Dateline: May 1, 2001, Eugene, Oregon SEARCHING FOR THE PERFECT CUP OF COFFEE - PART THREE - COSTA RICA
Chef Patrick & Arnoldo Levia cupping in Costa RicaI arrived in Costa Rica in October just as the coffee cherries were beginning to ripen in the mountains near San Jose. I had missed an International Coffee Buyer Convention in the city by a couple of days and read with interest the news about the anticipated Costa Rica coffee harvest. Predictions were for a good harvest but low coffee prices again this year.
Having previously spent two months in Costa Rica, I already knew a little about Costa Rican coffee and my recent educational experience with the folks from the Community Coffee had perked my interest level to just below an all-absorbing passion. I couldn't wait to learn more...
I spent my first day in San Jose reading tourist brochures promoting different coffee farm tours. I'm not normally a person who goes on run-of-the mill organized tours, but made an exception, paid $60.00, and signed up for Cafe Britts "famous" Coffee Tour.
I had wanted a full day tour of a coffee farm but all that was offered was a half-day tour of Cafe Britt's showcase facilities combined with a visit to a butterfly farm. As it turned out the butterfly farm was the more rewarding tour.
It was a brisk clear morning when I joined eight other "guests" in a Cafe Britt van for a 45 minute trip to the town of Barva at the base of the Poås Volcano. I had already heard that this was prime coffee growing country and anxiously waited for my first view of a coffee finca (farm).
I was disappointed when we arrived at Cafe Britt's finca. It was quickly apparent that I had obliviously signed up for exactly one of the run-of-the-mill tours I had hoped to avoid. The place reminded me of Knott's Berry Farm in California. Our cozy group of eight soon swelled to more than 80 people before the actual tour began.
The Cafe Britt tour is designed to handle bus loads of tourists and was a highly organized, impersonal experience. The tour was interesting as far as it went, but left me with many unanswered questions.
After a quick walk-though a carefully manicured coffee grove and a brief overview about how coffee is grown, we were ushered into the Cafe Britt theater. This actually was the highlight of the tour and we were entertained by professional actors with a stage re-enactment of the history of the coffee bean. It actually was quite funny and entertaining, but still not what I came for.
I returned to my hotel frustrated at having paid too much money for a mediocre experience that offered very little new knowledge about coffee.
That evening I voiced my dissatisfaction to some local folks at the hotel bar and was informed that if I really wanted to taste some great coffee that there was an outstanding Cafe" just down the street that "had the real thing."
I was not disappointed when I arrived at La Esquina Del Cafe (Ave. 9, Calle 3, San Jose) the next morning. "The Cafe", like all coffee bistros, was abuzz with activity.
A quick walk through the "Cafe" assured me that this was indeed the "real thing." Not only did they have beans from some of the better coffee regions of Costa Rica, like Tres Rios, Tarrazu and Cachi, but they actually roasted the beans on premise.
Considered a major social event in Costa Rica, coffee drinking has been elevated to an art for young and old. I found a small table, seated myself, and became absorbed with the coffee menu which offered six "estate coffees" from Costa Rica.
It took some effort on my part to convince my waiter that I really did want three different cups of coffee delivered simultaneously to my table. Finally convinced, my waiter departed to the roasting room and returned ten minutes later with three pots of hot water, three mugs and three tripods each holding a small cloth bag.
A delightful and practical tradition in Costa Rica, fresh coffee is brewed, by the cup, at your table using a cloth bag suspended over your mug. The bag contains the freshly roasted ground coffee, and the waiter slowly pours enough hot water through the bag to fill your cup.
This technique assures that you receive the best possible cup of coffee by combining the proper amount of grounds and water, steeped for the correct amount of time. Unlike paper filters the cloth allows many essential oils to flow through into your cup providing greater body to the coffee.
For my first Costa Rican coffee cupping,"I choose La Esquina's "Cafe la Carpintera"(Tres Rios region); "Cafe Atarazu"(Tarrazu'region); and "Cafe Ujarraci"(Cachi region on the Atlantic coast).
Following the coffee cupping techniques I had learned the previous Fall, I gently stirred my first cup of coffee and brought the back of the spoon to my nose to experience the aroma. I repeated the procedure with each cup before returning to taste the first.
Next, I lifted a spoonful of coffee to my mouth and SLURPED (loudly) allowing the coffee to coat my tongue while aerating it sufficiently enough to allow the aroma to reach my olfactory organs through the back of my mouth.
My slurping did create a few raised eyebrows around the room, but I didn't care; I was in heaven. I had finally found a decent cup of coffee.
I tasted each coffee, enjoying the distinct flavor differences of these outstanding Costa Rican regional coffees. This was what I had been searching for these past six months.
Inspired, and a little wired, I returned to my hotel room with renewed dedication to my pursuit for the perfect cup of coffee. I knew that next, I really needed to see first hand how these coffees where grown and processed.
I spent the next day talking to anyone that would listen to be about my quest, and asking for contracts in the Costa Rican coffee industry. A few responded that they "knew somebody who knew somebody" that might be able to help me, but none of these leads produced any results.
An internet search for "Costa Rican coffee" produced a couple of leads and I promptly sent off emails requesting interviews.
I also decided that it was time for me to contact a friend of mine, Mr. Norman Saurage, the CEO of the Louisiana based Community Coffee Company.
I had met Norman the past summer, and he had become my mentor about coffee. Norman had allowed me to interview him for my column and had also arranged for me to experience my first coffee "cupping" at one of his coffee houses in Austin, Texas. If "anybody would know somebody" in Costa Rica, I knew it would be Norman.
Two days later I received an email from Norman telling me to contact Mr. Arnoldo Levia of The Coffee Source; a major broker in premium Costa Rican coffee (http://www.coffee.co.cr).
I contacted Arnoldo and much to my surprise he had been expecting my call and,"Yes, he would be delighted" to provide me with a tour of "one of the best fincas in Costa Rica."
Early the next morning I was met by Arnoldo's assistant, Patrick Woodbrige . Patrick provided a running commentary about San Jose and Costa Rica while maneuvering through the morning rush hour traffic to our destination, Doka Estates.
Like Cafe Britt's finca, Doka Estates is also located on Costa Rica's famous Poås Volcano. The big difference was that Doka Estate's finca is at the prime coffee growing altitude of 4,500 feet above sea level.
As we drove higher up the volcano, we passed through lush foot hills covered with coffee plants. It is here in the rich volcanic soil, crisp clear mountain air and abundant sunshine that Costa Rica's ideal coffee producing environment exists.
Doka Estates is the largest and oldest privately owned coffee finca in Costa Rica with over 600 acres producing some of the choicest coffee to be found in Central America.
Besides growing premium coffee, Doka Estates also processes their "private reserve" coffee in a beneficio, or mill, located on the Estate. This beneficio has been in continuous operation since 1916 and is a historical work of art.
The day of my tour, Patrick and I had the entire place to ourselves, except the staff, who could be seen carefully raking the milled coffee beans under the tropical sun on the huge concrete patios outside the beneficio.
The beneficio still uses water from nearby steams to power the almost 100 year old equipment and every step in the milling process is still done in the traditional methods learned from their great- grandfathers.
Since the coffee "cherries" (they are not called "beans" until they are milled) do not all ripen simultaneously, there are three crop harvests that take place annually.
The harvest is frequently a whole family affair and is carefully done by hand, with experienced pickers selecting only the perfectly ripe cherries.
Next, the ripe coffee cherries are brought to the beneficio, inspected and unloaded into a large water filled tank. Here, the ripe cherries sink and the green cherries, leaves and twigs float. Only the ripe cherries continue through the mill where they are gently rolled removing the outer husk and allowing the cherry to separate into its two "bean" halves. The husks, green cherries, leaves and twigs are pulled aside, composted and used as organic fertilizer on the finca.
When the beans are first removed from the husk, they are covered with a bitter gelatinous film that must be removed by soaking before the delicate beans are carefully dried.
The soaking process takes about twenty-four hours, and the beans are constantly monitored to insure that they do no begin to ferment. Careless soaking can ruin the batch.
The final step before grading the beans is the drying process. The traditional method of slowly sun drying (and raking every hour) is a labor intensive process and only the best beans are given this treatment.
Most coffee beans are dried in large rotating dryers at 55 degrees Celsius. The purpose of the drying process is to remove excess moisture to ensure that the beans are suitable for shipping and roasting. This process is constantly monitored to insure that the dried beans attain a moisture content of 11% to 12%.
Only a small quantity is roasted at the beneficio and sold to visiting tourists, most of the beans are packaged in large burlap sacks and sold "green" to roasters in more than 18 different countries.
From here the beans are then sorted by size and color. It is in this sorting process that the bean is first graded as to its potential quality.
Not all cherries are equal in quality, even from the same plant. For example, the first harvest usually produces an abundance of "peaberry" beans.
These are cherries that only produce one bean. However, this isn't necessarily bad since that one bean has all the flavor that would normally be divided into two beans.
Most "peaberry" beans are sold in the European market where they are dark roasted, covered in chocolate and sold worldwide. A small quantity makes its way Stateside and can be purchased in quality coffee houses usually as a "Peaberry Blend."
Only the beans taken from the second harvest are used in Doka Estate's Private Reserve coffee. These beans are more mature, full bodied, and represent some of the best of the Costa Rican coffee market.
During the third and final harvest all the cherries are removed from the plant. The reason is economic; subsequent harvests are too expensive for the yield they obtain.
The beans from this final harvest are usually sold to roasters who then blend them with other beans. They also frequently find their way into decaffeinated, freeze dried and instant coffees.
My visit to Doka Estate was indeed an enlightening experience. However, I was soon to discover that the best was yet to come.
Our next stop was to the offices of The Coffee Source Inc. Here, in their second story offices in downtown San Jose, the true value of the bean is determined.
It was here that I met Arnoldo Levia and my coffee education took a major leap forward.
Arnoldo is a green-coffee exporter and salesman extraordinare.
As the senior sales representative for The Coffee Source, Arnoldo is a man who takes his coffee very seriously. He is responsible for cupping each batch of beans produced by the various fincas they represent and determining that coffee's quality before it is put on the market.
Over the course of two hours while we sat and tasted some of Costa Ricas finer coffees, Arnoldo explained to me the complexity of coffee growing. He shared with me how quality is determined and some of the finer points; the subtle relationships between the beans origin and that final cup of coffee.
The subject is far too complex to discuss in depth in this article and my best advice to anyone searching for the perfect cup of coffee is to find a coffee importer/roaster whom you can trust.
So much of this business is based on the knowledge and experience of the many people involved in this complex process that it is really best left to the professional.
It takes one coffee plant to produce one pound of processed coffee. At any point in the process of growing, picking, milling, drying, sorting, grading, shipping, roasting, grinding and brewing the quality of that bean can be adversely affected.
As I sit here today drinking my cup of coffee and think back on just what was involved in getting that brew into my cup I am amazed at just how many times that little bean was handled.
Those of us in the hospitality industry have an obligation to our customers to take the time to search out and find trained professional suppliers who can provide us with the proper equipment and training.
It is then up to us to pass this information on to our employees to insure that we serve the best coffee we can.
With a speciality coffee shop on almost every street corner, a Chef can no longer afford to let unqualified, poorly trained and unknowledgeable "sales representatives" push some inferior brewing equipment and questionable coffee into our establishments just so they can make a sale.
I encourage you to take the time to do your own research. Taste, taste and taste some more.
Try tasting the same coffee at different grinds and after brewing with different equipment. Next try tasting different coffees.
Attend coffee cuppings, expand your knowledge base.
Use the proper amount of coffee, don't over-extract your brew.
Keep your brewed coffee in plunger type thermos containers, not sitting unattended on a warming burner.
Discard those "free" pour-over coffee brewers that where forced on you by your coffee supplier and buy some quality equipment that grinds the coffee as you use it and brews it correctly.
Educate your clientele. Conduct your own coffee cuppings. Offer exciting varieties to your guests.
Treat coffee as you treat any other speciality you create. It deserves your attention and respect.
There are hundreds of great coffee sites on the internet, and I encourage you to visit some them.
I want to thank Norman Saurage of Community Coffee for getting me started on this subject and for all his tremendous support. You can buy most the coffees mentioned in this article from their web site at http://www.communitycoffee.com/
Also, I want to especially thank Arnoldo Levia and Patrick Woodbridge of The Coffee Source, Inc. for their gracious hospitality and for sharing their knowledge with me. To learn more about Costa Rican coffee visit their web site at http://www.coffee.co.cr
If you are ever in Costa Rica and would like a great coffee tour make sure to contact the folks at Doka Estates. You can arrange a tour through: http://www.coffee.co.cr/coffee_tour.html
To visit Cafe Britt's web site see: http://www.cafebritt.com.
One of the best sources for information about speciality coffee is the very informative site from the Speciality Coffee Association of America at http://www.scaa.org/
For a listing of over 100 sites dedicated to coffee visit: http://www.espressoTOP50.com
Ciao for now