Brother Juan gives me a tour of the coffee farm while he texts his milk guy. He's ordering 20 liters of black market dairy because even in the isolated, Roman Catholic Trappist monastery in the mountains above Mérida, Venezuela, the ten monks who live here function the same way most Venezuelans do. When a shortage hits and they want something with the least possible hassle, they have to know the right people.
Until recently, when it came to coffee, Juan and the monks were the right people. I found their coffee at a market in Mérida during a period when there was a shortage of anything but the instant variety. I paid 135 Bolívares Fuertes (BsF)—about US $21.25—for 1/4 kilo, while 1 kilo of government-subsidized coffee costs 7 BsF (about $1.10), when there is any. As residents of a country that once exported coffee like Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tanzania do, the monks at Monasterio Trapense try to carry on buying, growing, roasting, packaging and selling high-quality Venezuelan beans while domestic production plummets.
When former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez enforced price controls on basic goods like coffee, he nationalized the biggest roasteries, thereby creating several brands with preferential access to beans at prices the government deemed fair. Many farmers sold at a loss to the government and, as a result, slashed production or bowed out. Small-scale producers, like the monks, are protected from nationalization because they are considered artisanal producers, but they often have to compete with the government's absurdly low perception of what it costs to grow coffee.
"The government says all green coffee should cost 150 Bolivares per kilo," Juan says, "but we buy it from our neighbors at 170. But that doesn't matter—we're not allowed to charge the consumer 20 Bolivares more per kilo because of that." The high price of their coffee comes from labor costs incurred with harvesting and roasting (they hire locals to help them), packaging that comes from Colombia, and distribution. The monks themselves grow 10 percent of the green coffee they sell and buy the other 90 percent from neighboring farmers to be roasted and packaged as Café del Monasterio.
Like Trappists at Trappist monasteries all over the world, the monks are committed to four to eight hours of work each day on something industrious that can finance them. The popular Belgian beer Chimay is brewed by Trappist monks in the south of Belgium; Munster cheese was created in the Trappist Monasteries of Munster, France; and a few hours drive from Mérida, near the city of Barquisimeto, a community of Trappistine nuns churns out dry pasta.
But at Monasterio Trapense, it becomes more difficult to produce every month.
"We've been out of beans for the last six weeks," Juan tells me. "Prior to that, we were working at only 20 percent of our capacity. We can't find enough beans to buy from other farmers."
To make matters worse, coffee farms in this region of the Andes were hit by the coffee berry borer, a bug that is killing their plants and is difficult to stop or prevent without pesticides that aren't available in Venezuela.
This past year, Monasterio Trapense was hit by the bug and they went to their guy at AgroPatria, the state-run agrochemical company, to ask for help. After several weeks, they got the chemicals they needed, but upon application, Juan says, "We realized it was like water."
Henry Araque, a local farmer who works with the monks, says, "Every few years when you grow coffee, you're supposed to have a bump year. This was supposed to be our bump year, but we're running negative."
Coffee has been the bread and butter of the monastery for 18 years. Worried about the deteriorating situation, the monks turned to several agencies within the Venezuelan government to ask for help finding beans.
"We went to the office of the Ministry of Agriculture in Mérida and told them our situation. They gave us the phone number of a depository that might have some green beans in Trujillo" Juan says.
"We went to the factory and it was just a bunch of people bagging up B-grade beans from Nicaragua. We can't sell that as gourmet coffee."
Juan says that when they relayed this to the Ministry of Agriculture, they were told to then seek out beans on the black market. It's one thing to buy milk under the table, but buying and selling illegal beans would be a great risk.
"And we said to them, 'You realize that what you're telling us to do could get us arrested?'" Juan says.
Dealing a further blow to the country's small-scale producers, current president Nicholas Maduro banned all exports of Venezuelan coffee in August of last year, pigeonholing everyone into competing with the state under the thumb of the state, or selling illegally in Colombia to be rebranded as Colombian coffee.
Up until the ban on coffee exports, Monasterio Trapense used to ship 150 kilos of coffee per week to be sold in the US—and even got away with it for a while after the ban, but it was short-lived. After the ship carrying what would be their last shipment left port, they were contacted by the head of the National Guard and told that that was it. No more of their coffee would be leaving Venezuela.
"We can't export coffee. There is no exportation from Venezuela anymore," Juan says.
For what will likely be the first time ever, Venezuela is expected to import more coffee this year than it will be able to produce. Most of the foreign beans are coming in from Nicaragua in exchange for cheap oil via Venezuela's Petrocaribe program.
Juan says that when other small-scale producers can't get their hands on the beans they need, some will resort to using bizarre fillers.
"There are coffee producers around us diluting their roasted, ground coffee with corn because we charge by the weight," he says. In their refusal to stoop to such measures, the monks are further trying to petition the government to help them with access to quality, Venezuelan beans.
When I went back to the market in Mérida a week later, I found one vendor with a single, 1/4 kilo bag of Café del Monestario. When I asked the woman how much it would cost, she told me she couldn't sell it. Her coffee guys had been without for a while, and she couldn't be certain when they'd call up with more.