Costa Rica coffee is world-famous, grown on terraced plantations on mountains facing the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The ideal temperature, moisture, and soil produced plump , red coffee beans that produce rich, flavorful coffee high in caffeine. Coffee is the third largest export in Costa Rica after being the number one export for several decades. Coffee production began back in the late 18th century and by the 19th century, the government was encouraging coffee growing by giving farms land to plant coffee trees.
China has a free trade agreement with Costa Rica to import coffee which is becoming very popular in the traditional tea drinking nation. China is the second largest trading partner with Costa Rica, the U.S. is the largest trade partner.
After our cloud forest trek, we boarded a shuttled bus for a coffee farm on a hillside below Monteverde. On the drive down the mountain, we had a wonderful view of the Pacific coastline to the west and the Puntarenas peninsula.
Don Juan Laiten
Our host was Juan Laiten, who farms 8 hectares on a hillside of which only 3 hectares are planted in coffee trees. Juan is part of a local cooperative of small organic coffee growers in the valley.
Cherry coffee beans
Coffee beans grow on branches of shiny green plants that are cropped to about 4 feet high. Farmers prune trees during the year to keep trees from growing too tall. Pruning makes it easier to pick with beans growing about waist-high.
The harvest season extends several months with mature berries turning red when they are ready for picking. Pickers walk down rows daily, lift branches, and pick only mature ‘cherry’ berries. If a picker’s box contains too many green beans, he is penalized and his pay drops.
Cleaning and husking cherry beans
Milling coffee beans
Cherry coffee beans are dumped into a mill where they are crushed, with the moist husk being separated from the bean. The cherry husk drops into a bucket where it is taken out and used as compost around the farm.
The white ‘husks’ are washed in the milling process and spill into a bucket where they are examined for whole husks then poured onto wooden trays and laid out in the sun to dry.
Tan coffee beans are dried on flat trays exposed to the sun for six or seven days. When they are dry and easy to crack open, they are put through a soft grinder which crushes the dry husk, exposing a small brown bean with the distinctive crease down the middle. This is the true coffee bean ready for roasting. Dried beans are taken to the local cooperative where they are roasted and packaged for shipping around the world as ‘fair trade’ coffee. Farmers who join cooperates agree to use environmentally sound methods and not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Coffee, bananas, sugar, beans,
Juan is a small farmer who also grows sugar cane, bananas, and vegetables for his family. Tall banana plants shade rows of coffee beans.
Coffee tasting with Juan
After walking through Juan’s coffee farm, we went along a jungle trail where he explained that part of being in a cooperative is preserving the natural environment. Indigenous animals, birds, butterflies, and insects are able to move through the valley and not be ‘boxed’ in by clear-cut, industrial farms.
Coming out of the jungle, we came to a small ‘hacienda’ that served as a tasting porch for guests. Juan had prepared fresh coffee for us to taste as well as fresh banana bread. He poured steaming cups for us and passed them around. It was delicious and very fresh, even for me who likes a spot of milk and a little sugar in my morning ‘cuppa.’
Our setting for the coffee tasting was surrounded by banana trees, and jungle flowers, ginger, hibiscus, wild orchids, and poinsettia.
Juan’s family lives in a small wooden building surrounded by tall, native poinsettia plants. When we walked down the dirt road to our van, I turned around and snapped a photo of the modest setting. Juan is a true pioneer, eking out a living on a few acres of coffee plants and vegetables he grows for his family.
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