February 7th 2010. 4:30am.
Most of these folks have only heard stories or seen videos and photographs of what happens at origin. Their first taste of coffee harvest in real time is just around the corner. Three flights and 13 hours later 10 of us arrive at the San Jose airport. We pick up our old buddy Daniel who is joining us from our NYC cafe and hop into our rig for the week. We are headed west into coffee country. Looking the group over, I knew the week was going to be a journey into excess; lots of learning, lots of discussion and lots of good ole’ times in a part of Costa Rica that can feel like the wild west.
When we get in on the bus and everything and off the highway. We’re going through towns and people are yelling, flashing their car headlights, yelling from car to car, car to person, person to the sky, whatever, yelling. Well it turns out Laura Chinchilla just got voted in as the first female president in Costa Rica history. People were happy as shit. – Tim Root, Master Barista & Ad Artist
Helsar Micro Mill, Los Anonos Farm and Torres Villalobos
Tunes: Heaven is a Place on Earth and Night Fever
Fact: Costa Rica banned Robusta production in 1988
We checked out the drying patios and processing infrastructure at Helsar del Zarcero, the folks who process our Torres Villalobos coffee. After a brief presentation on soil, production methods, processing methods and Costa Rica in general, we headed down to see the brothers Torres at their farm. I have to say it was kinda rad to see some of the expressions on people’s faces as they slid uncontrollably down the dry, steep slopes of the farm and as they tasted the sweet fruit of their first coffee cherries.
Brumas is up on the slopes of the Barva Volcano in Heredia. It pushes up against the Braulio Carrillo National Park and has endless views of the Central Valley and the city of San Jose. Juan Ramon, owner of Brumas, has incredibly clean coffee. There was nothing like the sight of perfect parchment coffee (parchment is the layer that surrounds the bean and protects it during drying and conditioning), on his beds and patios with banana trees, coffee trees, Stumpies and San Jose in the background.
Walking through the dry milling area gave us a look at parchment burning to fuel the mechanical dryer and bags of parchment coffee labeled to show day and micro lot sorting. I’ve told the story of this place and others like it countless times over my last two years working as a trainer for Stumptown, and there I was finally getting to see it firsthand. It was rad to see some of the things I talk about so regularly, but it was even more rad to learn things I never thought to ask about. I didn’t know that the eldest Torres has a small guitar building shop next to his house. I never knew that most coffee farms also grow fruit, vegetables, and sugar cane to help pay the bills and
stay fed. I never would have guessed how slimy and tacky mucilage is when it comes out of a Penagos machine. I didn’t know that Costa Rica hasn’t had an army since 1949. – Mike Horgan, Coffee Trainer
That first night ended with all 11 of us laid out on air mattresses on the floor of the house at Brumas del Zurqui. I snored a lot. Didn’t make any friends that night but dems the breaks.
Brumas Del Zurqui
Fact: Juan Ramon calls coffee plant seedlings that haven’t formed their leaves yet “soldaditos” or “little soldiers”.
As a coffee roaster I have a daily responsibility to highlight all of the hard work that is put into the coffee before it ever arrives at our warehouse. Nothing drives that point home like going to source and seeing first hand the time and dedication put into our product. It really changes your perspective to have the opportunity to meet and talk with a farmer, to tour their farm and taste coffee cherries straight from the branch. Having worked with the coffees from Montes De Oro and Brumas Del Zurqui for the last two years, getting the chance to spend multiple days on the farms and mills was priceless. Absorbing the sights and sounds, climbing through dense rows of trees and observing Costa Rica’s environmentally sound processing methods was inspiring. After a week spent with our gracious hosts, I couldn’t wait to get back to Portland. – Craig O’Lander, Coffee Roaster
After two nights at Brumas we deflated our mattresses, collected whatever beer we had left and the caravan headed south to Tarrazu. Tarrazu is one of the most pristinely beautiful coffee growing regions in the coffee-producing world with valley after valley of coffee terraced on sheer slopes. In some odd way, entering Frailes de Desamparados, passing through Leon Cortes into Tarrazu and Dota is like getting a taste of heaven (these four counties make up the Tarrazu region). In February when the sun blazes overhead all day and the sky is as blue as the Caribbean Sea, I wonder if earth’s aesthetic beauty can actually get any better. We stopped to see our new friends Marvin Robles and Juanny Cordero. Both producers are new to Stumptown this year. They both have been able to open their own micro mills at the advent of this current harvest. Keep your eyes peeled for Marvin Robles Bourbon and Verde Alto. Both are phenomenal coffees and the latter should be available by late April.
The tour van pulled up to a small house perched above a cliff overlooking the numerous coffee farms of the Tarrazu Valley. All eleven of us, white, tattooed, and a little sunburned, exited to meet a man wearing blue jeans, a blue striped collared shirt, a scarf protecting his neck (neatly tucked into a ball cap), a mustache and a mullet. He came out of the front door smiling ear to ear. His name was Marvin Robles and he is PUNK as F#$K! Marvin owns Finca Juan Pablo, a tiny two and a half acre farm. His processing is DIY, off-grid, and he controls the conditions step by step – all in the name of quality. Marvin is truly an inspiration. He is the reason why Direct Trade works. He is the reason why we pay for quality. He is the reason why I’m in coffee. –Bob Peyton, Retail General Manager
We spent the afternoon at another new micro mill, Los Angeles. Don Ricardo Calderon and sons renovated pastureland in Dota at extremely high altitude and planted new seedlings. This year’s harvest will be the first but with virgin soil and young trees we are expecting outstanding quality.
Ricardo took us around to the three farms that constitute the output of the Los Angeles Mill; Girasoles, La Estrella, and El Granadilla. With everything above 1800 meters, these were some of the most stunning farms we had seen so far. I’ve always heard that coffee cherries develop more sugars and mucilage at higher elevations, but it wasn’t until we got to these farms that I got to experience first hand and taste what that meant. These coffee cherries tasted like Candy! After a delicious toast at Ricardo’s house with some of his home distilled cane spirits mixed with some of his coffee and local milk, we were on our way. We arrived late that evening to Montes de Oro in San Pablo de Leon Cortes to chicarrones, fried pork, and beer. Uumm yes, it was delicious.
Montes De Oro and Don Mayo
Tunes: Black Betty as performed by “Ram Jam”
Tuto and Emilio Gamboa are the father and son team behind our staple Costa Rican Direct Trade relationship, Montes de Oro. Both men have worked extremely hard to improve their quality over the past three years and have been rewarded well for their efforts. They are a testament to the success of Stumptown’s Direct Trade model. Getting a chance to watch our folks interact with Emilio that evening and all of our last day in Tarrazu was a sight to behold.
The ox blood dude ruled! Emilio Gamboa was nice and hired people for over 100% of normal wages; for the simple instructions to pick the ripest, most dark red cherries, the ones that looked like ox blood. He was right on when he spoke of the cultures and politics of farmers and workers, really well spoken and modest. – Tim Root, Master Barista & Ad Artist
I could see the wheels churning inside of people’s minds as the real connection was being made. Hearing stories and looking at photos can’t make the same connection as a 15-minute conversation with a producer.
Banana plants and gigantic spiders a Tico wouldn’t blink at accompanied the coffee plants at the Montes de Oro lodge, and the view couldn’t have been better. Kenneth eventually rolled up blasting Susie Q from the windows of our van, and we all knew it was time to roll again. Off to Beneficio Don Mayo, and the Bonilla family’s San Francisco farm to learn how to pick solamente cafe rojo, for real. Tim Wenzel wins the picking contest. Who knew one man could play the guitar, hackie sack like a champ, AND pick with the best of them. – Mike Horgan, Coffee Trainer
We headed out early that following morning to check out the Don Mayo farm and mill installations. Don Mayo is a family operation led by father Hector and his sons Pablo and Josue. Their San Francisco farm is just down the road from Montes de Oro at the far western end of Leon Cortes. We held a picking competition there for the Stumptown folks before heading across the valley to Canet, home of Don Mayo’s processing station.
During a lunch break at the San Francisco farm we had 12 people crammed in a circle on a narrow and rough dirt road that was on a slant. Emilio Gamboa, Pablo Bonilla, and Francisco Mena were no strangers to the hack, they played aggressive and gained our respect in both their amazing coffees and with their hackie skills. On our last day we stopped off at a soccer field with the boys from Montes de Oro and Don Mayo to take a group photo. As we all prepared to pose under the goal, I pulled out my hackie sack and placed it in front of the group on the grass. While Autumn was getting ready to take the picture, one of the Costa Ricans grabbed the hackie sack and propped it on the sign that sat in front of us to make sure that it was seen, as if it was one of us. I’d like to draw a direct relation between our trip and the hackie sack. A hackie sack session is played in a circle with everyone fighting to keep the sack airborne, playing not only for their own individual benefit, but for the benefit of everyone involved. Much the same as Direct Trade works between Stumptown, the producers, the pickers,and the customer. The circle represents an ongoing relationship that has room to grow and improve. In hackie sack the game is started by passing the sack to another person, never yourself, which is a sign of friendship and trust between people. In hackie sack there are no individual winners, the only winning experience is when everyone touches the hack before it hits the ground, it’s called a “full hack”. This is the best example of the feeling I got while in Costa Rica. The “full hack” is representative of the different hands that a coffee bean passes through from the time it is picked until the time it reaches the cafes. From pickers to mills to distributors to roasteries to cafes and to the homes of people all over the world… everyone involved touches it. The travels of a coffee bean might be just as romantic as a “full hack” on a Costa Rican beach while the sun is setting.– Tim Wenzel, Master Barista
The week was long, hot and dusty. We needed to cleanse our bodies so off to the coast we went. A day at the beach in Manuel Antonio did us all right. It was time to wave goodbye to Costa Rica. We boarded our bus for the last time and headed northeast to the Juan Santamaria International. The week was more fantastic than I had hoped it would be. We all came back with a better understanding of the realities of coffee production in Costa Rica and with a new bond within the group. These trips are honestly priceless. I look forward to the next!
Green coffee buyer