This February I was lucky enough to be heading to Costa Rica courtesy of Square Mile for my first origin trip. As you can imagine, excitement was high as I flew out from London. Arriving at the airport in San Jose I was greeted with a sign stating “Roaster” and assumed that was for me… luckily it was! It was really exciting for me to be in Costa Rica, I never thought I would get a chance to travel to a place like this for work. The trip was made even more exciting as I had previously roasted coffee from some of the producers I would be meeting.
First day of the trip and we set off to the Santa Rosa 1900 micro mill, ran by Efrain”Macho” Naranjo and his son Herberth. The sun is shining, I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and it’s February, not the normal set of thermals and layers I’m used to for this time of year. Heading off from the hotel we’re getting settled in on our bus that will be our transport, when we’re introduced to our translator/tour guide Stanley. Stanley was great, ensuring the bus driver pulled over so he could jump off the bus to cut down sugar cane and local fruits for us to taste along the way to the Tarrazu region. For me this visit is extremely exciting, not only because it’s the first farm/mill I get to visit, but because Square Mile have a close connection with Santa Rosa 1900 and have been using their coffee for years. On arriving we are met by Herberth, son of the famous “Macho”, which you might remember we had as a filter last year. Before we get shown around the beautiful surroundings, Herberth has a quick chat with everyone and explains the history of the farm and how they put a lot of emphasis on their soil quality. “The raw material focus is not the coffee, but the soil and vegetation” Herberth states. Macho explains that the bees take pollen from the fruit plants in the surrounding area and pollinate the coffee plant, giving the coffee a delicious fruity note.
As the name indicates, the mill and farms sit at 1900 masl, giving the farmers a little more time between picking and milling due to the cool air at this high altitude. The farms situated at lower, warmer altitudes mill and process straight away as the coffee can start to ferment. It’s one of the highest farms in Costa Rica, planted mainly with Red Catuai and Caturra varieties, but they also grow Geisha, Red Bourbon and Villa Sarchi. They only use natural or honey processing here. We were lucky enough to go to Finca Macho and pick ripe cherries, made even better as I only roasted this coffee last year. I even got a little help from Macho himself with the picking!
From there we head to Coop Tarrazu, were we met Fabian and Ricardo who had lunch prepared and a quick presentation set up for us. Coop Tarrazu was founded in 1960 by 280 smallholders. I got talking to Ricardo (the man in charge of the natural/honey processed coffee). He has spent up to 30 years honing his craft, and you can really taste that in their coffee. We moved into their cupping lab to sample their work and when we were finishing up Ricardo asked me to go through each coffee laid out with some notes, which were quite similar to his notes. I got a hug and high five for that one. They showed us around their very impressive mill and then we set off back to our hotel for dinner.
The following day we headed to visit Finca Senel in the Brunca region. Special mention to our driver Melvin for getting us there safely – the drive was terrifying! Our translator Stanley told us that 95% of Costa Ricans have never been to Brunca and never will, due to its remote location. Finca Senal is a small family business (5 persons) and these pictures don’t do it justice as it is absolutely stunning. Sitting at 1400 masl, they began coffee production only three years ago, employing only the natural and honey processes. Senel himself explained how they distinguish the different honey processes, Black honey, Red honey and White honey, which was great for clarification of the differences. He said it’s down to how many times they turn over the coffee when they’re on the beds; the more they are turned, the lighter the colour. They also have a process called raisin honey, where they pick the cherry and leave it over night on the raised bed in the fruit, then soak them in water tanks to then be pulped and left out to dry for 13 to 15 days depending on the weather. Someone asked Senel, “Where did you learn how to do honey processing?” His answer was; there is no book to learn about this, no one has the correct way of doing it, we learn as we go. I found it really interesting that they use brix readings to see how much sugar is in the fruit, the target being around 33%. At one point, Senel told us that he thinks the Brunca region is ugly, which we laughed about until we hiked up to 1800 masl and saw the coffee plants sitting on almost vertical slopes. We realised then why he thinks it’s ugly, as trying to pick coffee on those slopes looked impossible.
We then made our way to Cafe Rivense Micro Mill. I really loved this place, a small family run farm. They do everything from the planting of seeds to exporting, assuring traceability to their clients. Before the tour of the mill Ricardo talked to us about how they run things in Cafe Rivense. They’ve been milling for ten years now, and once again it was interesting that they only produce honey processed coffee and no washed. For environmental reasons there is very little water usage on the farm. They are currently producing 100% Black Honey, and will be starting to produce natural processed coffee soon. They only use patios and African raised beds for drying, to get the humidity down to 14% on the beds then down to 10% on the patios. The parchment is then moved to their on-site warehouse to be bagged in grain pro bags for 3 months of rest before going to their dry mill. I asked Ricardo what device he uses to check moisture and his reply was “I use my eyes and hands, working in coffee for 25 years I can tell what moisture the coffee is at”. I can’t argue with that! Ricardo has 3 sons and one daughter, all at school and college, but still work on this beautiful and friendly farm.
After breakfast we headed to Tres Rios (3 rivers), to Bella Vista where we met Eric who currently runs the farm and mill. Bella Vista is located at 1600 masl and when we arrived it was raining. For once I wasn’t complaining about it as it was a welcome break from the heat. My delicate Irish skin needed some relief! Eric loaded us up on the back of a huge open truck and drove us up through the farm, with stunning views along the way. He explained that their wet mill was founded more than 100 years ago. They grow mostly Catuai but are trying out a lot of hybrid plants (H1, H15 H18) to try and help prevent against leaf rust and other diseases. Eric explained that they have 10,000 hectares of Catuai and 3,000 H1. Looking out over the farm, I noticed a lot of banana trees being used as shading from the sun. They prune the banana trees before the bananas start to grow as they take a lot of precious potassium required for their coffee plants out of the soil. We headed back down the mountain to the impressive mill and drying beds, where we even gave raking the coffee a go! Once the coffee is on the beds and close to the required moisture, they load the coffee into guardiolas. Guardiolas are like giant tumble dryers that gently dry the coffee, meaning a more even and accurate moisture level can be achieved. Interestingly, they use the old coffee trees as tinder and parchment to get the temperature up and keep the fires burning.
Part 2 coming soon!