In 1958, when Jose Duval walked into the Manhattan advertising agency of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), auditioning was old hat for the actor. Duval had come to New York from Havana 20 years earlier to pursue a career in opera, which evolved into a career in musical theatre and film. He’d played lead roles in many musicals, including Kismet, South Pacific, and the King in several productions of The King and I.  Auditioning for a Television commercial couldn’t have been too tough.

He won the part, only it wasn’t a part it was a role, the persona of a Colombian coffee farmer. Over the next 10 years, Duval would help create one of the most enduring advertising characters in history, Juan Valdez.

Jose Duval as Juan Valdez

During his 10 years as Juan Valdez, Duval brought his musical experience to the role. In 1961 he released an album: “Songs of Juan Valdez” (Yes, really). Just five months after Juan Valdez was introduced to the American public, the number of coffee drinkers identifying Colombian coffee as excellent increased by 300%, and 60% of those surveyed said they were willing to pay more for Colombian coffee. Even DDB was surprised, having expected the campaign to take two years to show an impact. In 1964, General Foods switched what was once John Arbuckle’s personal holiday blend, Yuban, to 100% Colombian to take advantage of the successful Juan Valdez campaign.

Duval’s successor, Carlos Sanchez, didn’t bring his voice to the job (someone else provided the voice in commercials) but he did bring longevity, and he was actually Colombian. Sanchez was Juan Valdez for 36 years, followed by Carlos Castaneda, who has played Valdez since 2006.

Next year will mark 60 years since DDB imagined Juan Valdez for their client, the Colombian Coffee Federation, though he wasn’t officially unveiled until 1960. He is an icon, a fixture. He long ago outlived Mrs. Wilson, Cora the Storekeeper, Maxine, and other fictional coffee spokespeople. He’s even outlived most non-fictional coffee spokespeople (look out George Clooney).

Some people in the specialty coffee industry might look at the Juan Valdez concept with a measure of amusement and consider him old school, part of a previous generation and the realm of commercial coffee. And Juan certainly embodied some visual and “picturesque” stereotyping adopted by Americans for Latin America. But the truth is, if you work in specialty coffee, he is your “Uncle Juan” whether you like it or not, and the Juan Valdez campaign paved the way for things you might take for granted today.

For the first 20 years, the Juan Valdez campaign was information and education aimed directly at coffee consumers. The very first Juan Valdez television commercial in 1960 told consumers—virtually all of them hearing it for the first time—that coffee was better when grown above 5,000 feet, under shade, and picked only when ripe.  These simple agronomic truths are common knowledge today, but in 1960, the fact that coffee grew on trees was news to most people.

The original Juan Valdez coffee advertising also introduced consumers to the idea of coffee coming from a specific country. In 1960, the American coffee industry stood upon a precipice and was about to plunge into a mad drop in per-capita consumption from which it still has not fully recovered. Competition among the largest coffee roasters in the country had been reduced to skirmishes in a price war and eventually, the only way to win those battles was to reduce quality to reduce costs. While there is some chicken and egg debate about which came first, the overall drop in quality or the overall drop in consumption, it seems clear that once consumption began to fall the fall was fed by a steady decrease in quality. By the early 1970’s, consumption of regular coffee and consumption of instant coffee were almost neck and neck. Why? Because consumers could not tell the difference in taste. Both needed a lot of milk and sugar.

This was the coffee world that Juan Valdez entered, and perhaps why his mule, Conchita, was so reluctant to follow him. In much the same way that this world of bad coffee set the stage for bean retailers like Peets, Starbucks, and Diedrich, it was an environment where a single origin arabica grown under good conditions and run through modern mills could stand apart from blended commodity coffee. Much of the coffee available in supermarkets at the time was a mix of low altitude Brazilian Arabica and African Robusta with some Central American coffee mixed in to make it semi-palatable. When coffee drinkers of the time said 100% Colombian coffee was the best coffee they had ever tasted, they weren’t exaggerating.

When the first 100% Colombian coffee commercial featuring Juan Valdez aired in 1960, commercial coffee production in Colombia was just 100 years old. Although coffee had been grown in Colombia since the 18th Century, and occasionally exported, serious efforts to grown coffee for export did not begin until the 1870’s. In the 30 year period between 1860 and 1890, exports grew from 12,000 bags to 200,000. Despite a depression in world coffee prices, that number would double by 1910.

So much land in Colombia on which coffee can be grown is at high altitudes that coffee quickly overtook cocoa and tobacco and became the country’s most important cash crop. But few things contributed to the growth of the Colombian coffee industry as did farmers coming together in 1927 to form a federation and then opening an office in New York. This uniting of producers along with a presence in the heart of the American coffee trade not only helped grow exports, but led to very focused effort to build infrastructure. When the concept of Juan Valdez was first introduced inside Colombia, it met with criticism, not only because the image (particularly the sandals) was so outdated, but because they were proud of their modern coffee mills and their roads, which everywhere except on the steepest ground, had long replaced the mule.

For decades Colombia was the second largest producer of coffee the world. Although that spot was taken by Vietnam some time ago, Colombia remains unsurpassed for the sheer volume and variety of high quality coffee it grows almost continually throughout the year. This availability, quality, and consistency is why Colombia can be found in the product mix of almost every coffee roasters and why Olam offers coffee from regions throughout the country year-round.

Long before the specialty coffee industry began chanting its mantra that coffee was not a commodity, but a highly differentiated product that required attention to details like altitude, selective picking, meticulous sorting and milling, Colombia was doing missionary work among coffee drinkers in the form of Juan Valdez.