Master Roaster visits Costa Rica 2017

February 24, 2017

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By Master Roaster Dermot Williams

2017 Origin Trip – Hacienda La Minita

-Arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica is an experience all in itself. The busy, bustling city is the capitol, and largest in Costa Rica. San Jose is the seat of the Costa Rican government, and an important commerce and transportation hub in Central America.

-Leaving the city and heading to La Minita, the ribbons of pavement quickly give way to gravel and dirt roads ascending steeply up the mountain. The small towns and homes become increasingly rural and rustic as we climb.  The Coffee seems to be everywhere, even growing in patches alongside the road. Coffee Pickers are seen along the roads carrying their signature picking baskets and bags of coffee cherries headed to the receibador.

-Arriving at Hacienda La Minita, we are greeted by the staff. The breathtaking mountain views and welcoming accommodations make it seem as though you have arrived in paradise.

-For the 50 permanent workers who reside on the farm, housing is available. The houses, arranged in the traditional courtyard setting are well kept and beautifully landscaped with indigenous plants. Across the court yard stands the medical and dental facility. The workers here have full access to the clinic as needed. During the harvest season, there could be as many as 500 migrant workers picking coffee at any given time.

-Leaving the hacienda and heading out into the coffee grove on foot, you quickly see how much work is going on in the area. The coffee trees are planted in terraced rows, often on steep grades with sheer drops down to the valley. Coffee picking is delicate, deliberate and often dangerous work. Only the red ripe cherries must be removed, the green un-ripe cherries must be left intact. Damage to the plants leaves must be avoided, all while maintaining solid footing on sketchy ground.

-The picked cherries are taken to the recibidor. Here they are checked in by volume using s device called a Medida. Two full Medidas equal a Fanega, about 100 pounds of finished green beans. Generally speaking, harvest in the region is around 3.5 million pounds. The measured cherries are then dumped into a semi-truck for the journey down the mountain to the mill.

-Coffee plants can produce coffee for as long as 20 years. When the plants are no longer producing, they are removed and re-planted with the coffee plants growing in the nursery. At the time of my visit, there were 95,000 seedlings ready to re-plant. Generally, the non-producing area is cleared, weeded, and replanted with new top soil. Here, nothing goes to waste. The scrapped plants are used for firewood and mulch.

-Now it is my turn to pick coffee. The group I was with and myself donned the traditional basket tied around our waist, and headed out to a safe area just down the road from the hacienda. The area is strictly reserved for “gringos” to pick. No treacherous terrain here! Just a thick grove of coffee plants on flat land. When our picking was done, the Lamborghini tractor showed up pulling a large hopper. The workers checked in our cherries, and paid us on the spot. I think I made about 1600 colones, or about $2.80 US. We climbed into the coffee cherry hopper and rode back to the recibidor and deposited our pickings. Next stop is the Mill.

-The mill, Beneficio Rio Tarrazu, is a 2.5 mile walk down the rocky, dirt road. As you near the mill, the sweet smell of the coffee cherries fermenting fills the air. Widely regarded as one of the best coffee mills in the world, the mill combines traditional and modern technologies to produce some of the finest Costa Rica coffees in the world. The mill sits at the confluence of the Rio Terrazu and Rio Grande Candelaria. After crossing the bridge to the mill, you find the hydroelectric power station. Electricity to power the mill is generated on-site. When the mill is not running in the off season, excess power is sold back to the local utility.

-The cherries are dumped by the truck load into large holding tanks. The tank is then filled with water to clean and float the cherries. They then proceed through the mill using screw conveyors and several stepped mechanical sorting stations. The outer cherry is removed in the huskers; the beans are washed again to remove the muselage, and then sent to the large fermentation tanks for holding.

-In the large mill building the beans are dried and sorted. The large cylindrical dryers are heated using the removed parchment from the coffee bean milling process. This eliminates the need for forest wood. As I said before, nothing is wasted. The mill is practically self-sustaining. After drying, the beans are sorted mechanically by size using various methods. After mechanical sorting, the beans go into the sorting room. Here, 60 senoritas hand sort all of the beans by color. The reason for the sorting staff being all ladies is that human females have more color receptor cones in their eyes than males, so are much better at discerning slight color differences. This method is known as European Prep.

-Next, we cup mill coffees by grade. The table had the four mill coffee ground and ready. The coffees are separated by screen size: Superior, Segundas, Terceras, and Caracolli. Smaller beans are lower grade and the flavor shows why. Desirable flavors give way to musty, earthy flavors, not the usual clean, crisp flavors of Costa Rican coffees. We also cupped the finished coffee coming out of the mill. All excellent quality and great flavor profiles. The three Costa Rican coffees we use in Premium Blend were on the table. La Magnolia, El Indio, and La Lapa.

-We then rode higher up the mountain toward a town called La Trinidad. Here we visited another coffee farm called Hacienda La Pradera. We had the chance to inspect different varietals of coffee plants. In particular a new hybrid coffee variety called H1. This plant is a cross between two arabica varieties taken from very different environments. The idea here is to make a coffee tree that is more disease resistant with the same or even higher yields. This is of major concern in Costa Rica due to the Coffee Rust fungus that has blighted the coffee crop for many years. We also had the chance to look at some Geisha coffee trees. This coffee is very rare and exclusive. The plants and the yields are unpredictable. Originally found in Geisha, Ethiopia, the birth place of coffee, Geisha trees grow tall and can be distinguished by their elongated leaves. The coffee does very well at these higher elevations, and produces coffees with floral, fruity flavor profile. It is currently a very desirable coffee, with limited availability, so it comes at a very high price.

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