Colombian Coffee Man 'Juan Valdez' Set to Retire

Juan Valdez is retiring. Long live Juan Valdez! The ambassador to the world for Colombian coffee, Carlos Sanchez, is hanging up his trademark poncho after four decades of playing the role of "Juan Valdez."

Now the national federation of Colombian coffee producers, owners of the Juan Valdez trademark, is searching for a man to inherit that poncho.

Sanchez and his trusty mule Conchita have promoted Colombian coffee since 1969 with a leather bag, bushy mustache and straw hat typical of rural Colombia. That Juan Valdez trademark has become one of the world's most recognizable, and the fictional figure has become one of the most famous Colombians of all time.

For a country so closely allied in the global mind with drug traffickers and terrorists, Colombians have been grateful to Valdez for presenting another side to their country.

"I feel like a flag, I feel like I've represented the country," said Sanchez in a press conference, at times struggling to hold back tears as he talked of his joy at playing the role of a generation. "There is a big sense of gratitude from Colombians abroad for this."

Sanchez, 71, said his advancing years made it hard to keep up a strenuous schedule traveling all over Colombia and the world promoting coffee.

Coffee is the national product of this South American nation and it was crucial in the country's early economic development.

The bean is used to make alcoholic drinks, candy and soft drinks. It's rare the Colombian who doesn't start his day with a shot of "tinto," heavily sweetened black coffee.

In searching for a replacement, the federation sent teams across the streets, farms and — of course — cafes in the coffee region in the west of the country. With the help of U.S. consultants, they narrowed down 400 contenders to 10. It will announce the new Juan Valdez, the third incarnation, by the end of June.

"Of course he must have a mustache," joked Gabriel Silva, the general manager of the federation. Sanchez nodded in approval and stroked his own impressive mustache.

"This is not a beauty contest," said Silva.

This was quickly confirmed when images of the casting call showed dozens of mustached men, some with notable paunches, doing their impressions of Juan Valdez.

Asked what he wants to do now he's retired, Sanchez said "paint like a madman."

Even as coffee remains tightly bound up with Colombia's identity, the industry has taken a beating over the past decade as a global glut, partly due to the rise of new producers such as Vietnam, has pushed prices down.

With lower sales, the industry's prominence in the country has started to wane.

In 2005, exports of coffee were down $100 million on a decade earlier, at around $1.4 billion. But while coffee exports accounted for 15 percent of legal sales abroad in 1996, this had fallen to 7 percent last year.