While Costa Rica accounts for just about 1 percent of the world’s total coffee volume, it has a huge place in our hearts (and our offerings sheet) at Cafe Imports. With this harvest season’s addition of an in-country export-import office, known as Oxcart Coffee: Cafe Imports Latin America, we’re even more embedded in the local coffee landscape, and are more able than ever to integrate into the world and work of the Costa Rican coffee sector.
The Oxcart office is not only a place to process and evaluate samples, meet with producers, and file all the necessary paperwork involved in shipping green coffee internationally, but it also gives us a hummingbird’s-eye view of the year’s crop and the producers’ triumphs and tribulations all year long.
In this year’s harvest report, we’ll visit with some of our longest-term producer partners to find out how the 2018/19 cycle performed, and to get a sneak peek at what fantastic new-crop top lots will be arriving in the international Cafe Imports warehouses shortly.
Coffee is a relatively “predictable” biennial crop, which means that every two years there tends to be an increase in production, followed by lower yields the next season. While lower production is always concern for farmers, on a good “low” year the quality can make up the difference: Plants with fewer cherry overall are able to deliver more nutrients to those that form, allowing them to mature with bigger, better flavors and, hopefully, a hardier constitution on the branches.
According to Icafe, the Costa Rican national coffee institute, the country’s yields are down by about 20 percent this year, but so far the results in the cup have been reassuring for everybody (including you, we bet). At Las Lajas in Sabanilla de Ajuela, Oscar and Francisca Chacon have seen a reduction in their certified-organic coffees by about 50 percent, but they’re not too worried: The cups that are on the table taste great so far, even before properly resting.
The Chacons continue to hone their craft, especially when it comes to processing. “Every day I wake up I learn something new,” Oscar says as he describes the natural curiosity that has allowed him to become an innovator and leader among Costa Rica’s farmers and micromill managers. While there is no “magic recipe” for producing Honeys, the Chacons have an especially unique approach: They remove only the skin of the cherry using their modified Penagos demucilaging machine, and they leave all of the mucilage intact on the seeds. Depending on which profile they think best serves each individual lot, Oscar and his employees will modulate the drying profile by using different services, different amounts of agitation, and even some combination of pile- and patio-drying in order to achieve the various degrees of Honey process. The Chacons also experiment with their Naturals, and create two distinct profiles by simply controlling how hot or cool the coffee stays during the process.
He and Francisca continue to develop new drying profiles and attempt to nurture new varieties on their farms—including Cavimor (aka Catigua), a disease- and wind-tolerant hybrid of Catuai and Sarchimor (Villa Sarchi x Timor Hybrid)—and in their expanded cupping and roasting room they’re also improving the accuracy of their sensory analysis by experimenting with roasting techniques.
Just a 15-minute drive from the Chacons is home and micromill of the Vargas family, whose homey father-son project called Don Sabino is almost an 180° difference from the scene at Las Lajas except in two respects: Steven Vargas is as curious about drying experiments as Oscar is, and the quality is always on-point.
Steven and his dad own several plots of farmland in the area, where they grow a number of different varieties: Villa Sarchi is their primary crop, but they also grow, Catuai, Caturra, Gesha, SL-28, and a small amount of Mokka. Steven says that they are also planting two new types this year: Pacamara, and Caseopia. For the past several years, the Vargas drying beds have been full of only Naturals, at which the family excels, but this year Steven is attempting a small amount of Honey coffee as well, “because Luis likes it,” he says of Luis Arocha, the green-coffee buyer for Oxcart Coffee: Cafe Imports Latin America, who is based out of the office in San José.
To produce Don Sabino’s Honey coffees, Steven spreads the seeds out on raised beds directly after they are depulped, and then covers them with tarps for two days. After that, they are exposed to the air and sun, and rotated constantly just like the Naturals: The two days under wraps allows them to generate and retain heat to speed the fermentation process, after which they take about 15 days or so to completely dry.
While Steven’s drying beds and bodega for storage are modest and “have a lot of character,” shall we say, he insists on absolutely meticulous picking and sorting, which shows immediately in the even color of the coffee on the dryers and in sacks to rest. To be absolutely sure that the pick will be peak, the Vargas family has hired the same 35 pickers every year for nearly the past decade, mostly indigenous families from Nicaragua.
“We hire the same amount no matter how the harvest is,” Steven says, and he pays very well compared to many other farmers in the area: This ensure that the pickers will have well-paid work even on a slower year, and so Don Sabino can guarantee that the selection will be as good as ever.
As he looks over the cherry turning deep purple and raisin-like in the sun, he flashes a winning smile and a big thumbs-up, then points proudly at the two bags’ worth of tiny Mokka that is almost ready to be collected and stored. (He has every reason to be proud: The floral, syrupy smell of the cherries is enough to make us wish it was already in our morning Chemex.)
Meticulousness is the continuing theme as we move West toward Naranjo, where Carlos Barrantes and his wife Diana prove year after year that their operation truly is a pearl: La Perla Del Cafe is an 8-year-old micromill the couple started after many years of utilizing the mill works at Carlos’s brother’s famed Herbazú, just up the street. In fact, the whole immediate area is a family affair: The Barrantes are a third-generation coffee family, and after Carlos’s father passed away his land was divided among Carlos and his brothers and sisters, most of whom still live and farm within walking distance. (In fact, the main road to access Herbazú and La Perla Del Cafe is called Calle Barrantes.)
Like Steven, Carlos hires the same pickers every year: At La Perla, there are 25 indigenous families who come up from the Panama-Nicaragua border every single harvest season. Carlos and Diana stay in touch with the families throughout the year, celebrating milestones with them and asking after their health. The pickers are so exceptional that Carlos doesn’t have a float tank at his mill—he knows to trust the keen eyes and swift hands of the pickers to only select the perfect ripe cherry.
The Barrantes’s obsession with quality and precision is obvious from the mill to the drying greenhouse to the bodega, where it seems not a single bean is out of place. Visitors are often skeptical when they hear the mill is almost 10 years old, since it’s so clean it could have been set up just a few weeks ago. In the greenhouses, staff wear special shoes while raking the parchment coffee, and the lots are separated into nearly perfect rectangles on the floor and on second-level drying shelves, with no space wasted. Last year, this full treatment paid off in spades—or at least in Aces, since we were able to offer two of Carlos’s coffees as limited-edition Aces offerings that scored around 90 points.
Despite his tremendous success and growing fame as a producer in the West Valley, Carlos is still one of the softest-spoken and unbraggardly producers we’ve met. “Coffee is not only the tip of an arrow, it’s also a cycle,” he says through green-buyer’s associate Francine Ramirez, who recently translated for a group of roasters visiting from the U.S.A. “The pickers depend on me, and I depend on you, and you depend on your customers.” In other words, behind every great coffee, there are lots and lots of great coffee people, and we couldn’t agree more.
Not far from Calle Barrantes is another multigenerational coffee family who run a micromill: The Aguilera Brothers, a set of past CoE-winning siblings who carry on the tradition by working together to plant, pick, and process coffees from their combined 60 hectares of farmland.
Felipe and Erasmo Aguilera work mostly in the mill and on the drying patios and tarps, where they put the finishing touches on the cherries brought in by truck from high up on Finca Chayote and other nearby plots. There are about 20 varieties sprinkled throughout the family’s primary crop of Villa Sarchi, including Gesha and various different strains of the highly productive and disease-resistant hybrid family of Catimors. (Caturra x Timor Hybrid.)
Felipe says the family’s yields this year are nearly half what they got from last year’s crop, and as such they only hired around 35 or 40 pickers as opposed to their usual 100. Erasmo chimes in to describe a unique approach to paying the pickers: The family pays higher prices for green cherry than they do for buckets of red, as a way of incentivizing the pickers to do an exquisite sort when they bring their cherry to be weighed. Because there are areas of the farms that are remote enough that they can’t be accessed as easily or repeatedly, Erasmo and his brothers knew they would have fewer chances to do immediate selective picking for the ripest fruit. This way, this year’s smaller number of pickers make a better wage, the trees are stripped when they need to be to encourage next year’s growth, and the sorting is done with care and attention.
At the end of the day, the brothers head down to the field in a valley just below their micromill, ostensibly to check on the Naturals drying on tarps there, but also to catch the game of futbol the pickers play to finish the day. Though the harvest is relatively small this year, the Aguileras have a good crop and good games to watch—these pickers are clearly dedicated to a job very well done.
Up in the mountains of Tarrazú, the country’s most famous coffee-growing region, Costa Rica’s largest cooperative, CoopeTarrazú, is seeing the last dribs and drabs of the area’s harvest, which is delivered by smallholders to 58 receiving stations located where farmer-members live and work. Co-op sensory and green-coffee director Fabian Calderon says that while national production is down, CoopeTarrazú is having a record-breaking harvest, with about a 10-percent increase in volume of coffee delivered, as membership is growing exponentially. While the organization started with just 228 members, today there are almost 5,000 coffee growers who contribute to the CoopeTarrazú reputation.
The co-op primarily deals in Washed coffees, preparing nearly 560 full-container loads (FCL) of the caramel-sweet, sparklingly citric, round-bodied coffees that epitomize the classic Costa Rican profile. The co-op also has a small test farm where they experiment with varieties, inputs, and processing methods, including anaerobic-environment fermentation and a fascinating new technique called “macerado,” where the coffee is dried as a Natural for a few days on the raised beds before being depulped and finished as a Honey.
Cafe Imports buys both Café Vida and Community Coffee lots from CoopeTarrazú, and cupping this year points toward another consistently solid set of midprice and affordable lots with traceability and quality. The sensory-analysis lab here operates 24 hours a day, as every lot, every load in the driers, every sample intended for a buyer gets roasted and cupped for quality control. According to Fabian, last year there were no quality claims filed by any of the co-op’s importer or roaster customers, which is quite a feat considering the sheer tonnage of coffee that passes through the depulpers or 34 mechanical driers here.
In stark contrast to the epic volume of Washed coffees put out by CoopeTarrazú, Martín Ureña’s 7 hectares of coffee farm and La Chumeca Micromill produce a tiny but fantastic load of Natural coffees every year. The drying beds at La Chumeca are almost unreal in their uniformity and precise selection: There doesn’t seem to be a single defect among the perfectly drying cherry. Martín and his brother Edgar, who owns El Pilon farm and micromill just a few yards down the slopes, prefer to work with Naturals not only because of the profile, but also because the equipment they need to do an outstanding job is quite simple and affordable. The brothers have rigged up a floating station that is incredibly efficient and cost them almost nothing: They use it to separate broken, damaged, and unripe cherry before moving the coffee to the beds, and the accuracy of their technique is immediately obvious when a visitor looks over the drying coffee.
Like CoopeTarrazú, however, Martín is also experimenting with anaerobic-environment fermentation: This year he built a separate processing station for these types of coffees, using rice-fermentation tanks he imported from Taiwan. Martín will select particular small lots to process this way, and will take sugar readings of the fruit using a Brix meter. He prefers the °Bx to be around 25°, at which point he seals the cherry into the tanks for 48, up to 72 hours, depending on follow-up Brix readings. He siphons off the liquid that’s created during the process and distills it into a kind of coffee moonshine that has a heavenly syrup and tastes distinctly pulpy. Meanwhile, the coffee is removed once the °Bx has gone down to Martín’s likings, and is moved to the drying beds near the “regular” Naturals.
Martín and Edgar and their families are also reporting that the crop is down this year, but they are confident that quality will be high. Though in most of their production they are doing things relatively traditionally (they even have 120-year-old dry-milling equipment that still works like a charm), they are also always looking to the future, and it isn’t too soon for them to scheme about what exciting new developments next year’s crop will bring.
Thanks to the establishment of Oxcart Coffee as a locally operated export office, we are seeing earlier samples, earlier reports, and choice lots already, and are able to fill the sample roasters and cupping table—and fill producers’ wallets—faster because we’re on the ground.
From March through May, the Oxcart Coffee offices will be open for hosting roasters and green-buyers interested in making purchasing decisions on the spot in San José. Our Open Door program allows any customer of Cafe Imports to cup with the Oxcart team on most Fridays until May 10, so be sure to contact your sales representative if you know you’ll be traveling and you’d like to pop in to put some truly delicious stuff on the books for this spring and summer.
As always, we are looking very forward to the arrival of fresh-crop coffees from some of our closest friends and partners: The Chacons, The Vargas family, the Barrantes, the Aguileras, the Ureñas, and the communities of CoopeTarrazú. Of course, this is only a few highlights from the network of relationships the Oxcart team of Luis Arocha and Francine Ramirez have worked so hard to nurture, and we already know there will be more great news from these and many of our other contacts next year.