6/28 Where does that cup of coffee come from?
Friday, July 2nd, 2010
I left the Diamante Valley in search of better weather. One reason I was so concerned about driving down into that valley was that it had been pouring rain, off and on, for the whole time I’d been there. Every time I talked to someone in Puerto Viejo, they told me how calm and beautiful the water was. As they raved about the sparkly sunny days and I began to get homesick. Driving through San Isidro, I heard thunder, but I kept going, climbing higher toward one of my trip’s objectives: Cerro de la Muerte. At 11,000 feet, it is the highest road in Costa Rica. The higher I went, the less visibility there was. Only my popping ears informed me of the altitude. Then at the very top the sun shined through the clouds.
After several days of meeting people and making plans, I enjoyed the relief of winging it. I had no definite destination for the day. There’s not much more than a few restaurants on the Pan American Highway at Cerro de La Muerte. So I considered the side road, down to San Gerardo, where I’d been told to look for a nice lodge. But after five minutes on that precipitous dirt road, looking down into dark clouds, I turned back. “I’m sticking with the sun.”
But what to do next? The Saints Zone – La Zona de Los Santos – was ahead, another diversion from the main highway. I had planned to go there, as my Tica friend, Katty, recommended. But what if it was the same as the last place I’d ventured into? I called Katty, in San Jose, and she called a friend who lives in the area. He said it was pouring rain and he, himself, was thinking of leaving. And besides that, there was nothing going on for the weekend. “I’m not going there,” I told Katty. “I’ll go on to Cartago.”
Twenty minutes later I saw the turnoff for Los Santos and guess what? I took it. I don’t know why. I just did. I’ve been driving by instinct. As I glided down and around the hills on the very nicely paved road, the sun began to break through. I was just delighted to see the lovely little houses, so nicely painted and with flowers in the yards. Around every bend was a new, happy valley with a town nestled into it. I arrived in San Marcos, where I was to be blessed with three days of writing and relaxation, the highlight of which was a coffee tour.
There is nothing like having an “in.” Katty introduced me to her friend Felix Monge Cordero, and I got a private tour of his coffee farm and of the place where they process the beans. The day with Felix was one of my most enjoyed, on this trip.
I like coffee and I like learning all about it, just as I delight in learning anything new. But my real interest is in the people behind the activity. That’s why I appreciated my tour with Felix. He is an intelligent, educated young man – third generation coffee farmer – who loves what he does. He is proud of his family tradition and has great appreciation for how cultivating coffee has contributed to their success and well being, and that of the community, too. Felix is also proud of his coffee. It is sold through his local co op, Coope Tarrazú and is said to be the best coffee in Costa Rica. Felix feels that is it one of the three best in the world. The other two being Yirga Cheffe from Ethiopia and Huehuetenango from Guatemala. On my coffee tour, I learned why Tarrazú coffee is so good.
Nature is the principal reason why coffee grown in Tarrazú is so highly prized. This coffee is rated as having high, fine acidity, very good body and very good aroma. The conditions are perfect – acidic soil, a balance of sun and shade, warm days with cool evenings and just the right amount of humidity and rain. The type of soil and the higher altitude increases the coffee beans acid content and produces better flavor. The cold nights at these higher altitudes, cause the trees to grow more slowly, which creates a fuller flavored bean.
Although these conditions have been ever present, coffee is not native to Central America. The plant originated in Africa (Ethiopia), migrated to Holland, then the Caribbean Islands and from there, was brought to Costa Rica, where it traveled on to Nicaragua and El Salvador. When the people saw how well coffee grew, plantations emerged and by 1829, coffee was a major crop in Costa Rica. There are two kinds of coffee, Arabica (cultivated for quality) and Robusta (fast growing, high yield – quantity). Costa Rica produces only Arabica coffee.
For the finest flavor, the way the coffee is grown is equally important. Felix takes pride in his farming practices. His family has been growing coffee for fifty years. During this time, much has been learned. The old farmers worked hard to keep their fields clean and free of weeds. In the 1980s, big chemical companies came to Costa Rica and convinced the plantation owners that herbicides were the answer. At first it seemed true and chemical use was rampant. This was an easier way to farm, thanks to science. Today, years later, Felix has inherited a plantation with diminished production and exhausted soil, as a result of chemical use. Still, he has a positive outlook. For direction, he looks to the use of new technology, combined with traditional, time proven practices.
Due to present conditions, Felix is not able to go organic. The soil needs chemical fertilizers and occasionally, as humidity cannot be controlled, he must use a fungicide. But he is working to diminish chemical use. Modern farmers let the weeds grow between plants, and chop them down before harvest season. That, in combination with the use of shade trees, interspersed, helps to provide organic material which will convert to fertilizer. The shade trees, gravilia and banana, also help provide food for the birds and for his workers. On the plantation, they also grow oranges, mangos and avocados, which the workers can pick and sell for themselves, if they want to.
Advocacy of ecological harmony is foremost in Felix’s mind. He keeps the plants a safe distance from the farm’s creeks and streams, protecting the watershed. He plants vetiver, a special grass, to prevent erosion. And best of all, his family has kept 20 hectares ( 50 acres) in the middle of their 50 hectare (125 acres) farm as protected, virgin forest. The forest is home to a myriad of birds and small animals and three fresh, clean mountain springs.
Felix likes to research and experiment. His latest study has proven quite successful. It’s a baby tree project. Coffee plants produce beans and continue to grow for many years, but after twenty five years, their output slows down substantially. Most farmers still let them grow and tolerate the diminished bean production. That’s because it takes three years for a new plant to commence normal bean yield. Felix thinks it is worth the wait. Every year he exchanges three hectares of old plants for young ones. This is just one of the ways Felix assures his farm of greater sustainability and a better future.
Cultivating coffee, from planting to care to harvest, requires 100% manual labor. Just look at the rugged, mountainous terrain it is grown on and you can see why. Felix employs year round locals for the farm’s continual care and Indigenous (Indians) from Panama, during December through March, for harvest season. I asked why the Costa Rican Indigenous did not work for him, too. Evidently they prefer other occupation. Panamanians are the ones who seek employment. They need the work. The pay is so low in Panama, that that it is worth the trip to the plantations of Costa Rica. And they are diligent workers, too.
Felix cares about his workers, provides excellent working conditions and pays them fairly. The same workers come back every year. When Felix talks about them, his respect and fondness is evident. As man who highly values family and community, Felix is saddened by the number of Costa Rican men who leave their families and travel to the United States for work. He tells me this is a common practice in the towns of Los Santos. Many of these guys spend their money foolishly and send little home. Some never return, abandoning their children. In contrast to this, the Panamanian Indians refuse to work, without their families. They travel as a group and are housed on the plantation. Felix was proud to tell me his coffee is certified under the Rain Forest Alliance, Fair Trade and C.A.F.E. Practices. One of the criteria for these certifications is that no children are allowed in the fields. An exception has been made for Felix’s farm. Cultural tolerance and understanding is key, in successful employment of the Indigenous. In their culture the families work together: children along side of their parents. They are allowed to work on Felix’s farm – allowed but never required. They are solely under the authority of their parents, who let them pick beans until they get bored and run off to play with the other children. Felix even purchased special, smaller bean baskets for the kids, to keep their loads light.
Experience has taught Felix to accept and respect the Indigenous culture. They do things their own way. One lesson learned was when he bought new kitchen appliances for several of the families. He was dismayed, the next day, to find them tossed into the jungle. “I paid good money for those,” Felix complained. “and you don’t want them! OK, What do you want?” They wanted to cook on wood, like they always have, so he gave them what they wanted. He says he has learned to ask first, now. But sometimes that can be difficult. If he asks a woman, and her husband is not around, she ignores him! In the Indian culture the woman is not allowed to speak to “white folks” without her husband’s permission. And yes, I asked. It is true that the women walk behind and carry the heavy load. They also wait, with babies at breast and scampering toddlers, outside the bars while their husbands get drunk. At the end of the evening the women gather up the family and haul them all home. I was impressed by Felix’s lack of judgment toward these people. He knows better than to try to change another culture. Instead he looks for the positive. He told me the Indigenous men are allowed more than one wife and one of his best workers has three. They alternate on their visits, each harvest season. Each wife knows that she and her children must take turns with the other wives, coming to harvest every third year. Felix told me this particular family is one of the nicest and happiest working families he has known. I said the patriarch must be an exceptional man, keeping three wives happy: most men have trouble handling one!
Coffee beans are green until maturity, when they turn red and are picked. The pickers must go through the fields three times during harvest season, to complete this process. Then the beans go to the coffee mill. In Costa Rica, this, and the sale of the processed beans, is handled by co ops. Felix is on the board of directors of his co op, Coope Tarrazú . It was started in 1960 and today, has 2600 members. It is the second largest in Costa Rica. They provide a fine example of people working together for the common good. In addition to coffee sales, Coope Tarrazú owns several other businesses, including a gas station and two grocery stores and distributes cash to it’s members, from the profits. The co op is a great place for plantations owners to get together, discuss problems and find solutions. It also provides an on staff agronomist, for agricultural advice.
The beans travel directly from farm to factory or, for the outlying areas, collectors are provided. The beans are weighed, the farmers paid and the processing begins. The quality of the processing is a most important factor in good flavor. It must begin within twenty four hours of picking or the beans will begin to ferment. This is the biggest quality control challenge. Fermentation negatively affects the taste.
Separation is the next part of the process. The bean is separated from it’s soft outer cover – the red part, called pulp. Then, using a water system, they are separated by quality. The best beans are the heaviest. They sink. The third step in this “wet mill” process is removal of the mucous layer. Colombian technology has provided a machine using centrifugal force for this task.
Then comes the “dry mill.” The beans must be dried before they can be shipped. There are three different drying steps, with three huge ovens. One of these, the Berico, is several stories high. The beans are sent to the top and then dropped inside, to fall down through the hot air. For a good quality bean, they must be dried slowly. The whole milling process takes twenty five hours. The Berico takes three. Then comes the John Gordon machine – British technology. And lastly, the secadora, which rotates, rolling the beans while drying, for fourteen hours.
At this point, the coffee bean is still in a dry, outer shell, which is left on for protection. To enhance it’s quality, the coffee is stored this way, in silos, for two to five months. Then the shells are removed and it is packed in burlap bags, for shipping. I was delighted to see that they still use the traditional burlap bags, as so much has been replaced with plastic these days. Felix told me this is necessary, so the beans can breathe. He beamed with pride, when he told me about what they do with the shells. Years ago, the shells were a problem. They created waste, that nobody knew what to do with. Today, thanks to new technology, the shells are used to fuel the ovens that heat the coffee driers. This is yet, another example of positive, sustainability practice.
Copetarrazu ships it’s one hundred pound burlap bags, by the container, to twenty five buyers throughout the world, including the U.S.A., Canada, The European Union, Germany and Japan. Starbucks buys beans from Tarrazú . The buyers sell to roasters, who roast, package and sell the coffee to the stores, who sell it to you.
So now you know what has to happen in order to get that cup of coffee to your table each morning. And you know a bit about the people involved in doing it. I was motivated by my readers to take this tour and I’m so glad I did. Many of you are following my travels and I wanted to give you some really interesting insight into the people of Costa Rica. My first delight was the sight of the coffee trees, placed in neat rows, extending way up the sides of high mountains. As I learned all about them, my delight turned to admiration of how productive people can make use of their resources. Felix tells me, life for everyone in all the towns of Los Santos revolves around coffee. It has generously provided the funds to support and educate his family. Among his siblings are a doctor and a nurse, a tourism expert who speaks five languages, a geologist, a hydroelectric professional and of course another coffee farmer. Although the world coffee prices can set them high on the hog or make them tighten their belts, one thing is for sure. They will never go hungry because we will never stop drinking coffee.
If you would like to take this tour, let me know. I’d be happy to accompany you. Or you can contact Felix directly: Felix Monge Cordero at Tarrazu Coffee Tours. Would you like to try this tasty coffee, yourself? You can only buy it locally, in San Marcos. That’s because Coope Tarrazú is not a coffee roaster. They sell their beans, ready to roast. But they do roast some beans for local and online sale. You can order them here: Coope Tarrazú The kind I like is La Pastora Tarrazú.
Incidentally, the reason you don’t see photos of workers in the fields picking beans or beans going through the machines in the mill is because at the time of my tour it was not harvest season. If you want to plan a trip to La Zona de Los Santos, come during harvest – December through March.