the farm, learning about coffee, I deserved it.
But we had to wait just a little longer.
First, our group gathered around the table and as we watched Andres take ground coffee from six bags, marked with nothing but numbers. Then after a spoonful of coffee was added to each of the cups, boiling water was added.
One by one we passed the coffee around, stirred the coffee with our individual spoons, and smelled the aroma. Each of of the cups smelled and tasted slightly different, from strength, richness, flavor intensity and bitterness. After we shared which was our individual preference and which clearly was not, Andres revealed the results.
Unanimously the fresh European blend was the group’s favorite.
Unanimously the coffee that had been ground months before and had been sitting getting old was the group’s least favorite.
Apparently we all had a good nose and taste for quality coffee.
I know I did.
And quality coffee is what we experienced at Munaipata Organic Farm.
A week later, as I am sitting down to write this and I mourn the half empty bag and am faced with the grim reality that my Munaipata Organic Coffee will be gone soon.
But the experience and knowledge will stay with me a lifetime.
Munaipata Cafe – Organic Coffee Farm
Road to Carmen Pampa km. 4
Coroico – Bolivia
Cel. 720 42824
renebrugger (at) cafemunaipata.com