Origin Story: Costa Rica

Going to origin changes your perspective on coffee, plain and simple. I’m not talking about the type of trip where one simply takes selfies with the locals in an effort to show the world how well traveled they are. Yes, selfies, pictures, and video will all go down inevitably, even the obligatory cell phone “food porn” pictures will happen (I’m so guilty of this).

Written by Sam Mirto, Director of Coffee

It’s hard not to become enamored by the beauty of a country that is completely different than your own, and there’s nothing wrong with that! However, through all of the fluff, you’ll begin to remember why you got into the coffee business in the first place, and the real reason we, as coffee professionals, have the privilege to do what we do – and that, of course, is the people.

My first origin trip was in November of 2014, when the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica presented itself. All of the excitement, mixed with fear of traveling to another country, built up constantly in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Upon landing in Costa Rica and driving to our hotel, I thought to myself “this doesn’t look all that different…” Yeah, there were signs written in Spanish and unfamiliar vegetation, but there were hotels, restaurants, even billboards that were exactly the same as in the US. There was even a KFC.

The hotel I stayed in had all the amenities you would expect here in the US as well, but here breakfast each morning consisted of fresh fruit, beans, rice, eggs, cured meats, cheese, and fresh squeezed juice – and it was better than anything I had ever experienced.

I went down to meet with a group called Exclusive Coffees. They focus on developing specialty coffee through their work with and education of the producers they purchase coffee from, all throughout Costa Rica. They are an exporter of sorts, one that focuses heavily on sustainability and improving specialty coffee throughout the country.

The first farm that we visited was in the Central Valley region called Finca El Quizarra, which happened to also be my first visit to a coffee farm. One thing that stood out to me immediately was how organized this farm was compared to what I had seen on the drive up. Coffee grew in perfect rows with organized sections of pruning, immaculate wet and dry mills, and clean living quarters for employees of the farm. I probably would have even eaten off the drying patio.

On this tour, we got an up close explanation about varying levels of honeying. It was incredible to see in person something that was difficult to understand in print. This was also the first time that I actually got to taste a coffee cherry, as Finca El Quizarra had many that were starting to reach peak ripeness. I remember it was very sweet, but also vegetal, like a bell pepper, at the same time. The mucilage was also very sticky, an indication of good sugar development in the cherry. The experience actually caused me to have a nerd-out moment right then where I almost broke down into one of those snotty sobs that only infants and Justin Bieber enthusiasts can achieve, but I was able to take a deep breath and hold it together.

I think the realization had hit me of how lucky I was to be in another country experiencing things that most people in the coffee industry only dream of doing. This was the first big realization of my trip, but not the last by any means.

The next big epiphany came at a mill called Don Mayo in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica. There, we met with a named Hector Bonilla, the owner and a manager of Don Mayo. Over the past few years, the Bonilla family has focused not only on improving the quality of coffee that comes through their mill, but also improving the coffee that is grown on the farms they own.

One way that they’re doing this is practicing different processing methods, and one in particular we saw was called SloDry. The SloDry processing method involves drying coffee on a three-tiered drying bed and rotating the beds depending on the temperature and humidity level of the coffee. This simulates the effect of the coffee still being on the tree, so it continues to produce sugars even after it’s harvested and processed. This yields sweeter and heavier bodied coffees in the cup.

Due to the recent investment in quality, Hector has seen the success of his business increase dramatically over the past couple of years. Not having even known this man prior to this visit, he proceeded to thank me for visiting his mill, and explained that it’s because of people like me that he has enjoyed the recent success. I thought to myself, “I literally just met you dude, I wish I could say that I had some part of what you’re building here, but I had no idea that you even existed before now”. He even broke down in tears at one point, as one of people who was directly responsible for his recent success was with me, and he was so incredibly gracious for the business and relationship. He was asking for suggestions about processing for the next crop, planting different varietals, expanding his SloDry capabilities, and much more from all of us. I was taken aback at how much he was sincerely enjoying all of the advice and the feedback. That’s when it dawned on me that I had a skewed reality on what a meaningful origin trip was about. I, in my oblivious assuming mind, had it in my head that I was there to shake hands, kiss babies, and take pictures. However, I realized that I had an opportunity, even an obligation as someone lucky enough to go to a coffee growing country, to form a long-term relationship with a producer that will yield growth for both businesses for a long time to come.

If we really want specialty coffee to be around forever it needs to be sustainable, and it won’t be unless we’re willing to invest not only in our marketing efforts, but in the relationships that we have with the people that make great coffee possible.

Coffee is a social beverage, but a social beverage that requires so much attention to detail from seed to cup to be really stellar, that all of that effort deserves celebration, and that message needs to get outside of the specialty coffee world. This is the way that things need to be if we really want specialty to remain viable for years to come.

I encourage everyone to go to origin, meet some producers, form some meaningful relationships and then tell their stories to the world.