Our trip to Costa Rica was fun and educational. We cupped a wonderful Guatemalan Antigua and heard many good things about a Colombian Supremo which we were able to confirm shortly after getting back. The main purpose of the trip, however, was to become more familiar with the farm and the people on the farm that produces our wonderful Costa Rican La Minita coffee and see the beneficio they finished purchasing while we were there.
The trip there was a little discouraging. We spent about as much time in airports as a group visiting from Taiwan spent in airplanes. When we got to Dallas (we had originally intended to go through Miami) we called to announce that we would be a little late in getting there. By the time we arrived it was late at night (10:00 PM local time) and our driver had never gone from the airport to the farm at night. As a result, we drove around San José (mostly around the same church) for a few hours, occasionally asking for directions, a task made more difficult by the fact that none of us really spoke Spanish.
Even in my airport-induced daze I managed to get some impression of San José. McDonalds delivers food on small motorcycles which are parked in the dining area after closing. Rain gutters on the sides of the roads are very deep and ought to be avoided if you don't want to replace an axle. Also, there seemed to be an Internet cafe on every corner. There was one to cater to just about every segment of the population and every one of them was closed for the night.
We did eventually make it to the resort we were staying at not far from the farm and the time we spent in Costa Rica was great.
On the first day there was a truck tour of the farm. We, along with groups from other coffee companies, piled into the back of pickup trucks to see the farm.
The coffee trees were everywhere and filled with green coffee cherries waiting for the rainy season to end before ripening into bright red cherries. Among the coffee trees are poro (Erythrina poeppigiana) trees which were severely pruned back during the rainy season when the continuous cloud cover provides enough shade for the coffee. These trees are carefully placed to consider the slope of the mountain and the orientation of the land to provide optimal shade for the coffee when the trees grow back in time for the end of the rainy season. This allows the coffee cherries to ripen more slowly and results in a more flavorful coffee.
Also planted among the coffee trees are citrus and mango trees for the pickers to eat at harvest time.
It is easy to tell that La Minita coffee is grown without the use of herbicides. Some farms across the river from La Minita use herbicides while others do not. Even from a distance, the ones that do stick out. These are the farms where well defined lines of coffee trees are surrounded by the brown of bare earth. Coffee trees grown without the use of herbicides are stronger than sprayed coffee and I'm told are preferred by the local birds.
Portions of the land owned by the farm are set aside and left untouched as a preserve. Occasional stripes of forest connect these areas and allow the animals living in these forests to move about from place to place. This is a little remarkable considering that the Tarrazú region of Costa Rica contains some of the most valuable coffee growing land in the world and, as a result, the coffee is everywhere.
One of the last stops on our first truck tour is a small community on the farm. La Minita provides free housing for any of the year round workers on the farm, their children, and their parents. Most of the workers choose to take advantage of this. As such, there are several small communities on the farm. This one has a few blocks of housing, a preventative care and dental clinic established in 1995, and a large space under a roof where discos are held. It is easy to tell which buildings are part of the farm. They are all painted blue with yellow trim.
Costa Rica has socialized health care to help when citizens become sick or injured, but preventative care is not as good. This clinic, staffed three days a week, fills that void for workers on the farm.
There are some people gardening around the homes and children can be seen playing with dogs. It is almost time for lunch. Refrigerators, televisions, and electric stoves are not uncommon and are powered principally by hydroelectric power. Some families still choose to cook on wood burning stoves, and they have access to a renewable source of coffee wood.
Part of the farm is set aside as a nursery for the coffee. Here, young trees are grown in a carefully controlled environment until the best trees can be moved to a more permanent location. Most of these trees are Caturra. Each tree is given its own bag to grow in and the nursery field is watered by a gravity feed system.
The bags these young trees are grown in are narrow and deep to accommodate the root system of the trees. Coffee trees have a tap root as deep as the tree is tall. I'm told this is why the coffee trees we grow in our shop always seem to grow to a certain height and then die. We make a note to get larger pots for our coffee trees.
Not far from the farm (it's a nice walk) is a town called Bustamente. This is a little town consisting mainly of a road, a few houses, a couple shops including one that sells tasty fresh lychee (a red spiky fruit eaten by biting through the skin so as to be able to peel it, sucking on the fleshy inner fruit which tastes similar to ripe green grapes, and spitting out the nut-like seed), a church, a school, and a lit soccer field.
Here we watched a soccer match between the La Minita senior team and a team from San José. During the half-time break, children were allowed on the field, many of whom could handle a soccer ball far more adeptly than I ever hope to. The La Minita team won (2-0).
I mentioned a beneficio. This is a mill that takes coffee cherries and transforms them into green coffee beans ready for roasting. The one being purchased while we were there uses water for that processing and could therefore be called a wet mill. See our photo albums for a thorough explaination of the wet milling process (with pictures!).
This beneficio is located where the Tarrazu and Candolaria Rivers meet below the farm. At this lower elevation a few coffee cherries had turned yellow or red (coffee is everywhere here). This coffee will not be harvested as it would lack the desired acidity.
The mill is very modern and meets or exceeds Costa Rica's strict environmental standards. The river water used in the processing leaves the mill cleaner than when it enters and the mill has recieved awards from government agencies in Costa Rica for environmental soundness and providing a good work environment. Only a few changes will be needed before the mill goes into full operation under the new ownership this harvest season. The drying patios will be expanded and a room where hand sorting (after mechanical color sorting) will be performed needs to be built.
There are three coffee roasters at the mill. One is a batch roaster larger than our in-store roaster. One is a little smaller. The other is a modern sample roaster. The mill manager staying on from the previous ownership is converting the room with the sample roaster into a cupping room and invited us to return in January when he'll have that completed.
After the title transfer and lunch at the mill a local Catholic priest performed a ceremony to bless the mill.
Neal went back in late January, 2002 during the harvest.
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