After a long time, I finally set foot in a coffee farm this year, on my first visit to Costa Rica. The coffee growing region is centred in the mountains in the heart of this small but varied country. On our arrival we spent the first few days over the New Year on the pacific coast. Facing out to the vast ocean on the endless and virtually deserted beach, I felt at the end of the world. No land of any size in that direction until reaching New Zealand. But turning away from the ocean rising into the clouds behind me were the mountains where the coffee is grown.
On a Sunday morning we picked up a rented vehicle and set off in the direction of the farm and cooperative from where we have been buying our Costa Rican coffee
for several years now. At first past lines of palm trees and some small villages just inland but quickly rising on steep unmade roads until, suddenly round a corner I realised that all around us were coffee trees. Nearly all of them shaded under taller trees and amongst other shrubs of a similar height and not at all in obviously neat rows, and often on impossibly steep slopes from which I puzzled as to how they could be harvesting the cherries. They came right up to the edge of the road, green and red cherries easily visible, tightly packed along the main horizontal stems, I could almost reach out of the window and pick one. To see such a multitude of healthy coffee trees in the breathtakingly beautiful mountains, filled me with joy.
Coffee has been and is such a huge part of my life, I love roasting and making and drinking it, and have done and enjoyed all of those things for many years, but actually being there, seeing the cherries ripening in such a landscape made me think instantly of how my grandfather must have felt when he first went to Tanzania in 1960. I was too young to remember him and only know him through my father’s stories and his writings, but I felt strangely close to him despite being in a country he had never visited.
I had arranged to meet Monserrat, the commercial director of CoopeDota in their café. Attached directly to the coffee mill in the centre of the small town of Santa Maria del Dota, the café proved to be a popular venue, serving a range of beautifully made food and very well-made coffees. Windows overlook the mill itself so you can watch part of the process. On arriving at the mill, the smell of roasting coffee was mixed with that of a sweet fermentation from the processing of the cherries. Monserrat introduced me to Luiz Gomez, the General Manager, and smiled as I told them of our journey, and the amazed looks from the coffee pickers as we drove past over the high mountain pass. “Oh yes, we know that road, we grew up here, that’s what we’re used to.”
CoopeDota was founded in 1960 and has grown to a membership of more than 900 farmers. They have two farms themselves, the mill, where all the incoming cherries are prepared for export, by drying and/or pulping, grading, and shipping, a roastery producing wholesale and retail coffees for the national market, a large shop selling a multitude of household goods and DIY equipment, and the café, all contributing to the economy. Indeed, the whole operation is formed to not only help the coffee farmers financially, it is to create a thriving local economy which encourages young people to stay in the area and not move away to the city. If coffee farming is to remain sustainable this is crucial, as many farms are family businesses. If all the younger generation can’t see a future on the farm, then the whole area will go into decline.
Monserrat explained that the climate has been altering a lot in recent years. Rain falls unexpectedly, or not at all, then a dry period can ensue followed by more rain. This affects the flowering and therefore the cherry production so farmers have to be extremely flexible and react quickly in changeable weather patterns. If too much rain knocks the flowers off the trees, it reduces the crop, sometimes substantially. The coffee is planted at different altitudes and on different sides of the valleys, therefore while some coffee is being harvested, other trees will not yet be ready.
We began by visiting the mill with Luiz who led us to the cherry reception area. Already several small trucks were queuing up, their beds overflowing with gleaming red cherries. Luiz seemed to know all the drivers, there were smiles all round, the harvest was in full swing. “It will be very busy later today” explained Luiz, as many farmers spend all day picking before delivering the cherries.
Each truck load is measured by volume which is how the farmers payment is calculated. All the cherries are washed and pulped though a line of machines just behind the reception area. Luiz reached into a waterfilled trough to pull out the pulped cherries, now without their red skin, showing a pale sticky green surface. From there they are sent to fermentation tanks before being dried. There are 2 drying stages for most of the coffee. A pre-dryer takes the moisture content down to around 14%. Then the coffee is rested for up to 3 weeks before being further dried in huge cylinders. This is one of the most crucial stages and where the physical tasting of the coffee starts. They will remove samples from each dryer and cup them for quality each day. Only when satisfied does that batch of dried coffee progress to the grading stage where the beans are sorted by size and colour.
Not all the coffee is pulped and washed though. At the back of the mill is a large concrete patio and a micro mill. Here they process the speciality varietals like Geisha, a low yield plant which fetches high prices, and also produce natural processed coffee. The cherries are not pulped but lay in the sun on the patio and are regularly raked to ensure even drying. Here next to green pulped beans where dark red and slowly turning black cherries. The honey process coffee which we buy was here also. This coffee is pulped but only partially. The sticky mucilage under the red skin is left on the beans and this is what imbues the coffee with its distinctive honey flavour. I had a go at raking the coffee with a wooden handled device. Less of a rake, more like a long-handled scraper. I found it hard to push the rake in such a way as to create a straight line, and after about two rows in the hot sun decided they could do without my help as I was making work for other people.
Luiz also explained that they produce almost no waste from their processing. All the water used in the washing process is recycled. The pulp is made into fertilizer which they distribute to the farmers, and they also use the parchment layer or pergamino, which lies underneath the mucilage as fuel for the pre-dryers. Indeed 80% of the power is generated from solar energy and they became the first cooperative to be declared carbon-neutral.
The next day we visited the farm. All of the coffee is shade-grown under large indigenous trees and there are several varieties of coffee trees. As well as the coffee itself next to the farm is a garden where the farmers grown their own vegetables and there are lots of flowers to encourage insects and birds. They have been Rainforest Alliance certified for some years. Here I had a go at picking the coffee. A large plastic basket was strapped round me and one of the most experienced pickers showed me how to carefully strip the stems without damaging the cherries or the tree. It is quite difficult to do this quickly, especially as you must not pick any green ones. I was lucky enough to be standing on a flat piece of earth. “How do they manage to do this up on those steep sided slopes?” I asked. “With practice and skill, they are amazing” she replied. No ropes, no protection and if you stumble with a full basket that’s a dollar’s worth of coffee you need to rescue. After 30 minutes my hands where a dark purplish black, but my basket looked pathetically empty. We all agreed that in future we would never leave a cup of coffee with even a drop left over. The amount of effort it takes just to pick cannot be underestimated.
Finally, we went to meet the Quality Control team. Here the team, led by Carlos Rodriguez Murillo, cup their way through every single batch of coffee that leaves the mill. That means cupping every single day, sometimes several times a day. They set up some samples of coffee for me to try, the first batch was coffee which had been harvested in the last few months, the freshest they had. The second batch was coffee which had been rested for 3 months. They wanted to see if I could tell which was which so I had to taste them blind. This was the first time I had cupped freshly harvested coffee. By the time we receive it, the coffee will be at least 4 or 5 months old and fully developed, so this was going to be interesting. It was not as difficult to tell as I had thought. The 3 month old coffee had started to develop body, and fruit whereas the fresh coffee was very acidic and rather one-dimensional. I realised that the skills needed to decide on when a coffee was ready to ship or ready to come out of the drying process were very special indeed. “How would you score this coffee?” asked Carlos. This rather put me on the spot because although we do score coffees for our own quality control, I hadn’t used a score sheet on this occasion. “85” was my answer, “and you?”. “84” answered Carlos, a man who obviously knows his own coffee like his own family.
Sadly, the visit had to come to an end, but I came away feeling very positive and happy in to know we were buying their coffee and playing a small but important part in their success, and reassured by their good practices and the thriving local economy. If you have not visited Costa Rica, I would urge you to do so. It is a wonderful country with friendly people, a spectacular landscape and unusually for that region relatively safe.
I am certainly going to visit again, and to other coffee regions as well. It is important to see where we buy the coffee from, and from whom we buy; and quite apart from that it reminds me of how precious coffee is and how we can all contribute to a sustainable future for the people at origin.