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Specialty Teas from the Bolivian Mountains
By Jane Pettigrew

After unsuccessful attempts to establish a profitable tea industry in Bolivia in the 20th century, the tea plantations high up in the Andes are now producing acclaimed specialty organic teas for the international market.

It may come as a bit of a surprise to many tea drinkers to discover that Bolivia produces some impressive specialty teas that are available today on the international market. Well known for its coffees, few people have discovered its smooth Sencha-like greens or fruity, full-bodied blacks that are made in the sub-Andean valleys where the rugged snow-capped peaks slope gradually down into the Amazon basin. Some 200 families in six communities dedicate their working lives to growing, transporting, manufacturing and packing the teas grown on 200 hectares of land at altitudes of between 1,000 and 1,500 meters above sea level. The tea gardens and rambling jungle intermingle in the breathtakingly beautiful landscape that is punctuated by turbulent rivers and gushing waterfalls, village settlements, expansive tea nurseries and the small, neat tea factories.

Bolivian Teas: Facts & Figures
  • Annual production: 50,000 kg (110,000 lb)
  • Production is increasing by 10% annually
  • Land under tea: 200 hectares
  • 350-400 hectares required for the business to be self-sustaining
  • 12 nurseries capable of producing 180,000 plants
  • Each nursery produces enough plants for 10-12 new hectares
  • Plans to increase the tea area by 100 hectares in early 2009
  • All teas are orthodox
  • All teas are certified organic in compliance with USDA and EU regulations
  • The factory employs 30+ local workers
  • Total number of people employed is 115

In the late 1930s, German and Dutch immigrants brought the first tea seeds to La Paz in Bolivia’s Larecaja province, establishing plantations in an area where the altitude, climate and soil conditions were near perfect for tea cultivation. After 30 years or so, the small-scale operation came stutteringly to a halt and factories lay idle while the local people had to find some other way of putting food on the table for their families. 1976 saw a revival of interest and an agreement between Bolivia and Taiwan that led to increased plantings and the construction of three factories at Caranavi, Chimate and Chapare. But hopes were soon crushed again when high production costs and inefficient administration led to a collapse for the second time in the mid- 1980s. Involvement by a national institution got things going again on a small scale, but by 1993, Chimate had closed down. In 1996, it was privatized and struggled on until 2001 when low tea prices elsewhere meant that the factory simply could not make its operation pay, so once again, the gardens and the factories were abandoned. This stop-start, on-off nature of the industry destroyed everyone’s hope and enthusiasm and many people declared that they never wanted anything to do with tea ever again.

A Sustainable and Profitable Business
But now things are different! Since 2005, at Santiago (the main tea production area), the factories have been back in operation. State-of-the-art machinery has been installed, the bushes have been rehabilitated, farmer field schools established, organic certification obtained, tea nurseries developed and new customers found outside the domestic market. When times are hard in rural areas, workers tend to drift to the cities to find work, but few migrants do well there and often return home to the cleaner air and calmer life among their own agricultural communities.

In the district of Mapiri in La Paz, demands for economic and social development and pressure from local tea farmers happily resulted in a commitment of funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Empresa Boliviana de Tes Especiales - Chaimate SA was established with the goal of growing quality tea and of “Being self-sufficient!” Outside experts were called in to help with the technical aspects and to teach the farmers about such crucial matters as plucking, the cultivation of clonal plants, the development of seed nurseries and the manufacture of high quality green and orthodox black teas.

ChaiMate’s chief sponsor is a non-profit body, the Fundacion Tropico Humedo (Humid Tropics Foundation), which supports the agricultural and technological development of the tropical forests of Bolivia. Its aims are to increase sustainable human, social and economic development in the area through the manufacture of high grown, organic speciality black, green and green jasmine teas. The Foundation works in 89 of Bolivia’s municipalities in five departments to offer expertise in integrated technology at all stages of the production hain - from training in the fields to monitoring and quality controls in the factory. Since the new beginning at ChaiMate, $2.5 million has been invested to establish an industry that would help improve conditions for all the tea farming families.

“We have two tea processing plants that are extraordinarily well placed with all the necessary conditions to allow us to manufacture teas with impressive characteristics and quality,” said Juan Armando Antelo, president of the Foundation. “We have regained the confidence of the local producer - which had hit rock bottom - and if we hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have been able to do anything!”

“Since 2003 we have been here supporting all activities and we are getting the job done so that this industry looks forward and never closes again,” explained Pedro Arandia, technical manager at the Foundation.

The Daily Routine
First thing every morning, the women deliver their children to the Liliana Ayalde Day Centre in Santiago that is supported by ChaiMate. The children are given breakfast and lunch there and are played with and taught throughout the day, leaving the parents free to contribute to the success of the tea industry.

Teams of the women then set off to the tea gardens to gather the new leaf shoots. Some grew up with tea when their parents and grandparents were involved in the earlier attempts to make tea pay here, so plucking two leaves and a bud comes as almost second nature to them. When baskets and bags are full, the leaves are gently spread out on wooden platforms in thatched shelters to shade them from the heat of the midday sun. At the end of the day, the harvested leaf is weighed, packed in blue net sacks and transported to the factory in the back of an open truck.

Inside the factory the leaf is weighed again before a lift carries it up to the withering tables on the upper floor. When 30% of the water content has evaporated nine to 14 hours later, the leaf is once again weighed and then fed into orthodox rolling machines for between 25 and 45 minutes. For smaller teabag grades, some of the leaf is also twisted and broken by the churning blades of a rotorvane. After oxidation in carts, the brown leaf passes into the dryer that is maintained at a constant 100°C. For green tea, the fresh leaves are simply fed into a steaming machine at 84°C, then dried. After sorting, the different leaf grades are bulked, blended and packed. Throughout the entire process, all the usual quality checks are carried out and in the tasting room, the teas are brewed and tasted to make quite sure that they meet the required standards and individual customers’ specifications. The teas produced include whole leaf and broken blacks, black fannings, whole leaf and broken greens, green fannings and jasmine scented large leaf grades made using locally grown jasmine blossoms. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides of any kind are used and organic certification is by IMO Control, the Institute for Marketecology in Switzerland.

The first customers in 2007 were Simpson & Vail, famous in the U.S. for their passion in seeking out and selling high quality mainstream and rare teas.

ChaiMate is now exploring the European markets for customers who have the same vision and understanding of the growing interest amongst consumers for these unusual teas. The subtle aroma and flavor of the teas is quite remarkable and these excellent products deserve a place on the shelves of any tea connoisseur.

For more info., visit www.chaimate.com.bo, e-mail: specialteas@chaimate.com.bo

Jane Pettigrew is a consultant to tea companies, hotels, tea rooms and organizations such as The Tea Board of India and the UK Tea Council. She trains staff, gives presentations at conferences around the world and teaches tea masterclasses. She has written 14 books on tea, 18 other books on food and food history and appears regularly on television and radio.

Tea & Coffee - September, 2008

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