Origin Report: Costa Rica

Hey everyone! For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Kait and I’m a barista and coffee educator here at Little Amps Coffee Roasters in Harrisburg, PA.

It's Kait!

 

In early March, my coworker Nashali I got to have the wonderful experience of visiting Costa Rica for about a week, touring coffee farms in the hopes of sourcing some coffee to bring back to Little Amps. The trip was hosted through Cafe Imports, one of the largest coffee importers in the coffee industry. Without a doubt, the time that I spent there was one of the most knowledgeable, fulfilling, and enriching experiences of my life.

 

Nashali and Kait in Costa Rica!

 

Taking what I have learned from my coffee experience and the experiences from our trip to create this origin report, I hope to summarize our journey as best as I can, discuss growing and producing, present the challenges associated with coffee at origin, and hopefully help to find some viable solutions to sustain the coffee industry as a whole.

There were about fifteen of us on the trip, all baristas, roasters, and green buyers from all over the world including Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, Canada, Germany, and England. Getting to know people in the coffee industry all over the world is truly a humbling experience and it’s always a fun time, especially in our case. Getting to travel in a bus around the country, sharing fantastic meals, and learning about coffee together was perfect for getting to know everyone, their coffee experience, and their passions in and out of the coffee world.

I’ve always said that baristas are the friendliest and most fun-loving people, and I have yet to be proven wrong. So many laughs were shared over bowls of ceviche, so many cups of coffee were slurped, so many bottles of wine were poured at exceedingly large dinner tables, so many photographs were taken together, and so much of Costa Rica’s natural beauty was taken in by us all. I’m forever grateful that I could have shared this trip with this particular group of people and I’m thankful for the memories that we made in such a special and magical country.   

 

The Farms

Throughout our travels, we visited a number of farms across Costa Rica in the West Valley, Tarrazu, and Central Valley regions. All of them were insanely beautiful, run by amazing individuals and families, and are producing consistently tasty coffees to be eventually exported through organizations such as Cafe Imports. Each farm was different in their own ways, but they all had something to teach us about coffee and its life cycle. Some farms were high in the mountains, some deep in the foliage, some were right down the road. Each farm and farmer face their own unique advantages and disadvantages every day while producing coffee. Amidst the struggles and the victories, Costa Rican coffee prevails and year after year from their hard work and determination.

 beautiful views at La Pira de Dota

 

The first farm we visited on our second day in Costa Rica was La Pira de Dota, and this was a very special place to me. This micro-mill was our first stop in the Tarrazu region, a popular coffee growing region. We toured the greenhouses where the honey processed coffees were stored, saw the handmade beds where the naturals dry out in the sun, observed the equipment used to clean and process the coffee, and beheld the lush landscape where the coffee grows freely. The name of the farm comes from a longtime family nickname, “Pira” that Carlos Urena Ceciliano, current owner and operator keeps to this day. Pira really stood out to me as a “jack of all trades” and handyman extraordinaire.

 Pira and a coffee picker 

 

 

As we went through the tour of the farm and mill, we began to learn that mostly every piece of equipment in La Pira de Dota is reclaimed, refurbished, and reused as something new to help with their work. The large, circular wooden door with their logo in the main room used to be a bank vault back in the day. He turned an old hospital bed into a sorting station for picking through crops upon crops of picked coffee. A bank change sorter is used to grade different sizes of coffee, and an ancient roaster sits beside it, fully functioning thanks to Pira’s tinkering. Even in a foreign place, he distinctly reminded me of my own dad, inventive and passionate, working with secondhand, discarded, or formerly useless materials to create something both useful and amazing. He and his daughter run La Pira de Dota with the rest of their family, who truly made us feel at home in a faraway place.

 

 Pira and his daughter by the drying beds

 

The second stop that day was something out of a dream. There were two farms in one location, El Pilon and La Chumeca, again in the Tarrazu region. Both farms are owned and operated by Martin Urena and his family, sharing a micro-mill to produce their coffees. El Pilon was the first part of the tour, showing us their fields where they grow coffee and the drying beds full of almost-ready crop. They also showed us some of their experiments in “anaerobic” coffee, a new processing trend where coffee is fermented in sealed containers, sometimes adding flavors like cinnamon, pineapple, or starfruit. This method was requested and pioneered by a Japanese roaster in Costa Rica looking for a new coffee taste. At the previous farm, we got to smell some dried and finished anaerobic coffee infused with cinnamon and it weirdly smelled exactly like snickerdoodles. I’ve only tasted one so far, so it’s hard for me to say if this coffee method will become popular in the near future.

 

The magical La Chumeca!

 

La Chumeca was nestled back into the forest at the end of a long, winding path through the trees. As we hiked some more, large swaths of coffee trees started to appear beside and around us. Suddenly, we found ourselves standing in a natural paradise. Pools of water with fountains, pristine drying beds surrounded by tropical flowers, two adorable dogs following us around, and even a treehouse stood in the hillside, with a Costa Rican flag proudly flapping in the breeze. I never wanted to leave. Seeing those coffee plants close up, being able to touch and smell the cherries and flowers, and wandering the fields where they were planted was a magical experience for me. La Chumeca is as close to paradise as I’ve ever experienced.

 coffee drying in piles at Las Lajas

 

The Las Lajas micromill was familiar to me by its worldwide reputation for exceptional coffee and from a coffee event I attended a few years ago. The Legendary Coffee Producer Tour was an event hosted by Cafe Imports, the same coffee importer that hosted our trip. During this event, several farmers from around the world gathered at Square One Coffee in Lancaster to speak about coffee growing and producing. One of the farmers featured was Dona Francisca from Las Lajas. Hearing her speak so passionately about her years of experience producing amazing coffee once again really inspired me. To Francisca, trusting her taste buds and her intuition has served her well throughout her coffee journey. She earned the Cup of Excellence prize back in 2009 for her high-quality honey and natural processed coffees, and it was beyond amazing for me to have a spot at her impressively large cupping table. Francisca is such an inspiration for women in coffee, and her hard work shows itself in the red and yellow honey processed coffees we are honored to serve in our shop.

 Oscar Chacon talks to us at Las Lajas

 

My favorite farm that we visited was Finca Genesis, run by Oscar and Olga Mendez in the West Valley. Despite being a smaller farm that doesn’t export much per year, their farm was the most beautiful and intentionally created that I had ever seen. They specialized in natural and honey processed coffees, although they produce some washed as well. Their crops and drying beds are located high in the mountains, among other indigenous plants and animals, crucial to maintaining excellent soil to grow coffee, according to Oscar. By embracing the natural environment around them and the plants that already grow there to provide shelter and pest control for the coffee, they are consistently producing award-winning coffee, earning the Cup of Excellence award back in 2008.

 four differently processed coffees laid out to dry on concrete at Finca Genesis

 

My favorite quote from Oscar perfectly encapsulates his view on how coffee should be viewed by us, the preparers and consumers of coffee. “I have a lot of respect for cuppers and roasters, as they know that what they are tasting is a beautiful symphony - a culmination of the world's natural beauty, and the hard work of many different hands,” he said. His passion for growing and producing amazing coffee will stay with me forever. I can only hope to do his coffee justice in the shops and prepare it with as much love and intention that he put into growing and cultivating it.

 

Growing and Producing & Challenges

Growing coffee is certainly a labor of love that requires intention and passion to do it right. It is also a science, taking factors like elevation, climate, weather, and soil quality into consideration when growing. Growers like to experiment with where and how specific types of coffee plants enjoy being grown, and the undeniable correlation to the resulting quality of the coffee after harvest. Some  may find that coffee grown at higher elevations equalled a tastier, well-balanced and fully developed cup. Some such as Oscar may find certain plants planted near coffee are beneficial to a good crop. A lot of farms that we visited had their crops nestled high in the mountains living among other plants and flowers native to the area. Another farm that we visited in the West Valley, Cerro San Luis had around 14 different varieties of coffee growing along the cliff sides and in fields high above the valley.

 

Most Costa Rican coffees that we saw and tasted on our trip were honey processed or natural, in part because the coffees grown there taste great with those processes, but also because it is vastly cheaper to do those methods of processing. Washing stations for washed processed coffee are expensive and not something that farmers are always able to afford with their limited resources and earnings from growing.

 


Unfortunately, in a growing industry, green farmers and producers aren’t earning their fair share of the profits to invest in beneficial investments such as washing stations. As roasted coffee prices have gone up in countries like the U.S. over the years, green coffee’s price has not shown much growth in comparison, leaving them with less profits. In addition, without money and the means to invest in their product to make it better, quality will also suffer. Why should farmers take chances on newer growing and processing methods when it could prove to be detrimental to their profits? Why bother with experimenting with new methods such an anaerobic processing when it could potentially ruin an otherwise profitable crop? Why bother with investing in expensive equipment to increase the quality of the coffee if they can’t pay off the cost of it with the little money they’re getting in exchange for their efforts? If you count in these factors, specialty coffee is seeming like less of a viable, livable livelihood for farmers and producers.

 

 

Before I left on my trip, I read an article from Standart, a coffee magazine based out of Slovakia covering stories on many aspects of the coffee industry. The article “What We Hope to Learn” by Chad Trewick outlines a summary of problems facing the industry among green growers and producers, and what we should do in the coffee market as a whole. It is clear that there is a disconnect between those buying the coffee to roast and sell and those producing the coffee to be sold. “Roasting and retail companies note higher costs of living and value additions that are exponentially higher than those of coffee producers - but many in coffee producing countries argue that their increasing costs receive little attention in the face of the prices the market will pay,” Trewick says. “What seems clear is that in order to sustain a certain quality to the consumer, we need to increase the value to producers or they will continue to abandon coffee production.” 

He states that a solution must be reached, whether it may involve redistributing profit margins throughout the value chain, increasing consumer prices, or some other unknown step. Without a compromise and without incentive to continue growing and producing, the coffee industry will suffer from a lack of people at origin, resulting in lesser green coffee, resulting in less sales of green coffee, resulting in less coffee to be roasted, and ultimately resulting in less roasted coffee for us to enjoy at inevitably increased prices due to the shortage. Without intervention, this could be our future.

 

What Can We Do?

Disregarding the global coffee trading market and economics for a second, I offer one possible solution to this problem through something I experienced shortly after my trip ended. Two exceptional people on our trip, Jared Truby and Chris Baca, co-owners of Cat & Cloud Coffee in Santa Cruz, California proved to me that it takes a personal touch to keep the coffee industry going. Cat & Cloud Coffee has a podcast based on various aspects of the coffee industry that is fairly well known among the coffee community. After finishing up the trip with us in Costa Rica, the two went on to visit Honduras for a few days. Tune into their podcast to hear their full account, but I’ll try to summarize a part of their trip that really connected with me. 

While traveling, they met with Damien Chavez, a producer in his second year of production at his farm in El Cedral in Santa Barbara, Honduras. They had received some of their coffee awhile ago that they had roasted and served in their shops, and it ended up being both a staff and customer favorite. On this trip, they were looking to meet with Chavez in person to create a relationship between grower and buyer. While tasting some coffee in Honduras, they discovered that Chavez’s crop scored the best and tasted the best on the cupping table. They then learned that Chavez was looking to increase production and provide better quality control through a purchase of a de-pulper, a rather expensive piece of coffee equipment for them to buy alone. So, being tuned into their needs and open to investing in their process, Truby and Baca bought the equipment for them. Believing in their ability to keep producing amazing coffee and encouraging them to keep doing so in a more convenient and efficient way is reason enough to invest in farmers, farms, mills, and other people at origin.

 

La Chumeca

 

It only takes one person to really make a difference if that person has done the research, invested smartly, and gone about it with intention, passion, and the desire to connect personally with people at origin. Without these connections, we cannot foresee the needs and challenges of the coffee growers and producers at origin, dooming us to face eventual shortages of coffee, increased prices, and lowered quality. Growers and producers play an essential role in the supply chain of coffee and it is vital that they should be valued as such by us, the consumers and potential investors.

It is clear to me from going on this trip that we should do our part to get to know the people at origin, invest in their livelihood, and encourage growth at origin however we can, however small the gesture may be. People are the heart and soul of coffee at every level from grower to roaster. It is crucial to invest in these growers to that they and their families have security and incentive to keep growing the product that the world loves so much. We may not be able to change coffee economics, but we can still try to bring about change in our own ways.

It has been amazing to get to know the incredible coffee community in Costa Rica and it has truly opened my eyes to the possibilities of what relationships could be between the people at origin and my coffee community at home. I will forever remember my personal connections with the farmers, workers, and producers of Costa Rica. As a result, I will forever encourage others to make connections and investments of their own with people at origin. If growers and producers can provide amazing coffee with limited equipment and money, just think of what they can do with our support. You never know how huge the impact may be to their future and to the future of coffee.