Last week I went to Costa Rica with one of my favourite import partners Cafe Imports. I bought my first few bags of coffee from them when I started Crankhouse and have continued to buy great stuff from them ever since. I was looking around at what origin trips might be going this year and the timing was right for their 5 day trip to this Central American coffee producer and I signed up.
I had no idea how many people were on the tour and arrived late Sunday night to my hotel in San Jose and overheard 'Yirgacheffe' coming from a small group of four at the hotel bar. I wandered over and introduced myself to Ethan and Eric from 33 1/3 Coffee from Regina in Canada and Dan and Eric from Hyperion Coffee from Ypsilanti in Michigan. I thought that was probably it, a nice little group of 5 along with one or two Cafe Imports folk. Wrong.
The following morning on exiting the elevator I almost walked into two faces I know from their youtube channel Chris Baker and Jerad Trubey of Cat and Cloud Coffee in Santa Cruz. These guys are something of superstars in the coffee world and have an incredibly informative and entertaining blog which I’ve been a fan of for some time. They both have long and established careers in speciality coffee and started their own cafe/roastery in Santa Cruz last year and are already in the process of opening their 2nd and 3rd this year. They are on an upward trajectory and I was pretty excited to be on the same trip as these movers and shakers along with Evelyn, one of their new recruits and definite stars of the future . Waiting for the tour to get under way it was clear that it wasn't a cosy little group of 5 but more like 15. Roasters and baristas and green coffee buyers; some on their first origin trip, others old hands.
We visited two micro-mills in the Tarrazu region. The first La Pira De Dota owned by Carlos Urena Ceciliano, more affectionally known as ‘The Engineer’. Everything on the farm is reclaimed and reused: fixed, repaired and made to fit a specific purpose. The large round wooden door with the La Pira logo (which he designed of course) was reclaimed by his father from a bank. It was the vault door. He also turned a bank coin sorter (from the same bank presumably) into a grading sorter for samples. It’s a simple vibrating table on which he mounts the sorting screens on: puts the greens on the top of the first sieve, switches on and presto, sorted according to screen size. Plenty of examples of his ingenuity elsewhere and of course this comes down partly to necessity as well as the curiosity of a man who likes to make things work. These are subsistence farmers producing small quantities of high quality green coffee and buying ‘new’ is simply not an option.
Another example of his ingenuity was at the cherry receiving point which had a neat little water system to cool and recirculate the tank water (they soak for the first 12 hrs). The tank water trickles up and over the corrugated roof at night time to cool it down. After the cool water soak, the cherries go though the de-pulper for the honeys or to the drying beds for the naturals.
A unique feature of Costa Rican coffee production is the fact that cherries are measured in volume rather than weight. The green box in the picture is a standard unit of measure of coffee cherry know as a Funega. The small red box on the edge of picture to the left is a Cajeulas, which is the unit that pickers get paid by. Approximately twenty Cajeulas fill the Funegas which is 450 Litres, and two Funegas makes approximately one Quintales. Once processed one Quintales equates to approx 46Kg of parchment coffee. Confusing huh ? The Funegas sits directly above the receiving tanks at the wet-mill, where the cherries undergo their initial wash and flotation to remove any debris and unripes.
Drying of the naturals takes place outdoors whilst the semi-washed and honeys are dried under cover. Walking up to the drying beds is a treat. The smells given off by the naturals and the honeys is delightful and incredibly sweet.
Once dried and in parchment, the coffee is rested in animal feed bags which are cheaper than the proprietary Grainpro plastic we receive our greens in. It's said to be in reposo (resting) and this typically takes up to two months and allows the water activity within the beans to stabilise. Shipping without this phase would lead to rapidly declining quality of the coffee. At La Pira the 'reposo' area is in a high ceilinged wooden structure which felt incredibly cool and calming. I quite fancied resting their myself to be honest.
La Pira De Dota felt like walking into a cosy wooden cabin with a leather sofa in the corner, and collections of coffee bits and bobs spread around the place. This is where the mill equipment resides, including both the de-pulper for the semi-washed and honeys and also the demuciliginator (yup it's a tricky one) which removes more of the sticky mucilage and is used at this and some other mills to determine the honey 'colour'. Yellow, red, and black are the main designations running from less mucilage remaining to more respectively.
The natural 'de-pealer'
Unfortunately the harvest came early this year and we missed the collection and processing by a week or more and therefore all the wet-mill equipment was cleaned thoroughly and shut-down for next season. One piece of machinery in the mill was still to be used of course and that was the device to peal the skin off the naturals once they'd been dried. I have no idea what the proper name for this piece of equipment was so let's just call it the de-pealer.
At La Pira Carlos's daughter is actively involved in the business and the third generation in the household will hopefully continue the good work. I noticed an old coal-fired coffee roaster sitting in a corner, unused and in need of some Carlos fixing. I wonder if he knows that he could sell that and probably make more money than he gets from 4 or 5 harvests.
Naturals drying at El Pilon
The second visit was to two beautiful farms El Pilon and La Chumeca owned by Martin Urena and his family, who between them share a small micro-mill. When I say micro-mill I’m being a little generous. They only produce naturals and therefore the ‘wet’ mill is a couple of large plastic bins with a clever pipework system which sorts the floaters and any other debris from the good cherries using a minimum of recirculated water. Alongside that they had six or so large stainless steel tanks for their ’anaerobic’ fermentation coffees which they are currently experimenting with due to an increased interest in this type of fermentation. Last season a Japanese roaster paid a large amount for ‘anaerobic’ fermentation from another mill. The fermenting cherries had had cinnamon added as per instruction buy the buyer. At El Pilon they’ve done some testing with pineapple and star-fruit. Not something that feels right in terms of specialty coffees but if there’s a market for these styles of coffees in Asia and elsewhere then I’m definitely not going to judge them.
La Chumeca was like an oasis hidden away in the hillside. Walking up from El Pilon we were taken up a windy narrow pathway through the coffee bushes and shade trees and came out into a small clearing at just over 1700m which was breathtaking. Raised beds placed neatly in rows, a pond with Coy Carp, a tree house and a few open sacks of cherries undergoing their first few hours of ‘aerobic’ fermentation alongside the steel tanks for the ‘anaerobic’ method. They are trialling a mix of anaerobic and aerobic methods to see how they perform. Anaerobic for the first 24 hrs to kick-start the fermentation process, then aerobic for another 48hrs to slow it down but not too much before their final drying in the raised beds. This is all done by ‘feel’ and familiarity with their coffee. Again it was great to see the younger generation actively involved in the business and taking it forward.
La Chumeca - a tranquil oasis
The old and the young. Engleberg de-huller from 1886 and the proud new generation of coffee farmer.
Visit Cerro San Luis and Las Lajas with cupping at Las Lajas micro-mill in the West Valley region.
First stop of the morning was a visit to Franco’s specialty coffee shop and restaurant in San Jose. A beautifully designed space and very simple coffee counter setup with the two owners making a special visit to welcome us. They work with some of the best local producers and one of the owners belongs to a producing family. We were given the option of a 50/50 semi-washed/natural Catuai, a double washed Catuai or a guest of a washed Rwandan Bourbon. They normally only offer Costa Rican coffee but we were given the special treatment. Top barista skills from Perry Czopp one of Chris and Jared’s old competition barista friends from the US who now lives in San Jose.
Cherries still on the trees at Cerro San Luis
The award winning Cerro San Luis micro-mill is owned and managed by Alexander Delgado and Gustavo Guerra and between them they have 4 farms . Access to the mill was not possible in our 20 seater tour bus so we hopped into the back of one of the cherry collection trucks and up the windy bumpy dirt track. Across the farms they grow 14 varietals, some familiar names like Red and Yellow Catuai, Caturra, Orange Bourbon, Pacamara, Typica, SL28, Geisha and Maragogype, but others unique to Costa Rica including Villa Sarchi, Venezia, Villa Lobos. They are also growing one of the F1/H1 varieties developed by the World Coffee Research organisation. Villa Sarchi is named after the town in which it was discovered which is only 10 miles away.
Omar (inst: omarvellous) one of our incredible Cafe Imports guides showing us the differences in leaf shapes and node spacing for some of the 14 varietals on Cerro San Luis.
Unlike most of the other farms we visited during the trip there were still some cherries on the trees since the harvest hadn’t completely finished, so we were treated to seeing the variations in the shapes and node spacings, leaf shapes and sizes as well as the obvious fruit sizes and colour variations. Here’s a picture of some of these 14 varietals. You can see that the usual criteria of picking only red ripe cherries doesn’t apply to one of these cherries. The Yellow Catuai in the picture is ripe but a seasonal picker wouldn’t have the knowledge to identify if it is ripe to pick. The farm manager does this by using a Brix meter to measure the sugar content in this particular varietal.
Cherries are brought to the receiving tanks or collection points via the pickers and they are paid per Cajeulas, a volume measure which is a certified square open box. At Cerro Saint Luis the pickers are given tokens which correspond to the quantity, varietal and a basic assessment of the quality of the cherries. Then on pay-day they bring their tokens to the mill to receive their payment. This system operates in other counties as well and is partly a ‘safety’ measure so pickers aren’t carrying cash around at the end of the day, and partly to stop temptation getting in their way on the way home from a hard days picking.
Soldiers, coins and honeys at Cerro San Luis
Las Lajas is in the Sabanilla de Alajuelan region and was one of the mills I was most looking forward to seeing on the trip. I had a Yellow Honey Catuai on the Crankhouse list in 2017 and it was one of the best coffees of the year for me and many of my customers. This was one slick operation and from the moment we arrived the professionalism and attention to detail was evident.
Owned and managed by Francisca and Oscar Cachon, and established in 1840 they are third generation coffee farmers and are responsible for starting the natural and honey processing methods in Costa Rica. Francisca told us that in 2008 there was a big earthquake in the region that disrupted the water supply to their small mill. They adopted the 'African' process for that harvest and the results became recognised by one significant international buyer in particular Andrew Miller the owner of Cafe Imports. Now they are known for their pioneering 'Perla Negra' which is their full natural dried on raised beds. At Las Lajas the different honey colours are not distinguished by the amount of mucilage remaining. All coffees undergo the same level of demucilagination, with the honey colour determined by the drying process ie number of days on the raised beds, number of days on the covered patios.
One interesting and seemingly unique drying technique was to pile the honeys up into a pyramind on the covered patios. Francisca told us to roll our sleeves up and dig in. The further my hand went towards the centre the cooler it felt. By doing this they're slowing down the drying process compared to raised bed drying with a thin layer of cherry.
We were then treated to our first cupping session of the trip at the beautiful Las Lajas cupping lab. On the table, 7 coffees, each the same varietal (caturra/catuai) but different processes: semi-washed, semi-honeyed, yellow, red, and black honeys, Perla Negra and one of their latest experimental processes the Yellow Diamond (more on that later).
If you've made it this far then congratulations and take a breather. Part 2 will follow shortly when you've recovered from part 1.
Until then, Pura Vida