Costa Rica Coffee Farms -Visits from March 2009

Since the micro-mill form of production has become more widespread and accessible, Costa Rica is now a joy to visit.

Trips to micro-mills, small individual farms that pick and process coffee from start to finish, with control of quality at every step, is like finding the like-minded double of the micro-roaster at the other end of the coffee chain. There’s a similar approach, a kind of handshake of ideas and attitudes.

We headed out to the Helsar de Zarcero mill in the West Valley near the town of Naranjo. This is my second time here (or is it the third?) but in any case I love it. Ricardo Perez and Marvin Rodriguez Villalobos operate the mill and represent a group of producers in the area, including Llano Bonito, Zarcero, and Naranjo as well as their own farms Los Anonos and Santa Lucia.

They do a great job with the wet-process method (they demucilage their coffee) and dry it on covered patios. That’s half of the quality equation. The other half is great cultivars at high altitude in ideal soils. The ridge at Zarcero tops 1900 meters and there is coffee all the way to the top. We did the usual mill tour and had a nice visit from one of their producers that we had cupped earlier that day with great results: Sr. Arce.

His farm is pure caturra and has a crisp, bright citric cup. Actually, the exporter, Francisco Mena had asked that we call Sr. Arce (since his farm was so close) just to tell him that the visiting cuppers had loved his coffee. Costa Rica is a special place, where you can taste a great cup, and go meet the producer in one day … again, that handshake between taster and producer. (And of course this is only possible with this emerging micro-mill model, where coffee lots are kept distinct and the farmer and mill are recognized. It is worth mentioning that it is also possible because every farmer has a cell phone these days). Another micro-producer/micro-roaster similarity is that Helsar has a small tasting room and a Behmor roaster for samples! Well, perhaps my analogy is wrong; maybe we need to find the Costa Rican “home coffee gardener” and match them with the “home coffee roaster” enthusiast. Anyone growing coffee at home, besides me?

I was in the presence of Mary and Nick Tellie from Electric City Roasting in Scranton, once known for iron and rust, now known as the home of Michael Scott. She had been supporting projects at a facility for teaching skills to the disabled, and we stopped by. It was called the Apamar Centro de Rehabilitacion.

What a great place, and I was impressed at Mary’s initiative to aid this school, along with her cafe customers who also donate. Helsar mill suggested the program, and along with Mena’s Exclusive Coffee have been helping the program for some time. The school was so awesome!

They had made these amazing artworks that I asked if I could buy as a donation to the school. Hell, it wasn’t charity – the artwork is great! They also had amazing paper masks and when I admired them, they insisted I take one as a gift. I happen to think they look quite good on me, and wonder if there was a way they could be incorporated into Sr. Mena’s “cupping celebration,” as he calls it.

On the way down to Naranjo we ran into our old friend Guillio Francesca (you might remember his coffee that we sold this past year). Oh Guillio, what a national treasure! He pulled up in his ’68 metallic green Willys Jeep that might have been more bondo and fiberglass repair than acutal metal, and listed oddly to the passenger side.

The gas tank was a plastic jug behind the driver seat (which was a plain metal pan with no cushion). Guillio emerges in a dirty white lab coat looking as ineffable as ever. I understood about 30% of what he said to me, as he handed over two extremely odd parchment samples to Francisco for roasting in tomorrow’s cupping. More on that later.

Next we visited a favorite coffee producer of mine, and others apparently since she placed first in the Cup of Excellence last year! Daysi, what a name. She is a fascinating woman who has shops of various types, and other retail businesses in nearby towns, but seems to have a passion for coffee farming.

She has a Penagos-type micro-mill and dries coffee on raised beds. She has also produced an amazing “miel” coffee this year, a pulp natural. We cupped it earlier in the day and it was so bright and complex. She is a hoot: her farm has a separate kitchen, a sort of screened-in barbeque house, and it was filled with her honey coffee piled right up to the lip of the gas stove and chimney vent. The golden color of the honey coffee was beautiful in the fading light.

The coffee visits were over, the daylight gone, but that never quells the unbounded energy of Sr. Mena. As with my last trip, we kept making farm visits, lighting the mill with the headlights of his pickup truck if need be, well after the daylight had faded completely. We visited Cafe Sin Limites and the excellent Herbazu farm into the night. I have a nickname for Francisco Mena that I have, until now, kept to myself: La Mosca (The Fly). He just keeps buzzing around and never tires. I guess The Fly isn’t the best nickname, but since he won’t stop calling me Tommy (even Maria calls me Thompson, and Tom is just fine) maybe I have some grounds for using La Mosca.

The next day was a blur. Cupping, cupping, cupping. From 9 am to 4 PM, it was cupping coffee all day long. We did 6 tables of coffee, totalling about 55 samples. It was by no means the most coffees I have cupped in a day. But it must have been the great cup quality, and the amount of thought these coffees demanded that exhausted me. Even La Mosca was burned out, and retreated to the restroom with a tongue scraper in hand, trying to wake up the papilla on his tongue. I was just sucking down water trying to keep myself going.

It was like mile 23 of a marathon and the hamstrings were cramping. Something like that. Cupping is such a physical chore, we forget how we are taxing a very particular physiological system, and at some point the tongue and olfactory just wear out. Anyway, we made it through the last round, but it took beer and salty snacks as a form of sensory CPR to get any semblance of sanity back.

What is great about Exclusive Coffees, the company run by Juan Ramon of Las Brumas farm and Francisco Mena, is the way farmers drop by to taste, to hang out, to drop off samples, to socialize. There is a foyer separated by glass from the cupping room, so it puts the cupping activities on display without distracting the work, and there are two incredibly inviting overstuffed couches there. He clearly thought about making this a place for farmers to connect, to learn and to be comfortable. Also a part of Exclusive Coffees is Tim O’Brien, who came to Costa Rica as a Peace Corp volunteer years before, and returned to become a farmer and micro-miller in the same town he served years before. His coffees, under the name Cafetin San Martin, are remarkable, and one lot that we cupped here scored 98 on my sheet. That happens, uh, like never. There were so many coffees around the 90 point mark, that might also explain the exhaustion. As a grand finale, Gillios’s exotic experimental lots were rolled out, and they were very Gillio-like; kind of odd, but incredibly good. Hopefully we will have those to offer in several months after properly resting, and shipping to Oakland.

I have no witty final words. Mena is always coming up with new language, slightly new age in flavor, but completely Mena-ish. Cupping celebration I had already mentioned… we no longer taste or cup coffee, we celebrate coffee. It’s a nice sentiment. As for the shift in Costa Rica from the big multinational mills and powerful coops to small, independent farms with their own wet mills and drying facilities, he calls it the Micro-Mill Revolution. I don’t question that term either, though it has a bit of ornament. I don’t believe the micro-millers will rise up in arms to topple the government, barricade the streets, start a war for worker’s rights or mobilize the students like Paris ’68 or a Berkeley free speech sit-in. But just as we have a movement toward local food in the US, away from centralized, industrial agriculture, the return to small-scale farming/milling of coffee in Costa Rica is an agricultural movement. The path that agronomists and industry leaders who were largely concerned with yield and disease resistance had taken Costa Rica down was flawed, at least in regards to taste and quality, and in other ways for which I won’t argue here, lest I start sounding preachy.

Costa Rica 95, the high yield, squat little full-sun coffee bush was a physical manifestation of that pathway … perhaps better characterized as a 4 lane highway where the median was planted entirely in Costa Rica 95. Catimor-type varietals like this produce so much they exhaust themselves in less than 10 years, and you must rip them out and replant. Typica and Bourbon, and even their more productive “hijos,” the natural mutations Villa Sarchi and Caturra, on the other hand can be productive and sustainable for many decades. CR 95 fits large scale, industrial production, a labor-savvy plant that is easy to pick, and fully fruited within 2 years. It is is ideal for those who think of coffee as undifferentiated bulk commodity, but it does not return the best results to the small scale farmer. The part of the coffee trade that pays the most for their coffee, those who base payment on flavor profile, want nothing to do with CR 95.

Even if they were fooled into buying it once, they would never knowingly do it again. These are the same buyers who are seeking out small lots of exceptional coffee, perfectly scaled to the output of a small family farm with a micro-mill. There are so many roasters involved that they are too numerous to name; from nearby folks like Ritual, Four barrel, Flying Goat, to Stumptown (who got me started with “La Mosca”), or Mary at Electric City, or Trabocca and Kaffa in Europe, or the indomitable Maruyama Coffee in Japan. Luckily, the transformation is happening, and I can only hope there are many small-scale buyers like myself who will join the so-called revolution because the only factor limiting the number of farms that can maximize cup quality (rather than seeking only to maximize yield-per-hectare) is finding like-minded buyers willing to pay a fair price for quality. No small buyer could start this, no small producer could either. I appreciate Mr Mosca for having the prescience to put the formerly failing farmer and the quality-starved buyer together. Cupping Celebration! Micro-Mill Revolution!

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