Before I got to Costa Rica, I never drank coffee and it only represented something that was for a caffeine rush. Yet, two weeks later, I have visited 6 different coffee companies and seen how their production chains work and tasted many of their different blends of coffee. I have learned about the entire story behind the cup of coffee you would get from a coffee store or the bag of coffee you grab off the shelf at a supermarket. Personally, coffee has become more of a journey than just a product that you drink when you need caffeine. Coffee is a tale of the Ticos and their successes and failures and everything in between. The coffee plant is very picky about how it is grown and the companies who make the coffee are very picky about where it comes from and the people who consume the coffee are very picky about how it tastes. This blog post is the summation of everything that I have experienced and learned about coffee in the past two weeks.
Coffee farms are the true deciders of a coffee’s qualities and overall potential. They control what soil the coffee plant is raised in, the levels of shade it is subjected to, and how many pesticides and herbicides it receives. Once a coffee bean is picked, its characteristics are set in stone. Therefore, when marketing and selling coffee, the regions where the coffee came from are very important because they all have distinct tastes. Additionally, whether the farm is organic or fair trade certified is important to the type of coffee. The certifications allow the coffee to be marketed at a higher price than traditional coffee because they are good for the environment or the community. Touring all of the coffee plantations these past two weeks has fostered a large appreciation for the dedication and labor that goes into each coffee crop. At Life Monteverde, the farm is family owned and is committed to developing sustainable practices for the environment, economy, and community. Drinking their coffee became a way to support coffee owners that care more about preserving the world than growing the numbers in their bank accounts.
With respect to selling coffee mills are important because they can separate the great coffee cherries from the lesser coffee cherries ensuring the quality of the coffee that will be sold. Mills oversee the process of turning the ripe coffee cherries that are picked at the farm into the green coffee beans that are shipped to roasters by milling, fermenting, and drying the coffee. The mills are located nearby to the farms, but the green coffee beans can be shipped all over the world to roasters and companies that want to oversee the rest of the process. Milling will sort the coffee into the many different qualities and will allow for the specific characteristics from where the coffee was grown to be accentuated.
Coffee roasters are a vital part of the coffee production process. Here is the last part of the coffee making process that can manipulate the qualities of the beans. There is light, medium, dark, natural, honey, and many other types of roasted coffee. These are the titles that are displayed on the bag for most coffee when they are sold to retailers and other customers. Roasting is a process that requires precision to the nearest second in order to maintain constant quality and taste for each type of roast. Usually light roast coffee is 10-12 minutes and dark roast is 15-20 depending on the roaster and the type of beans they are roasting. In some places the different coffee roasts can vary by 30 seconds, so the roasters have to check the beans constantly during this step. Seeing how coffee is roasted gives you an appreciation for the level of precision that goes into every cup of coffee we drink and how much planning is required to create the flavors that we taste today.
The step in the supply chain that everyone who drinks coffee is familiar with are retail stores and the baristas who work in them. Retail stores are a downstream consumer of most coffee companies and provide the coffee either as a ground or roasted whole bean product or as a drink ready to consume. Advertising and marketing is what allows coffee companies to separate themselves and allow for the consumer to pick which type of coffee they like and stick with it. They can advertise the region where the coffee comes from, the type of roast, if it is fair trade or organic, or whether it is gourmet or traditional blend. These are ways that the companies can sell more coffee. After the tour at Café Britt, one of the best marketing companies in the industry, advertising became a much more complex business. I never realized that retail stores position their items in a certain way or that if the coffee’s packaging seem more authentic, tourists will be more likely to buy them. Baristas are the final step in creating the Frappuccino or iced coffee that is bought at a coffee shop. They have to balance temperature, type of roast, percentages of ingredients and can shape the taste of coffee dramatically. In the United States, it is common for coffee companies to over roast their coffee giving it a very acidic taste and is the reason many people find milk and sugar to be necessary when they drink their coffee. In Costa Rica, baristas and consumers are more aware of what well roasted coffee tastes like, with more of the bean’s flavor accented and therefore the majority of people here like to drink their coffee black.
The final step in the coffee supply chain is us, the consumers. We buy the roasted coffee at the retail stores or the coffee products at a coffee shop. We have our own taste preferences and styles of coffee that we swear by. We are the ones influenced by all of the work put into the coffee in the earlier stages of the supply chain, the soil the coffee is grown in, drying methods, choice of roast, and marketing strategies. Coffee is jokingly said to be the real thing that powers the world, and after I have seen all of the work put into it and how much people care about their coffee and the stories behind every step of the way, I think that it isn’t much of a joke anymore.
These past two weeks here in Costa Rica have gone by so fast. It seems like just yesterday I was getting off the bus in Heredia at night in the rain wondering what my homestay family would be like and if my Spanish would be up to the task. The Ticos dedication to sustainability has inspired me to be more careful of the product I buy and the processes that make them. I have experienced more than I ever imagined and learned so much about the coffee process and gained admiration for how important coffee is to people here in Costa Rica. Now, every time I see a cup of coffee I wonder what the story behind it is and how many people contributed to this one tiny cup of Joe. Costa Rican culture is fantastic to be immersed in and I will hold the memories from this trip close for the rest of my life. Plus3 has been everything I could have asked of it and more and am so thankful for the opportunity to participate in this program.