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Quinoa: Bolivia's nutty-tasting export success

It's a good time to be a quinoa farmer in Bolivia.

But being a small-scale producer is a constant struggle. On top of brewing all the beer himself, Quispe must design and produce bottles, create labels, get the proper licenses and find out how to transport his beer around the country.

And he faces another problem. Many Bolivians are dedicated to a few established brands of beer, which they drink liberally, and not keen to take this different-looking, different-tasting beer to heart. “It’s very different to see sediment in beer in Bolivia,” he said. "You have to explain what it is to people one at a time.” Most of Quispe’s sales are to foreigners, who can’t tote home suitcases stuffed with glass bottles.

Quispe hopes to debut two new quinoa beers this year. If he can find out how to economically move the bottles into the hands of thirsty tourists, a dizzying red and heavily toasted black beer are the next step. For now he says that exporting beyond Bolivia is way beyond his production potential and transport budget, but it’s a nice dream.

Quinoa’s new international popularity isn’t all positive. Many lower-income Bolivians can no longer afford to buy it, and settle for cheaper rice and potatoes instead. In addition, some environmentalists and exporters worry that the dramatically increased production that followed increased prices will harm the fragile plains environment.

Several quinoa export organizations have sustainability projects underway, but it may take time for the benefits of carefully protecting the delicate plains soil to take precedence over good money earned by a larger quinoa crop. “The producer isn’t doing it because he wants to harm the land, but nothing else grows there and quinoa is their only source of income,” said Choque Llanos of increased planting. “It’s going to take time to see the results, but people are starting to understand.”