Prior to the Covid 19 restrictions, Frank went on a coffee origin trip to Costa Rica which we are delighted to share with you. Whilst Costa Rica is not the biggest producer of coffee, it is a world leader for the quality of its coffee, its professionalism, organisation, innovation and its scientific research. These characteristics were evident throughout the trip.
A visit to Icafe, the semi-governmental organisation responsible for regulating the Costa Rica coffee industry, was an ideal start for our trip. It gave us holistic view of the coffee industry in Costa Rica, giving an insight into the controls in place for coffee production to correct treatment of local farmers. We got a chance to see some of the projects that ICafe are currently undertaking. We were shown a shading experimentation using netting to give 30%, 50% and 70% of shading to coffee plants during the growing process. Early results show that 30% of shade gives better yield, but the high amount of sun stresses the trees, whereas 70% shade leads to lower fungal infection but also lower yield. They are also experimenting with hybrids of Arabica and Liberica for better yield and disease resistance.
A short trip to the Central Valley brought us to our next destination, La Hilda coffee farm. Here Mr. Vargas described to us in detail the facilities which they provide for their pickers, including accommodation, education, healthcare, kitchens and a church. Most of their pickers come from Nicaragua and Panama, and are covered in full by Costa Rica’s social welfare programme as soon as they enter the country. It was refreshing to hear Mr Vargas family commitment to good treatment of coffee pickers as these people are the most vulnerable to exploitation. Mariano’s definition of sustainability is to ensure that as many pickers as possible come back to La Hilda next year.
This was the standout day of the whole trip. After the short journey was made from San Jose, we visited Vista al Valle, run by Fidel Oldemar and his family. This was a small farm that produces wonderful coffee, honeys & naturals and a range of varieties from Catimor, Catuai, Bourbon and Geisha. They have won the Cup of Excellence several times and export throughout the world. They have drying beds, processing and drying. Difference in red honey and yellow honey process. We then took a trip to the side of the mountain to meet the pickers and help pick some Geisha. This really gave an insight as to what it takes to get. I feel we often take for granted the hard work that goes into providing our flat whites etc that we get in the cafes around Ireland.
While maintaining the small family feel, we next visited the impressive Vulcan Azul. Located at 1,700 metres in the West Valley, owned and managed by the Castro Jimenez family. They grow forty different varieties. Here we walked through the whole process live and we stayed here for a number of hours cupping some of their interesting varieties as well as yellow and red honeys and naturals.
Our next stop was to the Dota Coope in the Terrazu region, the largest coffee producing region in Costa Rica. Our trip to date had focused on small producing coffee farmers, this was the total opposite end of the scale and just as interesting! Juan was our tour guide for the Coope for the morning, where he informed us that 900 producers bring in coffee cherries for processing.
There is a micro mill for only natural processed coffee and the larger mills are used for the washed process
A current theme of questioning on the trip was how a price was set for coffee cherries vs green beans and how were each of the farmers paid for these. Fill a wooden box (cajuela -unit of measurement in Costa Rica for red cherries harvested) We were educated on Costa Rican weighing process from coffee cherry that the coffee farmer produces to the green bean that is exported throughout the world. 20 cajuelas is 1 fanaga and 1 fanaga equates to 46kg of coffee.
After this our visit to Dota we visited the Chumega family farm. Here we given an in-depth education on their anaerobic process and the African beds that they use to dry their coffee. They grow mainly red and yellow Catuai and Caturra. Finca Chumeca father Martin and son George Urena have developed their own process, called 777, involving a combination of anaerobic and aerobic fermentation. They farm only 12 hectares, and their motto is that growing coffee is 50% love and 50% passion!
A different experimentation is happening at Facenda Tobosi in Tarrazu. This farm is only 8 years old but producing some fantastic coffees – They were Cup of Excellence winners in 2017 & 2019 – and they are now looking for the coffee which will become ‘the next Geisha’. First farmer in Costa Rica with this type of coffee. Their experimental process is to ferment anaerobically, then dry naturally followed by five hours washing in a tank. It is so new that they don’t even have a name for it yet!
We were very impressed with our visit to Los Tesoros Dry Mill in Cartago, managed by Gabriela Moranda, daughter of the founder. There was no plantation here, just milling and drying service, prepare, sort (defects etc). They handle 70% of Costa Rica’s production, preparing the coffee for export by cleaning, hulling, sorting and bagging, and also act as the warehouse for over 120 Cup of Excellence lots. They have a separate system for micro lots, which was another theme throughout our week as Costa Rica has 174 micro mills, a really important part of the coffee sector, ensuring that quality is maintained and improved.
To conclude our trip, we visited SACR for a presentation and a cupping session. We heard presentations from Noelia Villalobos, the Executive Director there, and Max Gurdian of Volcafe, before cupping 40 coffees, some of whose producers had come down to join us. We had some of the coffee farmers that we met during the week join us and present their coffee to us. There was a great mix and generated a lot of debate and positive feedback. All 40 were an example of Cost Rican coffee at its best.