Just in case part 1 wasn't enough for you, here's the 2nd and final part of my Costa Rica field trip report.
DAY 3 - Cupping at the Cafe Imports San Jose office.
After two days of fabulous farm and mill visits we were gagging to taste some of the coffees that would be on the Cafe Imports offer list this year. One of the main purposes of the trip was to find some coffees that are going to make it into the Crankhouse lineup both for wholesale and retail customers alike. The advantage of being there of course is that our little group got first pick and therefore had the chance to reserve some very special micro-lot coffees (eg. special preparations of experimental lots) in addition to possible 'blenders' or good solid single origins.
The calm before the slurping storm
The whole Cafe Imports crew who hosted our trip were there to guide us through the 4 tables of 8 coffees and were expertly assisted by the permanent San Jose office staff. Weighing, grinding, pouring, timing, cleaning up etc etc.
The last time I cupped this many coffees in a day was on my last trip in 2016 to El Salvador. It's a challenge due to getting over caffeinated as well as your taste becoming saturated (known as palate fatigue). Of course the Cafe Imports crew know this and our day was pretty relaxed and not hurried in any way. Two tables in the morning, with a sit down scoring and discussion after each table, a nice outdoor lunch break and back in for the afternoon session.
Each table had a 'theme' starting from lower scoring community lots and mainly semi-washed coffees, through to the more interesting honeys and naturals and finishing with the 'specials' ie. small micro-lots with possibly only a few bags available and using a different technique for drying or fermentation.
Here's a basic breakdown:
TABLE 1: Mainly semi-washed Catuai/Caturra coffees from Tarrazu and West Valley and a very good community' coffee from La T`rinidad (Tarrazu). Highest scoring amongst these as an average for the group and Cafe Imports crew was 85.7 for the La Trinidad. Notes: clean, juicy, green tea, red apple.
TABLE 2: Micro-lot coffees from Cerro San Luis and El Pilon (detailed in part 1 of this report), and Aguilera brothers farms (Day 4 on our agenda). My top picks on the table were a natural Caturra/Catuai from El Pilon which was all tropical fruits and cherry cola (scored 88 by the group, 88.5 by me), and a natural from Aguilera brothers Finca Chayote, a Villa Sarchi variety and a big jammy juicy banger with a sweet pastry dough finish (only two bags of this one available). I scored this 87.25 and the group average was 86.
TABLE 3: More micro-lots from Cerro San Luis and La Pira de Dota (day 1) and some from our day 4 destination La Perla De Cafe. Top of the pops for me were the yellow honey Villa Sarchi from La Perla De Cafe, Lourdes which I scored 86.5 (avg. 86.2), and the La Pira De Dota typica varietal semi-washed which scored 88.75 (avg. 86.8). This was super clean and fruity. One of the Eric's described this as like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter or bread ;-)
TABLE 4: Saving the best til last ! Some different varietals (orange bourbon, SL28), and some different processes (anaerobic fermentation and yellow diamond). My picks were a 'golden honey' SL28 from La Perla De Cafe which I scored a massive 90.5 with a group average of 88.5. 35 bags of this beauty and I have put my name down for at least one ;-) Dark forest fruits jam. Also an anaerobic natural from both El Pilon and La Chumecha, which they've called Chumilon, and was all plummy and dark chocolate (I scored 88, avg. 85.75).
Some great coffees and hopefully a number of these juicy bangers will appear on the Crankhouse list and make there way into your cup.
DAY 4 - Visit Aguilera Brothers and La Perla del Café micro-mill
Today's region was the West Valley and Naranjo, and another 2 hrs in the tour bus from San Jose. Unfortunately we never made it to the Aguilera brothers farms or mill. A message was relayed to us that the Aguilera's had sadly lost a family member overnight and of course our visit had to be cancelled. The Cafe Imports team know these famers and mill owners and this was tragic news.
Not to be defeated the Cafe Imports crew managed to arrange a stop at another nearby farm and micro-mill 'Finca Genesis' owned by Oscar and Olga Mendez and their daughter Pilas (along with their 14 dogs, roosters and chickens). What a backup this turned out to be. One of our young star spanish speaking coffee travellers (Evelyn from Cat and Cloud) relayed to us after we had left, the story behind the name Genesis, a new beginning. Oscar used to be organically certified but was forced to use expensive organic feeds that were approved. This was untenable and he dropped his certification, installed his own mill and started processing his own cherries and cherry from neighbouring farms. He's something of a legend and community figure. Coffee from Finca Genesis was part of a winning coffee in the 2008 Cup of Excellence.
His philosophy is to farm with the land and nature, not against it. He explained that he is not a fan of these 'new' fermentation techniques like the anaerobic method we'd seen elsewhere. He said Genesis was more like a coffee garden than a farm. Beautiful flowers, shade trees and fruit trees were everywhere, an oasis perched on top of a mountain side.
Oscar speaks with an energy that belies his age. He was incredibly engaging and made one the quotes of the trip: "I have a lot of respect for cuppers and roasters, as they know that what they are tasting is a beautiful symphony - a culmination of the world's natural beauty, and the hard work of many different hands". I asked Oscar (via Omar) if he knew the meaning of Feng Shui. He didn't and I tried to explain it's meaning of balance and harmony between man and his surroundings. Oscar and Finca Genesis have great Feng Shui.
After some freshly made lemon squash we were invited to eat the fruit of a couple of different varietals including a Geisha cherry, Delicate and sweet. Here's my own quote: If the fruit tastes good then the seed will too ;-) Olga asked us not to take them with us since they only grow a very small quantity of this varietal.
Geisha cherries for desert at Finca Genesis
Plans change and sometimes a disappointment gets turned upside down into something pretty special.
Last on our agenda was a visit to La Perla De Cafe micro-mill, owned by Carlos and Diane Barrantes who built the mill in 2010 to allow them to process coffee off of their and their families 6 farms totalling 90 hectares. Total production from the mill is 500 bags and of that 98% is from micro-lots. This couldn't be further removed from our previous visit. The covered drying patios and beds were all cleaned and padlocked with no debris (or dogs) to be seen anywhere. Carlos is a believer in meticulous attention to detail at every stage. His pickers are the same every year and come across from Panama. They know to only pick the perfectly ripe cherries and they don't even have float tanks at the mill, usually in place to separate unripes and debris.
Carlos was the first person in Costa Rica to grow SL28. He was given a seedling from a friend 12 years ago and off he went. He's subsequently shared his SL28 seed-stock with other Costa Rican producers. In addition he has Geisha, Villa Lobos, Typica and VIlla Sarchi varietals and processes semi-washed, honeys and naturals. In the nursery were hundreds of Geisha plants.
Carlos doesn't as yet have his own dry-mill and deliveries the dried and rested parchment to his brothers dry-mill for de-hulling ready for export. There was a twinkle in his eye at the mention of having his own dry-mill though !
Carlos gave us the third and final quotable quote: If you work hard, you can achieve anything.
We were about 7-10 days too late to see the harvest in most of the farms and mills that we visited. They had a disruptive season due to the rains and periods of high winds both of which stress the plants and brought the harvest forward. This is all believed to be part of the effects of climate change which is the single biggest concern in many of the farmers' minds for a sustainable future. Governments change, taxes increase and the cost of production goes up, but climate change is the big one. A close second is the concern over who will be the next generation of coffee farmers. It's a hard way to make a living and even though we witnessed some daughters and sons carrying on the great work that their parents have started they are the minority.
I had believed for a while that the main reason Costa Rican coffees were generally priced higher than their Central American counterparts was the cost of labour. Their pickers come cross from Panama and Nicaragua rather than being locals. But of course that’s only one factor. The growth of the micro-mills where a famers cherries are processed from fruit to parchment (at the wet-mill), then to green ready for export (at the dry mill), has required significant investment in the machines that perform these operations. Anywhere from $60-$80k for a wet-mill of the size that we saw on some of the farms - just for the wet-mill. At La Perla De Cafe, Carlos has been running his wet mill for 6 years but still takes the parchment to neighbouring beneficio (dry mill) luckily owned by his brother. Ideally he wants full control just like at Las Lajas: cherry gets delivered and green coffee goes out on the container to the port. They have full control along every part of the coffee's journey and therefore more control over quality.
Costa Rica is known for these micro-mills and it’s part of what makes their coffees attractive. Grown, harvested and processed under complete control with all the due care and attention that only the farmer who planted and nurtured the coffee plants could have.
One thing i was hoping to get a clearer understanding of was the Costa Rican way of honey processing. I'd been told that they 'invented' the honey process and the colours were determined by how much mucilage was left on the seed before drying. Some do it this way by varying the water pressure in the decmuliginator, but others don't. Instead all their cherries go through the same machine with the same setting and instead change the way the sticky cherries are then dried. At Las Lajas, some of the honeys were initially dried on raised beds before going into the covered patios and piled up in their pyramid shapes, others go straight to the patios, some never. Of course there's no one way. These people are not following a book. They are farming fruit trees and trying to get the best quality and consistency from the knowledge they've learned and had handed down to them as well as the current research, some in tune with market demands, others not.
My last day was spent going through the score sheets and notes for the two cupping sessions with Simone from Cafe Imports. There were some solid coffees that could make it into the next CH blend, or single origins for some of my wholesale customers. There were also some stonkers. Delicious and fruity, super sweet and mouth watering. Apparantely this is one of the 'easier' countries to arrange export from and it's possible that come May/June there will be some Costa Rican coffees on the Crankhouse list.
Finally a massive shout to my Cafe Imports hosts Simone, Kimiyo, Omah and Lucio and all my fellow coffee tourists who made the trip so enjoyable and interesting.