Man, I love landing at the Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela, Costa Rica. For so many years of my life landing at this airport signified the beginning of extended surf trips. A quick car or bus ride over the mountains puts you into some super fun beach breaks, points and the occasional reef. Some of my best memories are in the surf and on the beaches of Costa Rica. These days, however, more time is spent in the mountains. A slight chance for surf.
Thankfully there are some really great coffees to be found and the pura vida spirit that draws so many people to the country, along with the surf, is STRONG in the mountain coffee-growing communities. The Ticos have a beautiful, peaceful and exciting country and as a result are an extremely nationalistic people. This nationalism seems to directly affect the quality of life and the quality of the coffee in the country. These producers have so much pride in their land and for what they produce and it's always exciting to taste a truly great Costa Rican coffee. Be sure to check out our current offering from this trip, Costa Rica Finca Cirri, for a very nice example.
This trip was put together by Royal Coffee New York and STC Coffee. Royal is one of our importing partners and STC Coffee is an exporter in Costa Rica concentrating on sustainable trading of high-quality coffees. For the past few years Royal and STC have been hosting a micro-lot auction program with co-ops and growers in multiple regions of Costa Rica. This year the efforts were concentrated mainly on the Tarrazú region. This micro-lot auction program is a system of finding the best coffee Costa Rica has to offer and paying a premium for quality. Each year the program grows to include more producers. This year, over 50 producers submitted coffee to be cupped and evaluated for inclusion in the program and we cupped a total of 75 coffees. Royal has built this auction not only to reward quality with a higher price but they have placed an emphasis on continued relationships between roasters and producers in the program. This program, for us, highlights what is really important in Speciality Coffee today. A unique, special product backed up by a strong relationship.
We woke early on the first morning of the trip and headed from the Central Valley into the mountains of Tarrazú. The temperature starts to drop soon after you pass through the town of Asserí and the elevation climbs from around 3,000 feet to over 6,000 in the high altitudes of the Tarrazú region. The high altitude of the Talamanca mountain range makes for cool to cold nights and warm days, the perfect weather for growing coffee.
Our first stop of the day was the AFAORCA co-operative (La Asociación de Familias Orgánicas de los Cerros Caraigres). This is one of the first certified organic micro-mills in the country. They showed us their wet milling operations as well as their raised drying beds and dry mill. AFAORCA supports organic coffee producers in the areas of Aserrí, Acosta and Desamparados by processing, financing and marketing their coffees.
After visiting the co-op we were able to visit with Jorge Rojas on his farm, Finca La Tirra, in La Legua Asserí. Jorge organically produces pure arabica varietals, Caturra, Catuai, Typica, at 5,250 feet above sea level on his 10 hectare (about 25 acre) farm. The farm is gorgeous with the plants spaced comfortably and plenty of diversity and shade. Jorge even has part of his farm irrigated. He has just started producing micro-lots and this year will mark the first year of a decent micro-lot production for him. AFAORCA has a program set-up to guide their producers into producing higher quality coffees that will be more traceable and receive higher prices from buyers. Jorge is excited about the possibility of knowing exactly where his coffee ends up and for his name and farm name to be known by the consumer.
Our second stop of the day was La Candelilla Estate in the town of La Sabana, Tarrazú. La Candelilla is one of the first micro-mills in Costa Rica. The Estate consists of 28 hectares (about 70 acres) of land between 5,000 and 5,200 feet above sea level. They have a wet mill which uses mechanical fermentation to process washed coffees as well as patios for drying, a dry mill and a parchment storage warehouse. The mill was opened in 2000 after years of planning when the Sanchez family wanted more traceability and control of their coffee. La Candelilla grows mainly Caturra, Catuai and some Typica though they have planted Gesha in the recent years.
We were able to purchase the Santiago lot from La Candelilla this year. It was one of the best cupping lots in the micro-lot auction, 88.5 points! We tasted juicy notes of melon and hibiscus. Look for it to hit the shelves and our web store by September.
Just down the road from La Candelilla is the largest mill in Costa Rica, Coope Tarrazú. This is by far the largest mill I have ever visited. The scale of production at this mill is insane compared to the small scale of La Candelilla. On the day we visited, March 7th, the production for the year was at 158,395 fanegas. A fanega is the unit of measurement used to measure and buy coffee at the wet-mill level in Costa Rica. It is a volumetric measurement and it usually weighs right around 100 pounds. So just under 16 million pounds of cherry had passed through the mill by March 7th of this years harvest. Something interesting about Coope Tarrazú is that it is managed by Ricardo Hernández, the same man who manages La Candelilla. Ricardo is passionate about managing quality regardless of the scale. We toured the enormous facility that includes wet and dry mills, mechanical dryers and storage silos and had a chance to cup some of their offerings. We do not typically buy large scale cooperative coffees but the offerings from Coope Tarrazú were solid, larger scale production coffees in the 83 point range with some of the samples standing out from that.
Day one ended with a short, dark, foggy drive back through the mountains and down into the Central Valley where we were met with plenty of Imperial and typical Tico grub.
The next day was spent cupping. We cupped 75 coffees from the Tarrazú region. It's extremely tiring cupping coffee all day but it's always a nice experience to cup so many coffees from the same area side by side. Different varietals, micro-climates and processing styles present themselves uniquely in each cup.
We came away with what we felt were the four highest cupping coffees of the day, all scoring between 87.5 and 89.5 on the SCAA cupping scale. Two of the coffees are from families we have worked with in the past two are new relationship coffees for us. Our first lot, Finca Cirri, is currently available. Look for the others to be released throughout the fall.
The following day we drove to the Acosta region of Tarrazú to catch up with farmers that have been part of the micro-lot program since the beginning. The mountains in the Acosta area are high, over 6,000 feet, and covered in mist. These mountains are home to countless micro-climates which create distinct ecosystems and display a great diversity in flora and fauna in a very small area. Small changes in altitude in the tropical latitudes allows for extreme bio-diversity.
As we drive, we pass through the clouds and arrive at an area that has been designated for coffee growing. This area is home to 4 farms all owned by members of the extended Monge family. We purchased a couple of coffees from this family last year and are excited to work with them again. This year we purchased coffee from Finca El Boyerito, owned by Ismael Monge Garbonzo. Look for this coffee to be released this fall. It was great catching up with the Monge family. They have been a big part of the micro-lot program since it's inception. They are great people who grow spectacular coffee and are dedicated to the further advancement of speciality coffee in Costa Rica. We look forward to continuing our relationship with them over the years.
Next we took the short trip to Finca Maria Rita. This farm is another that has been part of the micro-lot program from the beginning. It is a beautiful area and the coffee is one of the highest cupping in the program. They day ended with a marvelous sunset and pulls of Aguardiente from Carlos Monge.
A big thanks goes to Royal Coffee New York, STC Coffee and all of the Costa Rican farmers who make all of this possible. ¡Salud!
Words and photos by Zack Burnett