For the days of January 18th – January 24th, my coworkers and I were guests and companions on a true coffee exploration. We were flown to Costa Rica, where we visited multiple coffee farms across the country. Each farm was another classroom, offering lessons in how coffee is grown, harvested, processed and exported. As team members of The Roasterie, my companions and I were very familiar with how coffee is processed and roasted after its importation into the United States. However, now we had opportunity to see what happens in a coffee’s country of origin, and we made sure not to waste it.
The farmers were welcoming and encouraged a hands on experience from the very start. We used all of our senses to experience coffee on every level of production. We picked the cherries from the tree, tasted them, observed and attempted to assist as farmers delicately and efficiently sorted the quality cherries from the bad, and best of all, saw the inner workings of the coffee processes. We witnessed fully washed, semi-washed, and natural coffee processes. But what was truly irresistible at each farm were the honey processed coffees. Yellow, red and black; it was a surprise to see that each farm was producing coffee in very specialized ways.
Growing and Picking
During our multiple-hour bus rides through dream-like Costa Rican landscapes and culture-rich cities, something we became quick to recognize were the coffee crops. Imagine crops in Kansas, Iowa or Nebraska. Corn crops and wheat crops grow in planted rows for miles and miles on flat plains throughout the mid-west. Coffee trees are remarkably similar. Miles and miles of rows of shaded and unshaded coffee trees – down the slopes of mountains, sometimes nearly a mile above sea-level. Farmers and workers on these plantations will gather together in the open beds of trucks, drive around the winding curves of the roads engineered to the mountain’s edge. When they reach the farm, they will go out with baskets tied to their waist, and spend the day picking the best cherries from the trees.
In one of our trips to a farm in Tarrazu, we had a coffee picking competition in which we were instructed to pick our cherries quickly and efficiently, bust most important, selectively. The coffees should be a plum-purple, uniform color when picked. Green or bright red cherries should be left on the branch where dark purple or wrinkled, blackish cherries should be tossed as overripe.
From these sloping crops, the cherries are driven by truck to mills – sometimes owned by the farmers, sometimes not. Shortly after entering a farm or mill, we would often be confronted with what are referred to as “African Beds.” These beds would have a different set up each time. Sometimes in rows, sometimes in long, winding lines up the side of a mountain path, sometimes in bunks, sometimes covered in a tarp, sometimes in a tent, sometimes directly in the sun. These beds were being used to lay out natural and honey processed coffees.
One of my favorite mill and farm experiences was on the La Pastora farm, which exists at the highest altitude of any of the farms we visited – 6,000 feet above sea level, and produces fully washed, semi-washed, natural and honey processed coffees. The name of this farm may be familiar if you are a Roasterie Regular. One of our 2014 Reserve Coffees came from this farm, you would recognize it as our La Pastora Black Honey Processed coffee.
In a prior Pilot’s Blog update made on June 24th, 2014, we explained the honey processes, yellow, red and black. We explained what “honey” means and what kind of coffee these processes produce. This post can be found here. For just a short recap, coffee comes from a coffee cherry. When you break that cherry open, you find two seeds covered in the mucilage of the cherry. Mucilage is a gooey, sticky substance made up of natural sugars and alcohols within the cherry. Think of the gooey, translucent tissue surrounding gestating aliens in The X-Files. It’s just like that. No? You don’t want to think of it that way, because that’s disgusting, and Roasterie coffee is delicious? Well then, think of…HONEY! Mucilage is like honey, it is sticky and sweet and made up of sugars. (And who would want to buy a “Black Mucilage Processed” coffee? Black Honey Processed? SIGN US UP!)
Based on the moisture and sugar content of a crop, some seeds will be chosen to be Honey Processed, which can be broken down even further into Yellow, Red or Black. These coffees are de-pulped but not washed, so they are still covered in thick, sticky mucilage. They are then laid out on beds, usually over a period of 5-8 days. The amount of sunlight the seeds receive, dictates whether the “honey” is yellow, red or black. Yellow receiving the most sunlight, where black receives the least. We spent a lot of time tasting coffee seeds in the midst of their honey process. The texture of the seed’s husks is weak and crunchy, and the surrounding mucilage tastes sweet and surprisingly similar to Honey Smacks Cereal.
The effect of these processes is a sweeter coffee, though that sweetness varies in its exact flavor profile. They will not necessarily of the rich, berry sweetness of a natural processed coffee, but will have a notably different flavor than a washed coffee.
It was interesting to see that every farm we visited was using these specialized Honey Processing methods on their coffee. After seeing the process up close, it will be exciting to watch the possible rising trend of Honey Processed coffee out of Costa Rica or perhaps globally. And for a Roasterie connoisseur, I would keep your eyes peeled for new Honey Processed and Costa Rican coffees in 2015…