Bolivia's Challenge: Get World to Drink Coca-Infused Beer

It's part of an effort to destigmatize the plant
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 16, 2024 9:00 AM CDT
Bolivia Aims to Sell the World on Coca-Infused Beer
Dionicio Limachi spreads coca leaves after removing them from a coca-drying oven in Trinidad Pampa, a coca-producing area in Bolivia, Sunday, April 14, 2024. For many coca growers, chewing coca leaves is a daily habit likened to drinking coffee.   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)

If it were anywhere else in South America, the nondescript house with buckets of coca leaves soaking in liquid could be mistaken for a clandestine cocaine lab. But this is La Paz, Bolivia, and the fruity aroma of coca steeping in barrels signals that you've arrived at the government-authorized El Viejo Roble distillery, which for years has been making liquor from coca leaves and is now gearing up to launch a new coca-infused beer, the AP reports. It remains questionable whether Bolivia can persuade the world to accept the hardy green leaf best known beyond its borders as the main ingredient of cocaine. But a recent landmark decision by the World Health Organization to study coca's non-narcotic benefits has rekindled the old hopes of Bolivian farmers, makers, and sellers.

Within Bolivia, the world's third-biggest producer of the coca leaf, and of cocaine, the ancient leaf has inspired spiritual rituals among Indigenous communities for generations—and more recently, among the well-heeled, a deluge of coca-related products, including El Viejo Roble's new star $2 brew. "Beer can be bitter, but with the sweet touch that we give it with coca makes it is more palatable," a manager said from the distillery, where workers bottled the brew that will soon join El Viejo Roble's coca-flavored vodka and rum, old classics they sell to the government and visitors. The reach of the beverages, along with other coca-infused products, remains limited to artisanal fairs in Bolivia and Peru, countries where the leaf is legal—so as long as it is not used to make cocaine.

As for the rest of the world, a United Nations convention classifies coca leaf as a narcotic and imposes a blanket prohibition on drugs. Bolivia's government is reviving its decadeslong push not only to destigmatize the plant and make it legal to export but also to create a global market for coca liquor, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, baking flour and more. Its efforts received a major boost last fall when WHO announced it would launch a scientific review of the coca leaf, the first step in a lengthy process to decriminalize the leaf worldwide. The last time that WHO undertook a study of the coca leaf was in 1992, but detailed findings were never made public.

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Across Bolivia, the leaf sustains 70,000 cocaleros and generates some $279 million each year as the farmers sell the foliage in bulk to be chewed as a mild stimulant (a daily habit likened to drinking coffee), incorporated into religious ceremonies, or transformed into goods marketed as a modern-day miracle cure that relieves altitude sickness, boosts stamina, and dulls hunger. (Much more here.)

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