I have spent two weeks traveling across Costa Rica, visiting multiple different coffee plantations: Doka Estate, Café Britt, Life Monteverde, Café Rey, and Coopedota. Each is different and approaches the coffee making process in their own way. The industry, culture, and environment of coffee is so complex. Being here has given so much depth to the cup of coffee I drink every morning. You don’t just grow, pick, and sell coffee. There are many more important in making, and each step evolves and brings out qualities of the beans.
Seeing the growing process on the coffee farms was an enlightening experience. Before Costa Rica, I had never seen an actual coffee plant. It took me a little while to realize that the fields of shiny green bushes growing everywhere, even on steep hills, were coffee plants. I learned many things about growing the coffee. It’s a year-round process. The farmers need to regulate the pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides. The flowers bloom at the beginning of the wet season and the beans take 9 months to ripen. When the beans eventually ripen, they have to be hand-picked. We actually met some farmers in Monteverde and it was really humbling to see how much they enjoyed their trade. The flavor and taste of coffee is dependent on the region it is grown in—influenced by things like altitude, rainfall, sunlight, soil-type, and microbiome. Coffee can co-exist with other fruits, vegetables and rainforest. It actually grows better in the shade and near native species. Costa Rica only grows the higher quality, more expensive variety of Arabica beans by law. There are many different types of Arabica—Obaté, Venecia, Geisha, and Catuí are a few. Before Costa Rica, I had no idea how much went into the growing process and how influential the growing process was to the flavor of coffee.
The milling process also surprised me. Before coffee is dried, so much must be done. The freshly picked cherries are placed in a large tank filled with water. High quality cherries sink to the bottom and low quality rise to the top. Then the cherries are siphoned with water through a series of machines that separates the different degrees of quality and peels the cherries. After the outer layers are peeled from the beans, the beans go into a fermenting tank to remove the pulp. Then, the beans are dried, either with a drying oven, or on large concrete decks in the sun. Every step in the milling process helps bring out the best quality of the coffee. Before I went to Costa Rica, I had no idea how much preparation was needed before the beans could even be roasted.
Coffee roasting is the final step in bringing out the flavors of the coffee. I had a sort of idea of how roasting worked, but seeing the roasting happen really enhanced my perception. At Café Rey we got to see a master roaster at work. The master roaster must check the machine constantly while it is roasting the beans to make sure they are perfect. Different roasts include light, medium, and dark. Each has about a minute of different. Apparently, the light roast gives a much more natural flavor of coffee but I absolutely love dark roasts. Other roasts include natural and honey and sugar-coated. After roasting, some companies like Brit have special testing labs where they create special blends. Coffee has over 800 aromas (wine only has 600) so this is a very difficult job! I had no idea what went into the making process.
The retail stores and baristas make the final product to sell to the customers. They have to brew the coffee. Coffee can be black, with milk, iced. It can be made into expressos, americanos, cappuccinos, frappuccinos, and lattes. I love ordering fancy lattes with lots of whipped cream. I had no idea how difficult they were to make. When we went to barista school, I was blown away. It’s quite difficult to pour the milk in the perfect way to make the cream create a perfect dot or make perfect layers. I’ve also realized that retailers need to do more than just make coffee. They have to create the perfect marketing strategy—some of the places we went decorated their shops to look like the rainforest. Ambiance is so important when convincing people to buy things. You can’t just make coffee. You have to make the environment for coffee as well.
Finally, the coffee gets to the customer. They might make their coffee at home in a pot. But if they are just buying a cup, their step in the making process is harder to conceptualize. They are not making anything themselves—besides an Instagram post—but those are actually very important to marketing. The customer is, instead, making the entire process work, whether they are a Tico, or an American, or anyone else who buys coffee. The customer is the reason the wheels turn. And, a knowledgeable customer can make the wheels turn so much better. There is so much to realize about coffee. Now that I have learned about the complexities of the making process, I’m going to pay so much more attention to where the coffee I buy comes from. And not just coffee but all products! Everything has a story. Being aware of that will make for a deeper connection with culture, environment, industry, and the world.