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Part 1: Bolivia Coffee Competition - "Cupping the Mountain's Peak 2003"
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I was invited as a judge for the 2003 Bolivian Cupping Competition, and I accepted with a bit of hesitation. It was a really long trip, with only one flight a day, and I had to fly all the way from San Francisco to Miami to get to La Paz, Bolivia. Plus I had heard about all the altitude sickness associated with flying into the world's highest capital city: dizziness, nausea, irregular heart beat -not my list for good-time fun. Let it be said now, it would have been worth it if I had experienced all these symptoms, and had to fly twice as far. Bolivia is awesome, La Paz is awesome, the countryside is awesome, the people are awesome. That is California "dudespeak," which roughly means, "If you ever get a chance to go to Bolivia, do it!" For my wacky Bolivia Movie, click here.

The Country

Bolivia is spectacular. We landed in La Paz, the world's highest large city at 3600 meters, 11,811 feet (although much of the city is higher up than this). We headed out right away to the coffee growing area, the fertile Yungas valley region, to meet the rest of the cuppers who had already arrived. Bolivia is the only coffee origin where there is so much altitude you actually drive down to the coffee growing areas ... way down. We went from La Paz through the pass at over 15,000 feet (pictured above and to the left) and then down to the coffee at 5800 feet in about an hour. That wreaks havoc on your body, but we handled it okay.

A little background on Bolivia: Nicknamed the "Rooftop of the World" because of its high elevation in the Andes Mountains, Bolivia has a landscape of snow-topped mountain peaks and broad, windswept plateaus 4 km (2.5 m) above sea level. To the east of the mountains, vast grassy plains give way to lowland tropical rain forests. Most of the people live in the Andes Mountains, which occupy a third of the country. Since the 1950s, however, the sparsely settled, eastern lowland plains have gradually become more populous because of significant discoveries of oil and gas. The great majority of the people in Bolivia are Native American or part Native American, and ancient traditions are still practiced, particularly in rural areas. From the 16th to the early 19th century, Bolivia was a colony of Spain, and a source of much of the Spanish silver. In 1952 Bolivia underwent a political revolution that brought about major changes throughout the country. The leaders of that revolution introduced programs designed to provide greater political, economic, and social opportunities for Native Americans. The government extended the vote to Native Americans, enrolled remote villages in national organizations, and extended commercial networks. The government also redistributed land, breaking up the large estates established during colonial times and giving small plots of land to Native American farmers. II Land and Resources print section The principal physical feature of Bolivia is the Andes mountain range, which extends generally north to south across the western part of the country. The Andes form two ranges in Bolivia, the western range (Cordillera Occidental), which runs along the Chilean border, and the eastern range (Cordillera Oriental), the main range, which crosses the west central part of Bolivia. The Cordillera Oriental contains some of the highest Andean peaks, notably Ancohuma (6,388 m/20,958 ft), Illampu (6,360 m/20,867 ft), and Illimani (6,462 m/21,201 ft).

We stayed at the Hotel Jazmines on the edge of the colonial town of Coroico. There is some coffee grown in the area, but most is in the Caranavi region of the Yungas, about an hour a way. There is a cooperative coffee mill (beneficio) on the edge of town. And in fact the Hotel Jazmines has coffee trees blanketing it. To the right; the stone streets of Coroico. The town has a lot of Pizza restaurants, not too strange since it has an international history and there are still a lot of ex-pat Germans, etc. in town.

The Bolivian Judy

On my first walk through Coroico, I was a little amazed to a dog remarkably similar to one of ours, Judy. Obviously, there are differences (uh, gender!) but you have to admit, this is worth a double-take.

Our Judy... a dame of the fairer sex. Clearly both dogs have a bit of Akita in their genes. Her ears are up, his go down, but they really have the exact same spot on the same side on their backs; odd.

The Competition

The cupping competition was more than being locked up in a room with lines of coffee cups. It involved discussions with the producers, co-ops, and exporters. Our roundtable discussions were held out on the patio of Hotel Jazmines.

To the right: one table of cups. We had about 20 cuppers and rotated through 6 tables of cups at a time. This competition was not as extensive as others that I have been at this year (where we started with as many as 100 coffees). But it was nice to devote more time to the cups.

Overall, this even was extremely well-organized, partly due to the presence of Willem Boot as head judge. We used the Cup Of Excellence cupping forms, which seem to strike a good balance between detail and ease-of-use, although I think there are a few superfluous things that could be removed. They also score aroma, but don't use those scores in the totals ... a bit of an oddity. Above are some fellow judges: Caleb from Intelligentsia, Phil from Flying Goat Coffee, Emi from Volcafe, and Chad from Caribou Coffee. And to the right, the spitoon!

Allan and Mary Allan from Coffee By Design. They were the coffee tourists par excellence, indefatigable shoppers. And to the right is Kentaro Maruyama from Japan. Kentaro buys a lot of coffee from the auctions, and is a judge at many of the cupping events. He has also met one of my favorite Japanese musicians, Shoukichi Kina!

Me, the day we arrived after 24 hours of flying. No comment on the T-Shirt.

That's the mighty hand of Bob Fulmer, owner of Royal Coffee located near us, in Emeryville.

Another shot of the discussion groups after the cupping. There was one grower at the meeting who wore the traditional Andean outfit. You have probably seen pictures of the women with the bowler hat, propped up high on the head. They wear them tipped to one side if they are married, the other if they are single. Unfortunately, she was a bit shy and I didn't find out her name, but I told her we really appreciated having a grower at the meeting. There was a reason more were not there ... I will explain later. To the right: veteran cupper from Caravan Coffee, Japan, Shinji.

After the international jury finished their scoring, the other participants could come in and cup the coffees. Then as we shared our scores in the meeting after, they could compare their observations with ours. In this way, it was like a giant training seminar!

One cupper that wasn't allowed to sit at the table with the rest of us...

Probably the only drawback of our time in Coroico; there were these little biting flies that did a lot of damage for their tiny size. They were as small as fruit flies, and clearly we were their favorite fruit! Some people got it a lot worse than others. Caleb's elbow and Emi's ankle were the most dramatic examples.

Joining the International panel were 4 scoring and 4 non-scoring National cuppers. Their job ultimately is determining and monitoring cup quality at origin, and during the processing and milling of the coffee. In the big picture, they are going to do far more towards improving cup quality of Bolivian cofee than we international cuppers who come along later to judge the final results. Above: the winning coffee is announced at the end of the competition.

The Provincial Town of Coroico

Coroico is a great little town, a very traditional town on the edge of a steep hillside, centered around a traditional Latin American town square. Here's a typical quirky picture from Coroico, a poodle flanked by 2 parrots.

If you have seen the pages from my other trips, you know I love graffiti. Coroico is a low key tourist town, and the main acitivity here is the local mountain biking and river rafting. There is a lot of altitude around here, and a lot of backpacking and other outdoorsy stuff to do....

Now I know where that band got its name!

Typical tiny shop in Coroico, with sleeping teenage shopkeeper.

Coffee Cultivation in the Yungas ----Continued in Part 2 ----> Read On!

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