I’ve gotta say; I’m hooked on Dangerous Grounds after only two episodes. I highly recommend the show. This past week’s episode finds Todd Carmichael (who travels the world for the best coffee beans) and his cameraman, “Hollywood”, in Bolivia, in search of high-altitude, organic, single-farm beans of the highest order. The only problem, coca brings in more money than coffee does, it depletes the soil, needs to grow in full sun (so the farmers whack down the jungle), it can be harvested three times a year (coffee = once yearly), and most of the coca folks carry guns and have short fuses and unpleasant attitudes. The other problem: the altitude.
We open in La Paz (elev 12,000 ft), where the boys chew on a little coca leaf to offset altitude sickness. We find that Bolivians don’t drink coffee, they chew coca leaves, but they do export coffee. Really good coffee, if you can find it. With maps in hand, the boys head for an area called El Alto, on the way to where the best coffee reportedly grows (along with its ever-increasing high crime rate). It’s also an area where the farmers hang effigies of bodies along the side of the road, to warn criminals. Best quote from the first section of the show: “This is looking dodgy.”
They head for the Caranavi region, east of Lake Titicaca, but to get there involves a three-day drive along “The Death Road”, the road to Youngas; a narrow, twisting, pavement, dirt, and cobblestone highway that sees 300 deaths a year, many from plunging over the precipitous edge, falling off thousands of feet. The road also carries dangerous coca buyers. Night falls and we see a densely foggy road; visibility is sketchily non-existent, but they make it to an animal reserve where they can rent a room. In the morning, a monkey steals his satellite map of Caranavi, hops out the window, and proceeds to eat it. Undaunted, they head for the village of Guyanabe, a village known for its high quality beans. Todd and Hollywood feast on fried boa constrictor and rice for lunch and plunge higher into coca territory. One third of the coffee bean production disappears annually to coca growing, and once coca has sucked the soil of all its nutrients, coffee can never be grown there again. They stop to examine some new coca plants in a remarkably fastidious row and get chased off by ominous voices heading their way. “Coca is kicking coffee’s ass. The quality of the coffee in Bolivia is getting better and better, while the quantity plummets.” says Carmichael.
Todd starts to see some bananas growing, which is the sign for coffee cultivation; the banana trees shade the coffee plants. He finds his first wild beans, but the crop is neglected, perhaps because an insect borer has ruined many of the beans. The boys take a crude 1,000-foot zipline across a 1,000-foot deep chasm, used by farmers to access their crops and carry product back to the highway for market. Todd doesn’t glide all the way across, and has to pull himself the last 150-feet. They first encounter sun-grown, sickly beans but as they head up the mountain, stumble across shade-grown trees, loaded with branches heavy with gorgeous beans.
He tracks down the farmer in a compound of huts, gets out his campstove coffee bean roaster and tests the taste. He grinds the beans, lets them steep for 4 minutes, and then uses a spoon to break the floating crust of ground beans on the surface of the cup. “When you punch through that crust, it reveals the aroma, which is the tell-tale indicator.” He describes the flavor as “…fruity, like peaches, pears, and apples.” Translating by using a paperback Spanish dictionary, Carmichael writes out a single-page contract on a sheet of notebook paper, gives the farmer $2,000 in good faith money, and inks a deal for 50 bags.
Back in Philly, Todd makes his first cup from the newly-arrived El Alto, Caranavi, Bolivian beans, saying he’s been brewing coffee since 1982,when he started working “…for a certain Seattle-based coffee company that’s now world-wide.” After the first sip, he waxes orgasmically: “One of the best coffees I’ve ever found.”
Mick Vann ©