Our last two days in Costa Rica have given us new insight into the business of coffee in Costa Rica. It’s infrastructures, processes and specific challenges. These insights will allow us to work more efficiently with our Costa Rican partners and will ultimately lead to stronger partnerships and a better coffee product. This trip has truly been “la pura vida,” meaning the good life, from start to finish.
Stop 1: La Bella Vista Beneficio Tres Rios Estate, Tarrazu
We started our Thursday morning visiting La Bella Vista Beneficio Tres Rios Estate in Tarrazu. Sr. Erick André provided us with a tour, explaining the history of his family’s farm. Sr. André, a third generation coffee farmer, originally established production in 1905. Today, the farm encompasses 250 hectres (540 acres) of coffee production.
This year’s crop is expected to be approximately 4,000 bags, which is 60 percent lower than the average harvest, typically 9,000 to12,000 bags. Roya (coffee leaf rust) and lack of rainfall have caused the major shortcomings this harvest. The use of a fungicide, named Atemi, has helped combat roya, producing a positive outlook for next year’s harvest.
When asked about which coffee varietals respond well to his coffee plantation, Erik responded, “For me, F1 is the future.” He has recently planted F1 for it’s ability for higher yields, more resistant to roya, while also maintaining cup quality. Within two years from transplants he is able to harvest a decent yield. Each transplant of the F1 varietal costs around $1.75. He will be able to yield 120-140 bags in the coming 2014-2015 crop year.
Erik is feeling pressure to sell the land for development, but he is holding onto the land for coffee production, even when coffee prices are low. Land value in Costa Rica is sky rocketing, almost comparable to Hawaii.
The milling station at Tres Rios sorts seven classifications, separating cherry with a good deal of precision. They also use super sacks, which hold about the same as 16-20 standard jute bags. The largest incentive for this method of storage is the huge reduction of labor costs and time. Tres Rios has also converted to newer pulping technology. As a result, they have reduced water consumption by approximately 90 percent.
Stop 2: Daniel Madrigal’s Farm, Tarrazu
Daniel Madrigal’s farm was our first visit to a producer that did not have it’s own micro-milling operation. A majority of Madrigal’s production is sold as cherry at a receiving station nearby, but he has diversified his strategy for introducing coffee to the specialty markets.
Traditionally, farmers harvest their coffee cherries and sell to receiving stations located on a main road near to where the coffee is grown. Delivering cherry to a receiving station typically fetches around $140 for a bag. If a grower pulps and dries their own coffee, they could fetch upwards to $300 for the same amount.
This decision can be successful, as the additional costs of keeping more control of your own cherry receives a better price than selling basic cherry. On the other hand, once coffee cherry is given to a contracted mill to process, the quality control of the coffee process is taken out of the farmer’s hands and is left to the management of the contracted mill. In Madrigal’s case, concerns were expressed that the contracted milling station has not been meeting the expectations of what specialty coffee demands. Even if Madrigal delivered consistent matured red ripe cherry, the milling process has damaged his coffee by chipping, bending, and deforming coffee parchment. These defects will lower cup quality. It is up to Madrigal to either address these issues with the contracted mill, or begin searching for another mill that can process to his standards. Building his own mill would provide him with more control, but initial capital investment and lack of secured coffee contracts is a major concern for pursuing this avenue.
Sr. Madrigal’s coffee cherries are not all taken to the contracted mill to be processed. Once coffee has been pulped at the mill, Madrigal returns the wet coffee parchment to his farm and sun dries on raised beds to finish the process. After the coffee parchment has been dried, it is delivered to a warehouse to be dry milled and stored. Deli Café (owned by Grace Mena) helps arrange logistics and participates in the entire quality control chain for this farm. Grace Mena has been very helpful in teaching farmers and producers how to achieve quality standards, and without her educational advice, many farmers would still only be selling red cherry to delivery stations.
Madrigal’s decision to have a partial amount of his harvest processed by another mill is a great way of investigating potential for producing micro-lots. Of the 500 bags he will be able harvest this year, 100 bags will be processed by the contracted mill and 400 will be sold to a receiving station as cherry. It’s a wise decision to balance the risk between trying something new and remaining with the traditional form of commerce. If he did invest in his own micro-mill, he would likely be able to maintain quality control, and with Grace’s help also be able to produce top quality coffees and secure future coffee contracts.
Stop 3: Tarrazu Mainor Esquivel’s Micro-Mill, La Pastora
La Pastora is nestled in the cloud forests of the Tarrazu region with altitudes reaching nearly 2000 meters, producing very dense and complex coffees. We visited Mainor Esquivel’s micro-mill at La Pastora, one of the more picturesque and well managed mills during our week-long visits. I liked his smile. Something about his character and relationship to his environment gave me a sense of trust, along with an overall cleanliness of his machinery and drying tables. I asked if he was open to allowing other producers in the area to process coffees for an extra income, but he chooses to process his own coffee, as he explains shared mills may often contaminate equipment by either bringing in roya and Broca (coffee borer).
Not only is he thinking quality and cleanliness, he’s also creative, having poured a cracked-ceramic tile shaped flooring in the micro-mill, reminiscent of Gaudhi’s Parc Guëll in Barcelona. I love style, and Mainor Esquivel has plenty of it.
Esquivel’s coffee was included as one of the 44 coffee samples we blind cupped at Deli Cafe on Wednesday. It was a pleasant surprise to see his coffees score very well prior to our visit. We’ll be keeping in contact with La Pastora in the near future and hope to see some great coffees come about in the following months.
Stop 4: Montero Specialty, Dinner w/ Grace Mena
Manuel and Patricia Montero of Montero Specialty Coffee gave us a tour of their newly established micro-mill Friday morning. They have a unique vision for offering hands on experience for tourists to participate in traditional processing techniques for sugar cane and other traditional Costa Rican products. Their focus is to build a site which will help teach sustainability and also process coffee in a sustainable manner using an aquapulper with covered raised drying beds.
Our week came to a wonderful conclusion with a flavorful dinner at the home of Grace Mena. She finds quality in every aspect of her life, within her home, food, and good friends. Costa Rica is beautiful. It’s been mentioned a few times already, and cliché or not, it is what everyone here says it is – “la pura vida,” or the good life.