Coffee plays a large role in the life of a Tico. Over the past two weeks we have had the chance to study the coffee supply chain and daily life in Costa Rica. It’s a staple part of their diet, but they do not drink what we consider “Costa Rican coffee.” Much of the best coffee is exported out of Costa Rica, but none the less the coffee left here is just as good. Even better, is the passion that goes into every bean from start to finish.
Coffee farms require the most work out of any step in the coffee making process. The farmers must care for a plant from the time it is in a nursery all the way through till adult hood. In Costa Rica, they only grow Arabica coffee beans, not Robusta, because it has better qualities and is more expensive. Flowers bloom at the beginning of the wet season and take 9 months to produce a fruit. Coffee plants grow best in pairs and produce good fruit for 25 years. Farmers must consider many aspects as they grow their coffee such as soil acidity, temperature, rainfall, the use of pesticides, and biodiversity. When the fruit is a bright red color, the pickers know it is time to pick it. In these two weeks, we have seen everything from a large-scale plantation like Doka to a family owned plantation like Life Monteverde. Doka made lots of efforts to be environmentally friendly but they were very honest about how hard it was to be truly organic and sustainable and admitted that they were not, which I appreciated. Life Monteverde is a smaller plantation with a greater ability to control their waste and they took that responsibility to heart which I really appreciated.
Once the coffee fruits have been harvested they go to the mill. We saw two primary types of milling: wet and dry. Most mills used the wet method but Life Monteverde used the dry process for their natural and honey blends. In a wet mill, coffee fruits are poured into a large tank of water. The good fruits are dense and sink to the bottom while the unripe fruits rise and are removed. The good fruits are then siphoned through the rest of the process in pipes. The second level of quality control at the mill is to separate them by size. The fruits go through levels of a machine that decreases in size. The fruits are spun through a machine to peel them and then are fermented with just their parchment layer left. After going through a wet mill the coffee must be dried on a large patio deck. Workers must spread the coffee layers with a rake for every load. An alternative is to machine dry the beans but this results in a lesser quality bean so many millers still use the natural sun method to dry their higher quality coffees.
After the beans are dried to a humidity of only 8-10% they get roasted. Roasting is a very crucial step in the process because the difference between roasts can be within seconds in smaller scale roasters. We visited Café Britt, Café Rey, and Coopedota who specifically focused on roasting. They bought their beans from other plantations and only did the roasting and packaging at their factories. The parchment layer must be removed by a machine before the beans get roasted. The roasting times differed between roasters due to their personal likes and the quantities being roasted there. The beans are not baked in an over but rather they are spun around in a chamber that has hot air being pumped in. At Life Monteverde they stressed the importance of not roasting the beans with added sugar because it masks the beans natural qualities, which means if they do it is because the coffee is bad to begin with. However, Café Rey roasted many beans like this because they said it was their traditional method. Overall, it depends on the coffee bean and how high of quality the bean is to begin with.
Roasted beans are finally sent off to the consumer, whether that be a store for packaged retail or a barista who prepares the coffee. At Coopedota we saw their barista school and how they prepare a few of their drinks. Café Britt also offers barista training and supplies to their clients so that they serve their coffee to Café Britt’s standards. No matter how much quality control the beans go through before this stage, the cup of coffee could still turn out bad. Coopedota stressed the importance of knowing the ratio of water to coffee or other ingredients in specialty drinks. The head of their barista school showed us how to pour the drinks in layers and make designs in the foam like they do at cafés.
The customers are the reason any plantation, mill, or roaster is in business. The coffee industry is what brought the small Central American country called Costa Rica onto the map. They are now known internationally for having high quality gourmet coffee and the coffee industry has led to tourism for them as well. Coffee loving customers from all over the world specialty order Costa Rican coffee online or make a trek out to this beautiful country to taste it here themselves. Regardless of where they drink it, the customer is the reason a coffee industry exists here at all. Many customers in the United States and Europe take for granted their daily cup of coffee without thinking about the steps behind it.
Before this trip, I had no idea what the process needed to produce a cup of coffee was. Now I can see that there’s many layers of time and work that go into each cup. I hope that as the tourism industry here grows more people would see the beauty and time that is needed to perfect it at each level. Coffee is not made in a machine, it is grown, handpicked, sun dried, perfectly roasted, cupped by experts, and served by trained baristas. To downplay the individual attention and care that goes into each bag, even those from large companies like Doka, Café Britt, or Coopedota, is to devalue the coffee itself. I loved coffee before this trip but Monteverde especially hit a place in my heart. They are a family owned plantation that puts so much love and care into their coffee and their farm. I would never feel guilty buying a bag of coffee from Life Monteverde knowing the place it came from. Every plantation and factory we visited was ran by individuals with such a passion for coffee and this planet. Costa Rica, especially, has integrated sustainable practices into their coffee making it worth that much more. No matter where you buy your coffee, it has been through the hands of many individuals who have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting your morning dose of caffeine, so if you ever have the chance make sure to thank them.