A cafe con leche story – or – How can coffee help explain Venezuela?

The most defining liquids in Venezuela’s history can’t be drunk…

Oil. The black gold that flows generously from a subsoil gifted with a wealth beyond the wild imagination of those greedy enough to envision the mythical land of El Dorado. A richness celebrated in the radiant yellow stripe at the top of the national flag.

Seawater. There’s the salt water that washes the 2,800 km of Caribbean coast from which guests, invaders and everything in between have come and gone in waves over the centuries. A resource honoured with a vibrant blue stripe encrusted with white stars in the center of the Venezuelan flag.

Blood. There’s the blood of a nation whose people came from all corners of the globe, a blood that has been spilled in times of war and squandered in times of so-called peace. Blood is commemorated in the bright red stripe at the bottom of the country’s flag.

These three liquids fuel our history, communicate us with the world and literally, fill our hearts.

But as a drinks writer, I will focus on a more mundane drop. Café con leche a.k.a. “coffee with milk”, a drink with three ingredients hailing from different parts of the globe (coffee from Africa, milk from Europe and sugar from Southeast Asia) all which blended into Venezuela’s caffeinated treat par excellence.

coffee-farm

Over the last few weeks Venezuela has made headlines and for the first time in very long, it seems the world is reading.

I shall leave the news reporting to those closer to the action (if you want a crash course on Venezuelan history you can read an old post I wrote to summarise it all), but by focusing on coffee, I hope to share with you a bit of context to help you make sense of it all.

Coffee, the other black gold

Oil is but the third “black gold” Venezuela has exploited. The country’s flagship product during colonial times was cocoa, which was all the rage in Europe and which was profitably obtained with the work of slave labour.

In the 19th century, the war of Independence and the abolition of slavery meant a new crop was ripe to replace chocolate’s raw material. Cue Coffea arabica. A seasonal and less demanding plant whose bean became the intellectual elite’s new obsession and the working class affordable pick me up.

cafe con leche venezuela (2)

Venezuela’s economy was fuelled by coffee. When exports peaked in the early 20th century, the country’s market share was surpassed only by Brasil’s. As oil was discovered and extraction begun, a quick urbanisation process took place and it didn’t take long for the third black gold to overtake.

Even so, Venezuelan coffee remained a praiseworthy commodity through most of the last century. Within the borders, coffee was plentiful, local and of great quality.

How Venezuelans became a nation of coffee lovers

After World War II, a large influx of Italians arrived into the country, bringing with them their passion for a good espresso. Venezuelan coffee culture evolved and reflected the tastes of a more cosmopolitan and affluent society.

At home, the most common brewing method became the greca a.k.a. moka pot (although the good ol’ cloth filter never went out of fashion). Out of the house, coffee was often enjoyed in the shape of “café con leche” (coffee with milk), almost always sweetened and bought at the local bakery.

coffee-roaster

Despite the influence of Italian baristas and American marketing, Venezuelans got used to drinking and ordering coffee their own way, in fact, most people still refer as coffee drinks by their local names so good luck getting a flat white without calling it a marrón oscuro (dark brown).

Just to give you an idea, these are some of the most common coffees anyone could have ordered in any Venezuelan bakery up until a few years ago:

  • Guayoyo: Black filtered coffee, think of it as a watery Americano.
  • Tetero: A super milky latte (tetero is Venezuelan slang for baby bottle).
  • Marrón claro: A “light brown”, way more milk than coffee.
  • Café con leche: The best thing ever. The Goldilocks spot between coffee and milk.
  • Marrón oscuro: A “dark brown”, way more coffee than milk.
  • Negro: strong black coffee.

Why do I say until a few years ago?

Well, coffee production had its historical drop, but even until the noughties, production was still enough to supply domestic demand and then export some.

Then they animal-farmed it

In 2009, the government of Hugo Chavez consolidated its control over the national coffee industry when he announced the nationalisation of the country’s two biggest coffee roasters: Fama de America and Cafe Madrid.

According to figures from the International Coffee Association, the country’s total annual production (in thousand of 60 kg bags) went from 1,214 in 2010, to 1,202 (2011), 902 (2012), 952 (2013), 804 (2014), 650 (2015), 500 (2016), 525 (2017) and 550 (2018). Basically, it became less than half in under a decade.

cafe con leche venezuela (1)

Want some milk with your coffee? Also in 2009, controls became stricter as the country’s main milk producing companies were either bought or expropriated. As reported by the BBC back then, “Venezuela has set quotas for 12 basic foods which are to be produced at the government’s controlled prices. Ninety per cent of all milk production and 80% of all rice harvested in Venezuela are among the items included in the measure.”

Just to complete the trifecta, the controls covered sugar too. Ten of the country’s main sugar processing plants were taken over by the government around the same time.

Not only did they controlled the production, they also controlled the prices, so producers soon saw themselves cutting all sorts of corners and working at a loss or closing down.

Very soon after, the simple pleasure of a sweet café con leche was not that easy to get.

The variety of brands available on the shelves went down both in quantity and quality. The newly nationalised coffee brands were a shadow of the potential Venezuelan coffee producing regions were capable of.

A few artisan roasters have gone thorugh great lenghts to preserve fine Venezuelan coffee beans and roast a quality product. I really hope their efforts pay off once chaos passes and rebuild time comes.

cafe-con-leche

Coffee, milk and sugar were rationed. Black market re-sellers often dictated the real price as retailers were forced to sell at the official price. Products were often adulterated and stored in unsanitary conditions.

“Dairy drink” milk-like products tried to fill the void by resorting to loopholes (hey, it’s not price-controlled milk, it’s a “dairy drink”!). At times, I spent months without seeing a bottle of fresh milk in a shop, allowed to buy only a maximum of two kilos of powdered milk a week, and only on the day it was my turn to shop rationed goods, according to the last number of my ID.

For me, the milk shortage was upsetting, but for anyone with a child, it was a tragedy (for example, parents in desperate need of baby formula, to name one of the most affected groups). Those who couldn’t afford black market prices had to queue for hours, just to be told there is nothing left by the time they’re allowed to enter a supermarket.

There is a scene from George’s Orwell 1984, that for some reason, comes to mind now…

Winston and Julia meet, and she brings with her a little treasure.

But she did not need to tell him why she had wrapped it up. The smell was already filling the room, a rich hot smell which seemed like an emanation from his early childhood, but which one did occasionally meet with even now, blowing down a passage-way before a door slammed, or diffusing itself mysteriously in a crowded street, sniffed for an instant and then lost again. 

‘It’s coffee,’ he murmured, ‘real coffee.’ 

‘It’s Inner Party coffee. There’s a whole kilo here,’ she said. 

‘How did you manage to get hold of all these things?’ 

‘It’s all Inner Party stuff. There’s nothing those swine don’t have, nothing…”

As Orwell foretold, you can’t have a proper dystopian regime without coffee, milk and sugar being replaced by lesser substitutes.

With the death of Chavez and the rule of his sucessor Nicolás Maduro from 2013, the path downhill accelerated.

Barista classes as a backup

Around that time, emigration was already on the rise, but not yet at today’s level. It was also around that time when barista schools became a trend and there was a growing interest in discovering and rediscovering coffee.

cafe con leche venezuela (3)

This is a personal opinion, albeit an informed one, but I believe one of the main reasons young, educated, middle class professionals such as myself decided to enrol in barista schools was to have a backup plan in case our shinny degrees were of no use to us abroad.

To back my instict up with some data, I did a simple comparison in Google Trends, looking for the interest in the keywords “barista curso” (barista course), “curso de barista” (course of barista) and just “barista.”

barista interest

One can clearly see a spike in interest after 2014, followed by a jump higher up in 2017, when the migration crisis worsened. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched to think many were hopping coffee would give them an edge.

Figures from the United Nations indicate that by 2018, the number of refugees and migrants from Venezuela had reached 3 million people. From those, 2.4 million went to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In case you’re wondering, according to the Irish Census 2016, there are only 1,729 Venezuelans in Ireland, the number, even if small, represents an increase of 256% compared to the previous census.

I arrived in 2014 and my barista course quickly paid for itself. For the first two years of my life in Ireland, most of my job interviews involved me making coffee, serving wine or decorating cakes.

I met many engineers, designers and even doctors who felt lucky to be able to pay rent one capuccino at a time.

But back to Venezuela, where the millennial professionals soon-to-be baristas that jumpped ship shortly after Maduro took over were nothing but the start of an avalanche…

Bloomberg’s Venezuela Café con Leche Index

It is no secret that inflation in Venezuela has spiraled out of control. Due to the lack of official figures, distorted prices and disinformation, estimates and alternative ways to keep track of the economy have been imagined.

Since 2016, financial and media company Bloomberg has used a tool they’ve called the Venezuela Café con Leche Index “to measure one of the most important of all the missing figures — inflation.”

Think of it as a Big Mac Index for a Mad Max-style economic panorama. They explain: “as the name would suggest, it tracks just one item: a cup of coffee served piping hot at a bakery in eastern Caracas.”

To give you some context, eastern Caracas is commonly known to be the more affluent half, a sort of “south side” if you compare it to Dublin.

As mentioned well above, most of the café con leche in Venezuela is enjoyed in bakeries, the first establishments to consistently feature an espresso machine.

Just a note about Venezuelan bakeries: they are not just a place to buy bread, they often combine a convenience shop, café, deli, pastry shop and of course, the bread. That is, when there is any (as flour is also scarse, just like butter, eggs and anything you need to get a food bussiness running).

“While the gauge isn’t nearly as sophisticated as a conventional consumer price index, it has merits too: it’s tangible; tracked regularly; and, given that it monitors a product consumed by Venezuelans everyday, provides a unique up-close look at inflation in the country. “

According to this index, the year between the 28th of February 2018 and the 27th of February 2019 saw an annual inflation rate of 399,900%. The figure for the last three months only was 999,900%.

This means that, if you wanted to treat yourself to a cup of café con leche on the 28th of November of 2018, it would have cost you 200 Bs (Bolivars, the national currency, or what’s left of it).

On the 16th of January 2019, you’d find the same cup of coffee at 800 Bs. Its price would be more than double by the end of that month, 1,700 Bs on the 30th of January.

Last week, if you felt like grabbing a café con leche in a bakery in eastern Caracas, you should have been prepared to spend 2,000 Bs. Basically, ten times the price it was three months ago.

Imagine that the friendly neighbourhood overpriced €3.50 flat-white you drink with your pancake this Pancake Tuesday were to cost you €35 before the June Bank Holiday.

cafe-con-leche-2

I left some coffee there for you 

Before the current regime completely destroyed the value of real work, Venezuelans took pride in waking up early and enduring long commutes to go to often mediocre paying jobs.

The less well-off would still make a buck out of the morning buzz by offering cheap, hot, filtered coffee near the bus stops. Even in the most modest of homes, you’d be shown hospitality in the shape of a simmering cup of guayoyo.

Colombian comedian Andrés López dedicated a brilliant moment of his memorable 2005 show Pelota de Letras to the way coffee becomes a way to show unspoken but deep love in Colombian, and I’ll dare add, Venezuelan culture.

While making fun of the stereotype of the “fun Gen-X dad” (you know, the one that had a lot of fun in the seventies, loves American rock music and is convinced he’s super cool), he says that his dad wasn’t like that. Instead of showering him in hugs and validation, his more old-school, stricter dad would show love only by telling him: “Ahí le dejé café” (I left some coffee there for you).

By the end of 2018, Colombia had taken over a million Venezuelan refugees. Many arriving by bus or even by foot, often to the bordering city of Cúcuta. The Vox Border Series dedicated an episode to this exodus.

“In an era of record setting migration, when borders seem  to be getting thicker, harder to cross, Colombia is doing something that you don’t see very often”, it explains, pointing out the extraordinary levels of good will shown by most Colombians to the newcomers in need.

The short documentary shows refugee camps where people receive help, medical support and even haircuts in Cúcuta. This is the city that recenty hosted Venezuela Aid Live, the Richard Branson sponsored concert organised with the goal to raise funds and humanitarian aid for the people of Venezuela.

Colombia and Venezuela share more than just a border. It is worth noting that both countries were once part of Gran Colombia, the 17th century estate that also emcompassed Ecuador, Panama and part of the north of Peru.

gran-colombia

The mountain range of Los Andes shapes both maps, and provides both countries with great terroirs for the coffee tree to thrive. It also makes for a very hard, long, cold walk.

Perhaps because most of the oil turned out to be on the Venezuelan side, Colombia’s coffee is famous worldwide and the Venezuelan bean is mostly a memory.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s, when the exodus was the other way around, Venezuelans saw Colombians enter their booming society en masse.

Nowadays, on the other side of the border there might not be a shower of hugs and validation awaiting, but it is moving to know that in the darkest hours of so many Venezuelans there is still someone willing to leave some coffee there for us.

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