Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on the way to the top of their field.

Name Nelson Valverde

Original Hometown: La Paz, Bolivia

Job: International coffee judge, President and CEO of Invalsa Coffee, Roastmaster for Valverde Coffee Roasters. Valverde has served as an International Judge at Cup Of Excellence competitions in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Rwanda, and Burundi.

How did you get your start?

This is my third or fourth reincarnation as an entrepreneur. I had an internet company many years ago, in 1995. My brother and I saw that it would go in different ways than what we wanted, so we were seeing what we should do. We’re both originally from Bolivia but lived in the United States at the time. Somebody said, “Maybe you should do something with Bolivia” and “Why don’t you do something with coffee?” I didn’t know anything about coffee. Like I usually do with things I didn’t know about, I bought all the books about coffee; talked to anyone I could, and tried to figure it out for myself.

So once you read up on it, how did you go about establishing a business around it?

We went to Bolivia and bought a container, which is the minimum amount of coffee you can import — about 18 tons, or 320 bags of 60 kilos each. We started trying to sell it and we discovered that, actually, Bolivian coffee is very good. It happened to be out of coincidence, because it has ideal conditions but it suffers in quality because it’s not processed right. We thought the way we can make a difference is by trying to help the process, and that’s what we did.

We started selling it online, which was a new thing at the time. In 1995, very few things were sold online and most coffee was sold through phone calls and brokers. About a year ago we started roasting it. We grow our coffee. It’s story-coffee; not just stuff you buy from a broker. We sell stuff at farmers markets to try and promote it. Somebody said, “How do I know your coffee is any better than grocer next door?” I said, “The same reason you know the vegetables you buy at farmer’s markets that are better than the ones at Stop and Shop.”

Valverde coffee 

So since you started your coffee education when you started your business, how long did it take you to learn?

It’s a process that you never stop. I’m still learning now. After three to five months, I probably felt reasonably competent to the point where I could make decisions.

And how did you become involved in international coffee judging for the Cup of Excellence?

It’s a company that has competitions all throughout the world. We have 12 countries now in which you go and find the best. I call it the Oscars of coffee. In order to become a judge, you become certified. I was invited and I took classes to become a head judge and go to competitions.

So how does coffee judging work?

It’s a very long protocol. It was developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. First, you evaluate the coffee for the physical attributes — it has to have no defects. Commercial coffee, which is Folgers and things like that, is permitted to have 20-something defects.

Then roast it to a very light roast. You don’t want to do it dark, because dark roast tends to hide the attributes. Just like steak, if you make it very well done, you’ll probably taste protein but not much of the flavor of the meat. So you roast it very light — a cinnamon, light chocolate color. Then you do the aroma. There’s a long protocol, then you try to write down what sensory characteristics you find. Whether it’s chocolatey, creamy. Does it smells like chocolate, vanilla? Sometimes when you read a coffee description, they usually have these attributes.

Aroma is very important. It’s a three-process part. You do it when it’s dry, you add hot water to it to infuse it, then you smell it after it’s been wetted. That’s called the breaking. You take a soup spoon and break the surface. That breaks the crest that releases some other aromas, then you smell it. You let it settle so the mud goes to the bottom, then you take your spoon and slurp it.

There are four flavor components: sweet, salty, acidic, and sour. The Japanese discovered a fifth one, what they call umami, which is more mushrooms and meats. A totally different taste. So you try to describe those flavor attributes in the coffee.

Then you have a scale from one to 100 and you score the things, how clean is the cup — “clean” meaning how you taste a connection of things blended in there. Or is it transparent, which means it allows you to see the acidity; the aftertaste. Then you look at the body. Body is how heavy it is; the best comparison I can make is whole milk and skim milk. Whole milk has weight to it, you can sense it. Skim milk is essentially mostly water, so it doesn’t have as much weight in your mouth.

Aftertaste is you what happens after you swallow it. Usually you spit it, especially when you’re tasting 20 or 30 samples a day — you get wired up after drinking all that. Does the aftertaste extend, do you want to keep drinking or do you say enough?

Then you also sip it three times: when it’s hot, lukewarm, and cold. Some coffees retain their attributes when they cool off; some drop off. Some go the other way, they’re one-dimensional when they’re hot, then they cool off and they taste good.

Then you write that on a scale from 0 to 100 to come up with a final score. Any coffee over 80 is considered a specialty. Any coffee over 84 is very, very good, and very rare. Any coffee over 90 is extremely rare. In my whole life, only a couple cups were over 90. I don’t think I had a cup of 100. Not that I think only God gets 100, but I’ve yet to find one. I’ve met a couple cuppers who have had the 100 cup, but I’m still looking for it.

Valverde coffee at a local farmers market 

When you first started, did you ever think you would end up becoming an international coffee judge?

I used to be so bad in coffee. I used to reheat it, put a cup in the microwave of last night’s coffee, too lazy to make another cup. I mean if you can drink it, it won’t kill you. It’s still coffee, but it won’t have the wonderful attributes that fresh coffee has. I don’t think when you’re born you say, “I’m going to be a baseball superstar.” You go with life and see what happens. Then the coaches say, “You have a good hit, why don’t you try this.” And then you say “Oh, I’m good at this.”

What has been the biggest learning curve for you?

I think the biggest learning curve is how you grow the best. I like vegetables and organic gardening, so I’m attracted to plants and how to make them grow better. Coffee’s the same thing. Coffee is a plant that grows wild in Ethiopia, that’s where it originates. Then it moved around the world.

There’s a story about how it got there. It was forbidden by Popes at one point because it was the drink of Muslims and wine was the drink of Christians. To this day, Muslims are supposed to not drink alcohol. I think one Pope somewhere, tasted the stuff and said, “This is good, why shouldn’t we drink it?”

The original coffee plant grows very tall, which makes it difficult to harvest. So you want to get a plant that doesn’t grow too tall, kind of a dwarf, so you can harvest it easily. So I think the biggest learning curve was how to grow the best coffee. We developed relationships with different farmers. We import coffee from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica now. I recently just got one from Africa — Burundi. I just got it at a competition while I was there, so I met some farmers and bought their coffee. The production of good coffee — especially in Bolivia — it’s going down, so we decided maybe we should buy some land and build some farms.

I’m in the process of building a coffee farm in Bolivia in three different locations. It takes three years for a coffee plant to start bearing fruit — it’s not like lettuce, where you plant it and then a month later you’ve got lettuce. We started about a year ago so we’ve got two years to go. Hopefully, we’ll see how our coffee turns out three years from now.

Nelson Valverde at a farmers market 

What was the biggest learning curve to building your own business in an industry you didn’t initially know about?

Figure out what makes the industry tick. If it’s a big industry like coffee — which is the second-largest commodity after oil — you probably won’t be able to compete with the big guys. That’s when I discovered specialty coffee, what they call the second wave. Then I had try to figure out what makes it different. And try to identify your competitive advantage — what is it that you’re doing differently? Because at the end of the day, the basic question comes up: Why would somebody buy your stuff versus the guy next door?

Unless you can give them an answer, a product attribute of why you like this, then you just get lost in the crowd. You have to find out what makes you stand out. You can always take shortcuts, but at the end of the day, you don’t feel good doing that. You could go to farmers and say “Your prices are too high, I’m going to pay you half,” and then maybe you get a good deal. But I won’t sleep that night, so what’s the point of doing that?

When you have a cup of coffee in the morning, what is your personal go-to coffee?

I like Bolivian coffee. I think it’s rather unique. Its flavor is a natural sweet, not a sugar sweet. You drink it straight. It’s not very popular because there’s not very much of it. But we’ve been offering it and people say, “Wow, this stuff is really good.” Originally, I was a stickler for a single type of coffee. Recently we’ve been experimenting with blends and trying to mix some things. I have a special blend, a combination of Bolivian and South American, and we call it a Purple Llama. It’s a dark roast, and it’s a really big hit.

Valverde's Purple Llama blend 

There are some people that really like dark roast. I prefer medium roast coffees. I also like filtered coffee. My brother’s a big fan of french press; I’m not. It gets cold too quick. A lot of people say the only way to drink coffee is espresso. You need a nice machine, but those are too expensive to have at home. I have one, it cost $1,000, but not too many people buy a $1,000 piece of equipment for their kitchen. But for somebody who really likes espresso, find yourself a good barista then go buy it instead of trying to make it yourself.

I probably drink about six or seven cups of coffee a day. I went to an event yesterday at some big fancy hotel and had a breakfast meeting and the coffee was just awful, I couldn’t drink it. Would you put out a big effort, trying to do a nice breakfast, then you get a coffee that you can’t drink? What’s the point? It used to be that when I bought coffee I couldn’t tell the difference, but now I can. You don’t need to be an international judge; the average joe can tell what’s good coffee and what’s not.

We’re trying to get coffee to go to the wine business. People go to a bar and get a glass and pay $10, $12, $13 and don’t think twice about it. You ask for a cup of coffee and I ask them for $3 and they go “$3?!” It’s much harder to make coffee than to make wine, so why are you complaining? If you take good coffee, it tastes like good wine. Do you want to drink $2 wine? No, you’d spit it.

If you’re traveling and finding yourself wanting coffee, but the only place to get it would be some chain in an airport, would you get it or skip it?

Some places you can take it, but if it’s really bad I’ll skip it. But if you drink coffee a lot and you don’t have it for a while, you get a headache. So I’ve been known to cover my face and just swallow something that had caffeine. Usually what I do when I’m traveling, I take my coffee. It’s a little coffee maker that fits in your handbag. When I travel overseas, it’s interesting, because most countries export the good stuff out. So whenever you ask for a cup of coffee in places that have good coffee, let’s say Costa Rica or Bolivia or Brazil, coffee’s not so good! But there are more and more places. When you travel you scope the place out and you discover who has good coffee and who doesn’t. Another thing about coffee is that freshness is very important. You could have really good coffee that’s stale, and it won’t taste good. Versus a mediocre coffee that’s fresh, it’s going to taste good. So even if you don’t get good coffee but it’s fresh, it’s going to taste better than a good coffee that’s six months old.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into this industry?

If you start a coffee shop, it’s a lot of work. You need the passion and you need the energy. It’s very tough, but that’s how you get to know your customers. There was a coffee shop owner last week that came to our location. He has his own style, he comes and buys the coffee, he has his own unique way to do it and he says he’s successful, so that’s perhaps the way to do it. There are always little coffee shops that open up and ones that close and ones that stay. The ones that stay have good stuff: consistent service, consistent quality.

If you want to get into the coffee sourcing industry you have to get on a plane and start looking. This is not the kind of thing for somebody that wants to sit at a desk and dream about things. You have to go wander around and find it.