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Juan Valdez pours fresh cup to get cafe cachet

November 22, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

Later spots featured Juan Valdez and his mule, Conchita, turning up in grocery aisles, commuter trains and kitchen cupboards, hawking "100% Colombian coffee," a label adopted by brands such as Folgers and Yuban. Airplanes and locomotives were shown reversing course after forgetting their hauls of Colombian coffee.

Subsequent ads, catering to a younger crowd, featured Juan Valdez surfing, snowboarding and hang-gliding. The slogan: "Take life by the beans."

But plummeting coffee prices in the late 1990s sent the industry reeling, and Colombian growers have been seeking new strategies ever since.

One market they're targeting now is their own compatriots.

Unlike Brazilians, Colombians are not especially large consumers of their best-known beverage. The highest-quality coffee was historically exported. The traditional Colombian cup of coffee, known as tinto (which also refers to red wine), was often bitter, watered down and lacking the full-bodied, mellow taste associated with cafe de Colombia. Cafes tend to be dank mom-and-pop affairs, reeking of fried food. The domestic coffee market remains largely untapped.

"We have to teach people to ask for cafe, not tinto!" said Jaime Raul Duque, who heads a coffee-tasting lab. "Tinto is wine!"

Judging by the crowds lining up at Juan Valdez emporiums in cities like Bogota and Cartagena, the locals are starting to get it. The Juan Valdez decor is more utilitarian than at Starbucks, but the variety of Colombian bulk coffee on sale is substantial, including labels by region and topography (mountaintop, hillside, volcano).

On the menu: varieties of cappuccino, cafe con leche and a frozen concoction, all acquired tastes here. You can still get a cup of java for the equivalent of about a buck.

"I come to Juan Valdez every day," said Melisa Luisa Andrade, who was having a coffee with a fellow tourism worker in an upscale northern district of Bogota. "I wouldn't miss it."

That's good news for David Altschul, whose Portland, Ore., firm, Character, helped reshape Juan Valdez. He is played by Carlos Castaneda, 41, a coffee farmer and father of three from the appropriately named town of Andes, in the Antioquia region.

Castaneda was chosen after a two-year search that involved branding consultants, casting agents, psychologists, physical trainers, coffee executives and agronomists, among others. Screeners filtered more than 400 mustachioed hopefuls.

Some compared the procedure to a papal succession -- but there have been more popes in the last half-century than Juan Valdezes. Castaneda received the poncho and mule in a formal hand-over ceremony staged to melancholy music and memorialized on YouTube. Castaneda, who had never flown in an airplane before winning his post, seems to have quickly warmed to being a traveling trademark and celebrity. Altschul ran into him recently at a coffee confab in Arizona.

"He had just gotten back from Tokyo, and as soon as he was finished in Phoenix, he was heading off to Moscow," Altschul said. "But he was as solid and well-grounded and charming as when I first saw him in Colombia. He hasn't let this global icon status go to his head at all."

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