Once again, on Water Street’s behalf, I set out for the coffeelands of Costa Rica, this time to expand and strengthen my relationships with both the coffee and the producers who put so much love and attention into their crop. This was my second time visiting, although this year’s visit began a few weeks earlier in the year which would allow me to experience some things I had not in years past, such as a wet mill in operation and parts of some coffee farms with trees still loaded with coffee cherries. The trip was full of adventure, friendships both new and old, and plenty of opportunity to dive in and immerse myself in all the details and subtleties of Costa Rican coffee, including how the harvest is going this year, what varieties and coffee processing methods are favored by each producer, what this year’s coffees are tasting like and what scores they are achieving, one-on-one time with roasters and coffee producers, and of course, cuppings of coffee from a handful of Costa Rica’s finest producers.
Video by Josiah Holroyd
Although I visited West Valley and Tarrazu, two of Costa Rica’s growing regions, the theme of lower yields is country-wide. This is not unexpected, though. The Arabica coffee plant, coffea arabica, goes through natural cycles of production where every two years there is an increase in production, followed by lower yields the next season. The 2018/2019 crop was one of more modest proportions, down about 20%, but that does not mean a decrease in quality. In fact, quality can be increased during low production years as the plant puts its nutrients into fewer cherries, allowing them to mature with more full, bigger flavor. During my time there I cupped 34 different coffees. A rather wide range of coffees were evaluated, some great for blending, others superb examples of the full potential of Costa Rican coffee. I visited a number of farms and producers during the week of March 3, 2019, as well as Cafe Imports’ new office located in the capitol of San Jose. What I found interesting is that each producer and each farm is, in essence, working toward the same goal: producing quality coffee for export. That being said, there are so many steps and opportunities along the way for each producer to implement their own techniques and practices that they employ on their farm which they believe will result in the best coffee they can produce. This yields more income, a healthier and happier life for both the producers and the surrounding environment, and more freedom to continue to excel, experiment and explore.
Tarrazú, Costa Rica
Edgar and Martin of El Pilon and La Chumeca instantly recognized me as I arrived at their farm, and approached me with open arms. The amount of appreciation and level of genuine care they show toward myself and others in the group is palpable. They are truly happy to share their work with others and take you in as one of their own. They also strongly believe in producing naturally processed coffee. So much so that they utilize the process for 100% of their crop. This process uses much less water than other processing methods, and is what makes their setup so simple and effective. This time around was fun because not only did I get to witness the process firsthand, but I was actually asked to help! The two are also heavily experimenting with alternative processing methods such as anaerobic fermentation and extended drying times.
Carlos, Anna, and their son Gabriel run La Pira de Dota in Costa Rica’s Tarrazu region. They are serious about coffee, but are always smiling and poking fun at each other, keeping the mood light and joyful. Their approach to coffee processing involves farming without any pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, controlling pests naturally. Carlos utilizes local microorganisms to create a liquid fertilizer that can be applied to coffee plants to control pests and accelerate growth. The solution is an environmentally friendly alternative to agrochemicals, reducing environmental contamination, production costs, and improving social relations in the farming community.
I also spent some time with Daniela Guttirez of La Montana de Tarrazu, and Marcia and Hugo Naranjo of La Candelilla. Truly inspirational producers. Cupping and evaluation of coffees happened at Oxcart Coffee, an extension of Cafe Imports, based in San Jose. This trip would not have been possible without my coffee family there, in particular Matt, Francine, and Luis. Their new Oxcart office greatly increases their presence in Costa Rica, and also serves as a “place to process and evaluate samples, meet with producers, and file all the necessary paperwork involved in shipping green coffee internationally, but it also gives us a hummingbird’s-eye view of the year’s crop and the producers’ triumphs and tribulations all year long.” Being able to take part in this year’s evaluation of coffees is an honor, and also gives me the opportunity to book or purchase coffee on the spot. A truly humbling opportunity.
West Valley, Costa Rica
La Perla del Cafe, located in Costa Rica’s West Valley, is operated by Don Carlos, a third-generation producer. Carlos strongly believes in maintaining a pure line of coffee variety so as not to mix varietals, and thus flavor and coffee characteristics. He does this by paying close attention to pruning and plot renovation, and not wasting time with old coffee plants. Carlos draws the analogy of production between coffee plants and cows; calves are much better producers of milk than an old cow, and the same applies to coffee plants.
Perhaps the crowning jewel was my return and reuniting with the Aguilera Brothers. I am greeted by Felipe and Juan, two of the brothers. Instantly Felipe recognized me from last year’s trip, and he gave me a big thumbs up and a big, friendly smile. Felipe speaks a little bit of English, so I was able to chat with him for a bit. He showed me his new coffee roaster that he acquired a few months back, and explained how he roasts coffee for his neighbors and sells it at a local market. Before departing I presented him with a bag of his coffee from Finca Angelina that Water Street purchased and roasted from last harvest. The highest quality green coffee is sold for export, so it isn’t often that the Aguilera Brothers are able to drink their own coffee. This makes for a very special opportunity. Bringing things full circle for both roaster and producer is a beautiful and unique experience, and I am happy to give back.
This is our fourth consecutive year working with the Aguilera brothers. Cupping out the coffees from the farms we visited and engaging in impactful conversations with fellow coffee industry professionals and the producers themselves brings things full circle, and makes real relationships evolve and grow. It is truly how we make our decision in purchasing our Costa Rican coffee for our special Fresh Crop program. It is our goal to serve these coffees to you in the most honest, transparent fun way, so you can get as authentic an experience as I did in Costa Rica, right here in Kalamazoo.