What does it mean to be “engaged” at origin? What does it mean to develop real, genuine relationships in business? What is the true impact of immersion into the culture of a coffee and the people who grow, harvest, process, and mill it?
As curious coffee people, and as importers who try to be conscious of the size of our footprint in more ways than one, we ask ourselves these questions all the time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answers vary from place to place, from one situation to another: Some producers operate best with little to no interaction from their buyers, while others find a more personal connection to be deeply meaningful—and everything in between.
Striking the fine balance of being close enough without being too close has been a huge lesson to us in Costa Rica, one of the growing countries in which we have the most active—and perennial—presences, with green-coffee buyer Luis Arocha based there for the bulk of the year, working from a Cafe Imports office and cupping lab in San José.
Luis Arocha, Cafe Imports green-coffee buyer
Luis’s proximity to the producers with whom we work in Costa Rica—from the West Valley to Tarrazú and beyond—allows him to do more than simply accept and cup samples. Instead, it gives him a perspective not only on the harvest as it happens, but also a 360° view of the lives, hardships, triumphs, and needs of these coffee artisans, year-round—from heavy late rains to bringing expertly roasted coffee back to the farmers who grew it months after it was ripening to red on their trees, from election day to El Día de los Boyeros (the Day of the Oxcart Driver).
It seems inevitable to anyone who meets Luis that he very quickly becomes more than just a colleague or business associate, but a real friend. On a recent visit to a micromill in the West Valley, the farmer’s daughter shyly invited him to her upcoming fiesta de quinceañera. (Certainly as just a pal, but perhaps at least a little as a bit of a crush, too—which is probably also inevitable with Luis.)
This year, Luis has been busy keeping up with his work: visiting mills, discussing quantity and quality with producers who are facing another challenging year of weather—as well as hosting wave after wave of guests, mostly roasters participating in our Resource program in order to create their own connections with growers, source and secure lots for their menus, and even simply to learn the ins and outs of what makes Costa Rican coffee particularly dynamic. Cupping together, sharing meals, riding side-by-side down twisting roads, laughing and taking photographs, tagging one another on Instagram—these small but meaningful points of contact, the kind that solidify any relationship whether personal or business, can’t be done remotely. Sure, Luis could do his buying work solely through e-mail, phone, and WhatsApp, but in the case of the microlot producers of Costa Rica, even Face Time is no real substitute for face time, in person and across a table.
One of the things that Luis’s constant contact has afforded us is an accurate prediction of quality and quantity, after another season of weird weather that has caused producers to scratch their heads and come up with inventive solutions.
Coffee drying in the greenhouse at La Perla Del Cafe
“Hay muchas plagas este año,” says Carlos Barrantes of La Perla Del Café, explaining that an unusually rainy and damp January caused loss of fruit and drying difficulties. In early January, Luis had e-mailed photos of cherries from a few different farms, noting how they were splitting open on the branch in the heavy, wet conditions. Carlos said his yield was much lower than expected, as a result.
At Don Sabino Micromill, Hiver and Steven Vargas explained that drying their Naturals, a process that normally takes between 18–20 days, dragged on for 30, even 40 days in the early part of the season. Not only does that long, slow drying curve put the coffee fruit at considerable risk for mold and other taints, it also takes up heaps of space—space that a small operation like Don Sabino does not have to spare. (Finished coffees are kept in storage on the second floor of Don Hiver’s small house, where he manually hulls samples from each one for analysis and approval before milling.)
Naturals drying in Las Lajas Micromill’s new greenhouse
It was a similar story at Las Lajas Micromill, where Oscar Chacon said that this was the first year he used his Penagos machine to demucilage lots from the early part of the harvest, preparing Semi-Washed coffees when Honeys and Naturals would have been impossible. (Don Oscar uses “Semi-Washed” to mean that the beans have had some mucilage removed before drying; Honey processes at Las Lajas are done on coffees that are depulped but retain 100 percent of their mucilage.) Francisca Chacon, showing a group of roasters around the new greenhouse, explained that the plastic canopy was meant to regulate and control temperature during drying, but this year luckily it was also useful in keeping the rain away.
For us, having Luis there to see and hear from the producers what their struggles are, and to speak frankly and frequently with them about the expectations for this year’s Costas has been hugely beneficial: It allows us to alert customers who are waiting on this year’s crop, and to open our minds to new possibilities and profiles as our partners work to make the best of a challenging situation.
That all being said, the news is actually fairly good, despite the concern and consternation: What we’ve cupped so far has been exceptional, hovering around 87-90 points from all of our longstanding partners, with the last remaining lots still finishing in process as we speak. This time of year, Luis heads home from his visits with armloads of samples, and will quickly offer feedback as we shore up this season’s offerings.
One of the other unusual benefits to Cafe Imports having an office and personnel in San José has been our ability to cultivate (yes, that’s intentional) a relationship with Icafe, the national coffee institute of Costa Rica. While Icafe doesn’t sell or export coffee, it does handle oversight and licensing for every mill; keeps witness samples of every single coffee being exported; provides research and analysis at no or low cost to producers; and—perhaps most importantly—guarantees by law that every coffee farmer in the country receives 77.6 percent of the FOB (free on board) price of the coffee.
Being closely connected with Icafe and its research arm (Cicafe) affords us another unique opportunity to understand the daily realities for the 43,035 families who earn their livelihood from coffee, and also helps us track trends, refine our traceability standards, support the growing micromill landscape, and simply rest assured that the producers we call our friends and partners are earning an amount of money that is fair, reliable, and transparent.
While we certainly don’t play “favorites” with coffee origins, we do have a special place in our hearts for Costa Rica as a home away from home, and for the producers there as an extension of our family and friends. Of course, it helps that the coffees are exceptional, too—but everything tastes better when there’s a little love and good vibes sprinkled in, right?