After making it out of Honduras alive, our next Central American port of call was Costa Rica – a country also known as the Switzerland of Central America. Our pilgrimage was taking us to one of the most famous coffee growing districts on the planet, called Tarrazu. We landed in San Jose in the late afternoon, and were greeted by a plethora of taxi drivers. We quickly learned the rules, as apparently in Costa Rica, you can only catch a certain coloured taxi depending on where you are going. Little did we know that about two million people were also on a pilgrimage. However not to Tarrazu, but instead to the city of Cartago, the old capital of Costa Rica, for the Camino walk to the basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, in honour of Costa Rica’s patron Saint. People walk for as long as a week to get there, and when they reach the church, they crawl on their hands and knees to the altar.
Exploring the Coope Tarrazu coffee plant
In the morning we were greeted by Fabian Calderon, a member of Coope Tarrazu. On the drive to Tarrazu, we see many of the walkers heading to Cartago, and he tells us that tonight he will start his journey to arrive at the church the following morning. We start by having a meeting with some of the managers of the coop. They give us a brief overview of what they do. Coope Tarrazu is a non-profit organisation started in 1960, and now made up of about 4000 producers. From wet milling to dry milling, they account for 13% of Costa Rica’s total coffee production. They believe in solidarity and sustainability, and have branched out into other businesses, such as supermarkets, petrol stations and retail cafes, to generate profits for their members. In fact, 40% of their income is generated by non-coffee related business. They supply coffee to Asia and Europe, but their largest customer is the USA, especially Starbucks. They are well organised, and their coffee is totally traceable through a system of paper receipts, all documented on the web. Although most of the green coffee they bag is washed, they are very excited by the honey processed and naturals they are also doing.
They use Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, as well as their own certification system, when needed for certain customers. They also work closely with the University of Costa Rica and Icafe (The Costa Rican Coffee Institute), in order to learn more about coffee farming, how to increase production, how to improve cup quality and how to combat things such as roya. They do five years of new varietal testing in five different locations, in order for new plants to be introduced into farming districts. This is all done in collaboration with the National Ministry of Agriculture. Varietals being used and produced include obatan, timor, villa sarchi, sachimor, caturra, catuai, paraiso and catimor, at altitudes ranging from 1400 to 1600 metres.
We have lunch at the farm, and then visit the wet and dry mill, supposedly the largest in Costa Rica. A lot of maintenance is being carried out at the moment, because they don’t want any breakdowns during the peak of harvest in January. They only accept 2% green cherry on arrival at their wet mills. They would like to accept less than that, but they are still trying to educate pickers that green coffee cherries are a negative when trying to produce a high quality cup of coffee. They use a high pressure water sprayer to remove the mucilage from the coffee, and use the coffee pulp as a fertiliser. The coffee is then dried using a series of vertical and drum dryers, with mechanical drying taking about 27 hours. Patio drying of washed coffees can take eight to ten days, but this is usually reserved for microlots, because slow drying like this results in better cup quality. They also dry their naturals for about 22 days.
Tasting the coffee varietals of Costa Rica
After the tour, we do a cupping of some of their coffees, where we taste a variety of flavours, such as chocolate, tobacco, mixed berries, lemon, grass, citrus, woodiness, honey, blueberry, fruit and olive. We spend the night in Tarrazu, and in the morning – we head to Dota.
We are picked up Roberto Mata, the general manager of Coope Dota – the oldest coope in Costa Rica. He tells us that his surname translates to ‘kill’ in English. He also tells us that because everyone is walking to Cartago, everything in town is closed. A good start!
He invites us to his house for breakfast, prepared by his daughter who is studying hospitality. After breakfast, we go into his backyard… which turns out to be a coffee farm. Yes, his backyard is a coffee farm. Unreal! He also grows mulberries, avocados, citrus fruits and bananas. He explains that this season will not be as productive as the last, since there has not been enough rainfall. Some of the leaves on his coffee trees are yellow because of this. He says that usually, you will have two good years, and then one not so good. When roya broke out in 2011, he undertook spraying to keep production levels up. This is a measure implemented throughout the whole of Costa Rica. We visit a couple of farms and before we know it, it is lunchtime. We head to the town hall, where the local community is holding a fundraiser BBQ and bingo event for the nursing home.
Striving to be socially responsible in the coffee industry
87% of the land in the Dota Valley is protected against urban development. Coope Dota’s philosophy is to be socially responsible, to increase productivity and focus on quality, traceability and sustainability. Like Coope Tarrazu, they also own retail cafes, as well as hardware stores. They fund a nursing home and a two year barista school that finishes with a barista competition. They use as many rust tolerant varieties of coffee as they can, such as SL-28 and red catuai, all grown at altitudes ranging from 1500 – 1900 metres. When they focus on microlots, they make sure that no catimors or timors are included, and that only red cherries are picked. This ensures high cup quality. 60% of their coffee goes to the USA to roasters such as Peets, Allegra, Caribou and Intelligentsia. They have installed high pressure mucilage removers, but choose not to use them in order to save water and energy. They also remove floaters three times instead of the usual one time to increase cup quality. They dry as much of their coffee as slowly as possible using patios, solar dryers, African beds and mechanical driers. With the help of his son, who is an engineer, Roberto Mata even came up with the idea of putting African beds onto a ferris wheel to dry coffee in 20 days. He calls it African beds – the Costa Rican way. When we cup the coffees, we find that they are intense, sweet and well balanced, with very good acidity and with flavours including chocolate, currants, ‘tiny winey’ and fruit. On Roberto’s business card and throughout the Dota and Tarrazu, you see signs saying ‘El major café para el mundo’, which translates to ‘the best coffee in the world.’ With climate change, Roberto says new varieties of coffee need to be grown to keep this title.
Pruning to ensure maximum nutrient absorption
On our last full day in Costa Rica, we head to the East Valley to visit the Doka Estate, with Max from Volcafe. On the way, we visit the active crater of a volcano called Alajuela Poas. Max is a 7th generation coffee farmer, surfer and Kelly Slater lookalike. His grandmother is a dairy farmer. Doka Estate sits at an altitude of 1400m. Of course, all the best quality coffee goes for export, with coffee from Honduras used for local consumption. The best coffee is known as ‘Pick of the Harvest’, and they sell this to Nespresso. He tells us that 90% of Costa Rican coffee production is undertaken at small farms with an average size of 10-15 hectares. So, with all those producers and exporters able to separate coffee, it would be easy to secure microlots, no matter where you go. 80% of the coffee grown here is high quality caturra and catuai varietals. The harvest goes from November to February, and then the pruning starts. 5% of trees are taken out, 33% are pruned and the others are left. The older the tree, the tougher the roots become and the less they are able to absorb nutrients from the soil. He referred to one style of pruning as ‘rock and roll’, where only the tops and sides are done. Another style he called ‘skeleton’, where only the branches are pruned. Calcium is then added to the soil to control the pH. If it’s too alkaline, plants absorb less nutrients. During April and May, the trees bloom, and replanting and fertilisation takes place. Broca and roya must also be controlled at this point.
Traditional Costa Rican coffee brewing
After lunch, Tim orders a coffee at the restaurant we are eating at. It is served in a ‘Chorreador’ – the traditional Costa Rican way to make coffee. A cloth filter resembling a sock is filled with ground coffee and suspended over a cup using a wooden bracket. Boiling water is poured over the grounds and the coffee filters into the cup. In the afternoon, we visit a farm called Hacienda San Rafael, owned by Don Oscar. They have accommodation for visiting workers, run coffee tours for tourists, and make 30% of their money by selling roasted coffee. They were installing a second roaster on the day we were visiting. Don Oscar drove us around the farm and was very proud of his collection of gesha trees he had in one of his microlots. It was raining and muddy, and the 4WD was almost getting bogged, but I think Don Oscar was an ex-Costa Rican rally champion, because he really knew how to drive that thing at speed. We finished the day with a cupping at their office, where the gesha tasted balanced and complex. Something they called ‘rejection’ tasted really sweet and had good body. The following morning, we headed down for breakfast in the hotel. We ate, had some juice, and then discovered that the last coffee we had in Central America was absolutely undrinkable. We were a bit surprised, as it had all been amazing up until then.
Exploring Costa Rican coffee origins
In Costa Rica they have a saying. ‘Pura Vida’. It basically translates to ‘no worries’. Hopefully with this attitude, hard work and their faith in God, producers in Costa Rica will overcome whatever hurdles they encounter, and continue to make amazing coffee for the world to enjoy. I had a great time in Central America. Some of it is a blur because we were on the go all the time, however I consider myself very fortunate to have spent time there, and to have seen all the hard work that goes into the coffee plantations. I hope you all get the chance to go to origin one day, because it will really change the way you think about coffee. Hasta Luego!