Water Street Coffee’s Roastmaster, Seth Chapman, visited Costa Rica this past March to meet some of our suppliers and learn more about the region. Read on to hear about his trip, and the future of Water Street’s Costa Rican coffee offerings…
I arrived in sunny San Jose, Costa Rica on Monday, March 19th. I was on my second mission to a coffee-producing country, aiming to expand my knowledge in a country well-known for its exceptional coffees. During my seven days in Costa Rica’s West Valley and Tarrazu regions I learned and experienced far more than I could have hoped for, and the experience proved invaluable on both a personal and professional level.
Carlos Pira of La Pira de Dota after being given a bag of Water Street Coffee
This time around I joined forces with some great folks on the Café Imports team: Matt Brown and Omar Herrera, our sales representatives, and Luis Aroca, green buyer for Café Imports, who works out of their office located in San José. I was also joined by seven other coffee professionals from the U.S. Together we visited five individual coffee farms, met producers, cupped 40 different coffees from the surrounding area, and marked the beginning of some wonderful relationships.
The 2017/2018 harvest in Costa Rica was just wrapping up around the time of our arrival. Producers faced particularly adverse weather conditions this past January with unusually high levels of rainfall. Not only did the increased rainfall make this year’s harvest more difficult, it also increased the price of coffee from Costa Rica since less is available, and it has also cast a degree of uncertainty onto next year’s harvest. Being so close to the equator, Costa Rica does not experience the four seasons many of us in the U.S. are accustomed to. Instead, they have a dry season and a rainy season. This year the rainy season hit late and heavy, with precipitation for weeks on end. This heavy rain made production difficult in many ways.
Natural coffees drying at La Chumeca
Drying beds at La Chumeca
Drying times for natural coffees doubled in some areas, increasing from the usual 18 to 20 day period to as many as 40 days. This slow drying time not only increased the risk of possible mold and other taints, but it also took up space—space that many micromills can’t afford. Thankfully, many micromills have large mechanical dryers to dry the coffee beans when the weather does not cooperate.
Excess rain also causes coffee cherries to swell and pop, breaking the skin of the cherry and compromising quality. Heavy rain and wind also breaks cherries free from the plant itself, causing both ripe and under-ripe fruit to fall to the ground. Lastly, the late, heavy rains also caused the coffee plants to flower much earlier than usual, creating uncertainty about next years’ harvest. An early bloom means an early harvest. How exactly the situation will play out remains yet to be seen.
Another game changer that I hear about often and actually got to experience on this trip was climate change. With quite a gloomy outlook forecasted by many scientists and coffee professionals alike, coffee farms are essentially moving up mountainsides as temperatures rise, in order to find the most suitable climate for coffee production. Our visit to one particular farm solidified this reality. Just seven short years ago Beneficio MonteBrisas was too cold to grow coffee plants. Doña María Elena used to run a pasture on this same land, but she made the switch in 2010 and hasn’t looked back. In this case, climate change has worked in favor of coffee production, but it’s not clear what the future holds.
Doña María Elena of Beneficio MonteBrisas discussing her method of drying coffee
Although faced with challenging weather, things were clearly still in good shape, despite concerns. I had the opportunity to cup 40 different coffees from farms in the West Valley and was not disappointed. The current state of the Costa Rican coffee industry reminded me of my trip to Mexico last year, where the farmers were still recovering from coffee leaf rust. Similarly, Sumatra has been dealing with heavy rain as of late, causing drastic price hikes for Sumatran coffees. There’s always something, somewhere, that calls for innovation or adaptation in order to produce quality coffee year after year, and seeing producers in Costa Rica persevere was reassuring.
The Wet Mill, Warehouse, and Drying Patios at Aguilera Brothers
Generally, Ticos (native Costa Ricans) are extremely environmentally conscious, and this is especially true of the country’s coffee farmers. Nothing goes to waste on a Costa Rican coffee farm and everything is done to minimize the use of water. Coffee pulp and parchment are used as fuel for cooking and for mechanical dryers, and also as a fertilizer. Water usage is minimized due to water restrictions put in effect by the government. Water that is used to wash coffees becomes toxic after removing the pulp from around the coffee beans, so in order to avoid contaminated runoff, restrictions were placed on this method of processing coffee. As a result, you will not see any fermentation tanks in Costa Rica (except for a few larger mills that have the proper water filtration equipment), a sight so common on farms around the world.
Edgar of El Pilon
Fully washed microlots are very difficult to come by in Costa Rica; the farms almost exclusively produce natural or honey-processed coffees. This eco-friendly mindset has a huge effect on coffee production and quality. While it is fairly easy to get from place to place, especially in comparison to traveling in Mexico, there is also a wonderful sense of cohabitation between humans and nature. Noticing how each individual producer harnesses this relationship and uses it to produce finer coffees or begin new experiments was exciting!
The experimentation and innovation on the farm level leads to some very interesting, unique coffees. Each farm has a different microclimate, different varietals of coffee plants, and unique processing methods that all lend different qualities to the final cup. The Aguilera Brothers’ micromill is located just 25 kilometers from MonteBrisas, yet MonteBrisas is 300 meters higher. We were comfortable in t-shirts while visiting the Aguilera Brothers, but air got chilly up higher at MonteBrisas. The Aguilera Brothers dry their coffees on a covered patio, called a parabolic dryer, while Elena relies on a series of raised beds for drying. The folks at El Pilon and La Chumeca only produce natural coffees and are also experimenting with anaerobic fermentation in large stainless steel drums. And over at La Pira de Dota, Carlos Pira has developed a clever system that allows the mountain winds to cool the water used to carry the coffee in the wet mill. Carlos uses the analogy of peeling a mango to stripping the skin off the coffee cherries. He says that peeling a warm mango will remove some of the pulp as well, promoting quicker oxidation, whereas peeling a cool mango keeps the pulp intact, slowing oxidation. He believes keeping the fruit cool will lead to a better, sweeter cup. Pira is also experimenting with new, unique methods of processing coffee, including using anaerobic fermentation with the addition of spices such as cinnamon.
Felipe of Aguilera Brothers explaining his Wet-Milling Process
While experimentation and executing new processes and ideas can be risky, especially since a mistake or an unfortunate event could seriously reduce income, Ticos continue to lead the way. Costa Rica proved to be a beautiful country with much hope for the future in terms of producing exciting, exceptional coffees. An abundance of micromills gives each producer complete control over their product from beginning to end, and all the more opportunity to innovate and experiment with processes that pique their interest.
An origin trip involves traveling to a coffee producing country to gain a more comprehensive understanding of where our coffee comes from and the various processes it undergoes before it is consumed. Coffee cultivation requires high altitudes and warm weather so travel is usually necessary in order to experience and fully understand coffee at origin. In December of 2017, Water Street owner Mark Smutek traveled to Ethiopia to experience and learn firsthand how coffee in Ethiopia is grown and processed. Our acquisition of our Organic Ethiopia Natural Alaka Hambela coffee is a result of this excursion.
About Mark’s Trip
“Some of the best coffee in the world is coming out of Ethiopia, especially from the farms and co-op I visited.”
What was one of the best parts of the trip?
“The amount of physical hand work that is involved in getting a single coffee bean into a brewed cup of coffee was astonishing to see in person.”
What do you want Water Street customers to know about your trip to Ethiopia?
“The quality of any coffee comes down to the interaction of the human hand and the coffee bean. On the farms and co-op I visited each individual coffee bean was touched at least a dozen times before it was sent to be exported.”
Our Organic Ethiopia Natural Alaka Hambela coffee is from Guji, Alaka District, Ethiopia. This coffee is also one of our Fresh Crop coffees! The coffee was grown on the Hambela coffee estate. The beautiful estate is operated byMETAD Agricultural Development, which is a family-owned business.
Do you like a light flavorful roast?
The Organic Ethiopia Natural Alaka Hambela will be perfect for you! When you are tasting this coffee, you can look for flavors of dried cherry and cocoa. This coffee also has a tart, bright acidity. The body of this coffee is smooth and milky. This fresh crop has an elaborate aroma with hints of raisin. You can get our Organic Ethiopia Natural Alaka Hambela – Fresh Crop in one of our cafés or onlinehere.
Ethiopia is about twice the size of Texas, and it is the world’s oldest coffee growing region. It has a rich, deep history of coffee culture and production, unlike any other coffee-producing country. It’s the birthplace of coffea arabica and home to old-growth forests. These forests are home to 40,000 varietals of the coffee plant. The people, geography and boundless flora combine to create the intriguing, complex flavors one associates with Ethiopian coffee.
Since Ethiopia is the origin of coffee, it is different from other coffee growing regions and it was not introduced as a cash crop. Producers have a very personal relationship with coffee. It is part of their traditions and daily routine. They grow coffee not only for export, but also to enjoy! Domestic consumption of coffee in Ethiopia is very high.
Development in Ethiopia
In the16th century, Ethiopia’s old-growth forests covered nearly 40% of the country. Today, there is only 4.4% of old-growth or wild forest remaining. The change in climate is resulting in wild coffee plants disappearing and being pushed up mountainsides where the climate is slightly cooler. But there is hope for a more sustainable future. Recently there has been a focus on putting a stop to or at least slowing deforestation in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government is encouraging this movement, trying to save old-growth. Despite this, Ethiopia is still rich with diversity in their landscape, plants, and vegetation.
The most exciting recent development has to do with the coffee market in Ethiopia. The market has been cracked open thanks to sweeping changes made by the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. This exchange regulates the sale and marketing of Ethiopian coffee. Before these changes, farmers were guaranteed stable prices at the expense of traceability and transparency. You may have noticed that we have never had a farmer-specific offer from Ethiopia, only general regional and processing identifiers as well as grade. Now the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange rules have changed. Washing stations and mills can now sell coffee directly to buyers without going through the exchange. The hope here is to increase traceability, and in turn generate higher quality coffee, resulting in a higher return for producers.
Region and Flavor Profiles
Ethiopia produces 6.5 million bags of coffee a year! They export 3.5 million bags of coffee a year, and keep the rest for local consumption.
The profile of the coffee will vary based on the variety, process, and microregion. With the natural process of producing coffee, the fruit is left on the bean during the drying process. This results in coffee that has fruit, wine, and chocolate tones with a syrupy body. This process stems from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also well-known for producing excellent washed coffees. This process presents a cleaner character in terms of flavor, with less fruit tones and a more refined profile, sometimes reminiscent of tea. Washed beans typically have a lighter, more pronounced acidity with more floral flavors.
Fun Facts: Ethiopia is the only coffee-producing country that solely grows Arabica species. No robusta!