Over the past two weeks, we have toured several different coffee farms and have seen how it impacts the people of Costa Rica. Experiencing the culture here has also made me aware of why the Tico’s do the things that they do.
At the coffee farms we learned so much about how much it takes from planting a coffee seed to transferring the picked bean for the next step in the process. In Costa Rica, obtaining a seed to plant a coffee tree is no hassle. You just have to get a bean from an already existing tree and plant it, and we all know how many existing coffee plants there are. The growth of the tree is pretty self explanatory. However, most farms showed us how they planted two coffee plants within one plastic bag at the beginning in order to save space in the country via controlling the growth. This also made the plants easily transportable as well. Most coffee farms hire foreign workers to come pick their harvest. Since these employees are only seasonal and live far away, the coffee farms usually house them and make daycare available. Some farms work to provide transportation for the employees to get to the farm, and others do not.
When the coffee beans are picked, they are then sent to a mill in the baskets that they are picked in. When farms also have a mill, the beans are usually transported by a tractor or a small truck throughout the farm. If getting outside beans, they must be quickly shipped in order to preserve the freshness of the beans. When the farmers hand off their baskets to the transporter, they receive their pay based on the number of baskets they picked that day. However, Doka told us how inefficient and unsafe it was to carry money around in the vehicles. Therefore, most farms use a token system where the workers can trade their tokens for money. This makes it much easier for everyone in the set up. During the milling process as we saw with Doka, the beans are mostly transported by gravity to the several stages. Workers were used to help the process along, but for the most part the beans stayed within a relatively small area between all the steps at the mill.
Depending on the company, the green beans can come from either the same area, or can be shipped in. If the beans are shipped in, they must be transported in a way to stay fresh. This means that they are brought in a sealed, paper lined container. During transportation, each company decides when they want to have the title of the shipment transfer over to their name, so paperwork depends on each company. The beans are also stored in bags made of a material like burlap, so that way the beans can “breathe”. When the green beans are waiting at the roasting facility, they need to stay fresh for as long as they are needed to for each company. On our trip to Cafe Rey, we learned that the use of stacking on air pallets and opening and closing the door was a good way to control airflow and therefore control the humidity. The beans must be stay within an eight to twelve percent humidity level in order for the quality to be maintained. Controlling the humidity and temperature of the beans is a crucial step in preserving the freshness of the beans. When there is a large inventory of green beans, workers come in and test the freshness to ensure the quality of their production. During roasting, some companies such as Cafe Britt provided a roast-to-order concept, so they would have no inventory of roasted beans and immediately be able to ship everything out. Others would keep just a small inventory of roasted beans. During the roasting process, the beans were either kept whole, or they could also be grounded. The roasted whole beans stay fresher longer, but the ground coffee beans were more convenient for everyone. Most companies said they usually sold a lot more ground coffee than whole bean coffee.
When providing the coffee to retail stores, each company has to make logistical decisions, first based off of their target audience. Cafe Rey has a main focus of selling primarily to Costa Rica, whereas Cafe Britt and Starbucks have a global focus. Monteverde and Coopedota did a mixture of both and sold to local areas and companies outside the country as well. Since the majority of Cafe Britt’s customers are in America or Central America, they have a main warehouse in Miami. This provides quicker transportation to customers and helps to eliminate transportation emission. Cafe Rey sends salesmen with their deliveries to personal handle all of the paperwork that comes with a transaction. Other places such as Doka hands off the responsibility to an exportation company that depends on the amount and location of the shipment. During this process to get to the retail stores, the roasted beans must be packaged in a material such as aluminum to preserve the freshness. There must also be a one-way valve located on the packaging that allows the natural gases from the beans to escape without letting oxygen and other contaminants in.
Depending on the company, customers could either be direct, or not. In places such as Doka and Britt, we could directly buy from their roasting facility, that way us tourists as customers didn’t have to worry about other logistics. We could just directly buy the packaged coffee from the store. We could also directly get the coffee that was already made for us. Britt also does online orders where the made-to-roast beans were sent from the warehouse in Miami to their desired location. In order to do that, there must be shipping and handling fees to ensure the safety of their product. Some places though do rely on the travelling of customers to get their end product. Most companies split up their distribution and have some direct sales, but also have sales to intermediate buyers.
I’ve been drinking a daily cup of “baby coffee” in the US for about three years now, but it wasn’t until this trip that I’ve been able to get a larger appreciation for my drink. After seeing how much work and thought is put into every step of the long process, it makes me cherish each sip a bit more. Experiencing coffee in Costa Rica has also made me appreciate black coffee much more. Many people at the companies that sell locally discussed how they’re trying to get Ticos to drink black coffee so that way they can taste the quality of the coffee. In all of our visits, we were mostly served black coffee, which I never liked before, but it definitely gave me the ability to taste the differences in each type and have a greater appreciation for them. When there’s all that milk and sugar added, it’s much easier to mask a bad quality coffee. After being here, I can see how important these processes are and how this market is the livelihood for many people. Knowing how much work is put into each cup, I’m wanting to put less and less sugar in my coffee so I can really enjoy the effort. The first thing our host mom taught us was to make sure to do everything with love. I thoroughly believe that this is the case for all Costa Rican coffee companies, and that greatly contributes to the coffee experience that I have here, and for the rest of my life.