By Deb Kaneb / Photos by Kristin Teig
Farmers markets, specialty food stores, and web sites have made it much easier for interested consumers to know the source of their food. Valverde Coffee Roasters allows them to do the same with their coffee. Valverde’s coffee is labeled with the name of the small farmer, coffee cooperative, indigenous enterprise, or eco-friendly coffee estate that grew the coffee and its country of origin. In most cases, the grower’s photo is on the web site and you can read about them, their families, their farm, and the specific cup notes of the coffee that Valverde sells on their behalf. What makes this especially unique is that the Valverdes know the farmers personally. In many cases, they’ve provided the farmers with production advice that increased the coffee’s “cupping score,” thus improving its quality and the price it commands for the farmers.
Nelson Valverde was born and raised in La Paz. After spending a high school year in the United States, he decided to attend college here and became a student at Dartmouth College and, later, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Following graduation, Nelson settled in the United States, and worked for many years in international business. In the mid-2000s, he and Jorge became interested in helping their native country, one of the poorest in South America. They had learned a lot about the Bolivian coffee industry when the prestigious Cup of Excellence® program was first established there in 2005, so they decided to create the coffee exporting company, Invalsa. Eventually, they began purchasing coffee from other countries as well.
More than half of Valverde’s beans come from Bolivia, purchased directly from the growers. Bolivia’s high altitude provides an ideal climate for growing Arabica coffee beans. Farmers selected by Valverde hand pick their beans, de-pulp them in hand-powered crank wet mills on the farm (though some larger farmers’ cooperatives may have mechanical wet mills), then air dry them on drying patios in the sun. The last step in the process is dry milling the coffee in La Paz, far from the fields in the coffee-growing Caranavi region. One of Nelson and Jorge’s goals, Cristina explains, was to develop direct and meaningful relationships with farmers, giving them support, education, and feedback. This includes advice on coffee bean picking technique and proper packaging of the beans for their long and treacherous ride down North Yungas Road, widely recognized as the world’s most dangerous road (go ahead, google it). Nelson fondly refers to Valverde as a “not just for profit” company.
Valverde purchases its remaining coffee primarily from Costa Rica, Columbia, and Brazil, through Cup of Excellence® auctions. Prestigious Cup of Excellence® competitions take place in many Latin American and African countries. During the competition, farmers’ coffees are evaluated and scored, and the best are certified as “Cup of Excellence® Award-Winning” coffees. Following the competition, members of the group are given the opportunity to bid, auction style, on the coveted winning coffees. Nelson is a longtime judge of the competitions across the world, and has developed personal relationships with the Cup of Excellence® growers.
Valverde Coffee Roasters is a micro coffee roaster. Every 132-pound bag of coffee that it roasts has been sample cupped. Coffee cupping is the formal procedure that coffee buyers use to evaluate and describe a coffee. Cuppers rate the coffee in eight separate categories, using a 100-point scoring matrix. Valverde cups samples not just for quality control and taste, but also because higher cupping scores result in higher prices given to the farmers for their coffee, reinforcing the company’s “not just for profit” philosophy.
Customers purchasing from Valverde can read about each coffee’s source, choose the farmer whose coffee they’d like to purchase, and specify whether they’d like a light, medium, or dark roast. Invalsa’s small lot coffees are roasted to order, in one- and two-pound air roasters that vent out the company’s basement windows. When an order is received, green coffee beans are hand scooped into the roasting chamber, then covered with a screen to collect the coffee’s chaff. Chaff (‘pergamino’ in Spanish) is the papery outside layer on the bean. Most of this layer is removed during the dry milling of the beans, but a small amount remains. During roasting, those pieces of chaff separate out and float to the top. The roaster collects these in the ‘chaff collector’ on top of the roasting chamber then blasts off the remaining pieces from the top of the beans with a hairdryer.
After the roast level is selected, the heating element and blower start roasting the beans, similar to the way that popcorn is popped in a hot air popper. As the beans heat up, their coffee aroma is released and their color deepens to the desired roast level. Once the beans cool down, they’re packaged and placed in the mail to the customer that same day. This same-day roasting, combined with Valverde’s commitment to its farmers, and the family’s deep knowledge of fine quality coffee result in an incredibly fresh and delicious cup of coffee, worlds away from supermarket or chain brews. The difference is remarkable.
This year, Valverde Coffee Roasters plans on increasing the company’s local presence, both in stores and in people’s homes. They’ve developed new packaging, have created a monthly subscription option, and are in the process of acquiring a machine that will allow them to put their coffee in recyclable plastic filters usable in Keurig-type coffee machines. Coffee this special deserves to be on as many shelves as possible.
Valverde Coffee Roasters invalsacoffee.com
Deb Kaneb is the owner of the cookie company Batter Up Bakery, LLC and is a former lawyer. She lives with her family of six, north of Boston and volunteers extensively in her community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.