I’m a coffee addict. Love the stuff, and can’t get enough of it. When we were trying to decide which excursions to go on, it was a really tough toss up between this one and the chocolate one, but the coffee won out. And it was well worth it. The plantation was amazing. It’s a cooperative that came about because after the German family who originally owned the land gave up and moved away, the local people mostly grew and sold their own, and realized that if they combined forces, they could grow, process and market a lot more than they each could individually. So that’s where the cooperative came from. The Espiritu Santo name came from the fact that there’s an active volcano less then a kilometre away and the local people used to pray to the Holy Spirit to keep them safe. The German family who originally owned the plantation took the hint and named it for protection, I guess.
There are 2500 members of the cooperative, and they grow, as does all of Costa Rica, Arabica coffee beans. Costa Rica couldn’t compete with Columbia or Brazil for quantity so decided to go for quality. (I’m quoting here – I have no personal opinion on the superiority of various strains of coffee bean). When you buy Starbuck’s coffee, you’re buying Costa Rica coffee, and the plantation we visited sells most of their export harvest to Starbucks. What they don’t do for the export trade is roast the beans. Well, they do, but not completely – they give them a ten minute roast and then ship them north, and the companies that buy them finish the process to their own standards. For their own consumption, they roast for up to 20 minutes to get a full expresso roast. What Francisco said (and this was repeated by the plantation coop guides) is that the quality of the coffee is determined in the roast. Which explains a lot about Starbuck’s coffee.
In case you didn’t know, coffee beans need to be grown in the shade, so the plantations have been experimenting with different kinds of trees. They’re just now realizing that the eucalyptus trees they imported from Australia aren’t working out as planned.
The initial rationale was that the trees added acidity to the soil, but then someone figured out that a) volcanic soil is already very acid and b) the trees were sucking all the nutrients out of the soil, and damaging the coffee plants. So now they’re trying banana, which might turn out to be a good thing for them, since they might end up being able to diversify into both coffee and bananas. What they’re also doing is playing with what, in wine terms, is called ‘terroir’. The coffee masters figure that the trees add something to the soil that is absorbed by the coffee plants and will be passed into the beans, and will affect the flavour of the coffee. Both our guides admitted that they were taking it on trust that this was true – their palates couldn’t distinguish eucalyptus flavoured beans from banana flavoured beans.
The other thing is that they’re very ecologically committed – they use every portion of the bean – the red shell is composted to go back into the ground, the parchment covering the actual bean is burned for the drying process (those beans that aren’t air dried), the plants are put back into the soil when they’re done (every 25 or so years), and they’ve moving to a partial solar power base along with the electricity provided by the government.
We saw how people used to grind and make their coffee:
They used a simple cotton bag to put the beans in and filter the water through. The stuff he ground (not in the old pestle) and made for us (using a wood stove and old kettle) was really weak, but was not bad at all.
So, a quick tour of how coffee gets made. The plants are replaced every 25 years, and the seedlings are placed in the plantation when they’re two years old.
Beans don’t all ripen right at the same time, so only ripe ones get picked by hand, so that each “street” as the rows are called, have to be picked over up to three times. Then they’re dumped in water, in ten pound lots
Yep, the abacus is old and big and clunky, but it works, and the general attitude is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The advantage here is that you can tote up the amounts quickly and easily – you don’t have to look at a screen, power outages don’t matter and the workers dumping the beans can also see that you’re recording the right amounts.
The floating beans, leaves, twigs and other debris are raked off the top to be composted and returned to the earth. The beans that sink are treated (gently rubbed and shaken) to remove the red shells, then treated again (same way) to remove the parchment from the actual bean.
Normally there are two beans (seeds) per seed casing, but in some cases, as in the photo above, there’s only one. That’s called a peaberry and has half the number, twice the flavour and caffeine. Sometimes there are three beans in the pod.
They’re either placed out in the sun for up to 21 days, and turned every 20 minutes, or they’re baked in an oven to dry them, which takes less than three days.
Apparently the coffee tasters, who are like wine masters and assess various coffees for flavours and scents, haven’t resolved which process is the better one – the argument is not expected to be finished this century. Once again, both our guides said that they couldn’t tell the difference, but the coop guide said he preferred the air dried simply because it’s traditional, and he likes old fashioned, traditional things. (Later note: I couldn’t tell a difference either – either at the plantation or at home with coffee I bought at the plantation.) Sounds good to me.
Then they’re roasted, and as I mentioned before, the quality is determined by the roasting process. The longer the roast, the stronger the flavour.
The plantation has two roasters – one takes 45 pounds of coffee at a time, and the other 90 pounds. Which doesn’t seem like much until you realize that it’s only a ten to twenty minute process, it’s all automated and you can get a lot of coffee roasted in a day even when you’re only doing 45 or 90 pounds at a time.
After that, they’re bagged, tagged and shipped out. We tasted some of the product that stays in Costa Rica, and I’m sold – it was amazing stuff – very chocolatey and rich. Starbucks has a lot to answer for, that’s all I can say.
The cooperative had won, last year, the Golden Cup award for best coffee in Costa Rica, and the barrista who won the international barrista competition did it using Espiritu Santo coffee.
After that we hit the coop store, where there was coffee, coffee and more coffee (we got a whole bunch of different kinds of roast, as well as sunblessed and peaberry. FWIW, I can’t tell the difference between peaberry and regular), some amazing coffee liqueur, and a couple of small wooden presents for people.
Then it was back into the bus and drive the hour and a half back to the ship, with more information about Costa Rica.
One final thing I noticed about the security. While there was almost no police or armed forces presence anywhere near the docks, and we only saw two or three pairs of police on the entire journey (and they were very clearly doing normal patrolling type duties or shopping for dinner), we did notice one police boat patrolling around the ship. But every one who came onto the pier on foot was not only checked for ID, they were wand scanned before they were allowed to proceed. And the ID check was not cursory – they looked at the ID, at the person and checked the ID to be sure it was legit. None of the Mexican ports have had that amount of surveillance – while the presence had been very notable, with armed soldiers, dogs, cops and boats and cars in prominent and obvious locations, the actual security has been anywhere from lax to non-existent. So while Costa Rica doesn’t have a lot of noticable security, (10,000 cops for several million people), they take it seriously.
Except for the humidity, and the heat (and the snakes) I’d move down in a minute – it felt a lot like home, oddly. But their snakes are deadly – snake venom antidotes are one of their largest exports and they provide 90% of the snake venom antidotes used in South and Central America. So, I may go back and visit, but doubt I’ll live there.
Tomorrow is another at sea day, with a wine tasting, and a bit more about coffee and the canal.