Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

Costa Rica Micro-Mills 2008

What seemed like an easy, relaxing 4 day “farm and cupping tour” of Costa Rica turned in a thoroughly exhausting (yet fantastically rewarding) adventure. I didn’t see rare birds or jaguars, I didn’t get held up by bandits or lost on jungle paths. This is no Indiana Jones fantasy. Rather it is a coffee buyers dream come true. From an origin catering to container load buyers, where mills pool together the coffees of small producers under fancifully-named brands, and the coffee association markets with little regard for true cup quality (well, if they think pretty girls and glossy print materials are something you can grind up and drink in a cup – yuck!) comes a new movement – micro-mills. This little revolution has remarkable similarity to the “micro-roasters” of the United States, independent business owners tired of the medium quality of specialty coffee who know that no roaster can turn ho-hum green coffee into anything other than ho-hum roasted coffee. Wanting to push the limits, wanting cup quality that gets people excited. No, not Viagra in the coffee, no Mrs. Olsen flavor crystals, and not fancy branding that isn’t backed up by genuine cup quality. The small roaster wants to find that person on the other end of the line, the coffee producer, who is as dedicated as artisanal as the micro-roaster.

What I found is that Costa Rica has a new community of micro-millers forming into organic groups, drawn together by their pride in work, ove of the land, technical ability and perhaps more than ever, a need to be paid fairly for their efforts. Sustainable coffee production is not a mystery; add up your costs, true costs to do the absolute best work that you can, to reward your team of workers fairly, to improve the health of the plant, the health of the soil, and the land, and to guarantee fair pay, education, and to re-invest each year to improve that quality. That’s the break-even point. And 20%. Where are you at? Above Starbucks price, above Illy, above the multinationals, above fair trade and organic certified coffee.  All that is left to find buyers who are willing to reward you for superior quality.  And the only way you can do this is to invest even more in the coffee, break off from the pack who sell cherry at low prices to the coops and private mills and become a micro-miller of your own boutique lots. That you control from start to finish. Separate each days pickings and cup them separately so that even in your own little farm, there is no “pooling” of coffee without consideration of cup quality. So you end up with debts, mill equipment, elaborate accounting of each tiny lot. All this for the hope that your coffee has a home, somewhere out there in an unknown place, where it will be roasted with love, and presented with pride by a small roaster, hopefully with total transparency with the producers name and farm in full.

Yes, it’s a coffee love connection. The forerunners of this model exist: the small independent estates in Panama, the cup of excellence and best of Panama competitions, the small estate model each with their own millBut here we are talking about mini-lots, mini-mills, even nano-mills; you can rent a mill made in Colombia that is as big as a 2 bike motorcycle trailer, can be towed by a hyndai sedan. I saw it. Maybe next year there will be one that just hooks on your bumper or fits into a station wagon. So here is an opportunity in Costa Rica and soon in other countries to get excited about coffee again. The only caution is that growth must be moderated by reality. The relations must be real, farmer to roaster, face to face and the quality must be verified in the cup.  There must be honesty and traceability, which basically means that roasters need to explain themselves to farmers and farmers need to understand something about the difficulties that a small roaster faces. We can’t allow this to be imitated or faked. The roaster can’t represent the macro lot as a true micro-mill coffee, and the producer can’t cheat either. Cheat himself, cheat the trees, his soil, his forest, or his laborers. And with fair rewards for true cup quality, a new micro-relationship is formed.

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Beautiful Costa Rica Coffee Farms!
Beautiful Costa Rica Coffee Farms!
My action packed tour of small Costa Rica farms Feb 2008 begins with a scent of catimor ... Costa Rica 95 cultivar ready to get ripped out.
Full Sun Coffee
Full Sun Coffee
This is mostly a Catuai farm, flatland, full sun style, focus on yield. Not a sweet maria's kinda farm...
Catuai Cultivar, 2 years old
Catuai Cultivar, 2 years old
The farm (San Geronimo) has been removing CR 95 catimor and replanting in Catuai and Caturra
Catuai Flower Buds
Catuai Flower Buds
New coffee flowers, called candellas in some places, not yet open
Best View of San Geronimo
Best View of San Geronimo
For a farm that is mostly full sun and flat, this is a gracious view.
Kristle and Isaac
Kristle and Isaac
Kristle from Zephyr coffee and Isaac from Cloza mill, Costa Rica
Funky Chicken
Funky Chicken
Free range chickens on the San Geronimo farm in Alejuela area, not far from the airport really.
Las Lajas Beneficio
Las Lajas Beneficio
Next up is the Las Lajas mill, a true family effort of Francesca and Oscar.
Camas Africanas
Camas Africanas
Called African Beds because they were first used in Ethiopia, raised bed drying has become very popular in Costa Rica. It's a great technigue that takes advantage of air and sun.
Francois, Francesca, Sharon and Oscar
Francois, Francesca, Sharon and Oscar
Francois is an exporter, his company Cafe Noble. Oscar runs the farm, Francesca runs the Las Lajas mill.
Solar Secador
Solar Secador
Another great technique for drying is a covered patio. The top is plastic, the sides are mesh to allow air flow. At las Lajas, they have the coffee on pallets, not concrete!
Bourbon Coffee Seedlings
Bourbon Coffee Seedlings
Las Lajas has some test plants of true Bourbon cultivar.
Solar Drying, on Pallets
Solar Drying, on Pallets
Again, the screen material is laid on pallets, which they feel increases air flow, and hence drying time.
Honey Coffee
Honey Coffee
This is typical Miel coffee, meaning honey, the name they give to pulp natural process. As in El Salvador, they have really taken to Miel in CR.
Camas Africanas again
Camas Africanas again
African raised beds for drying
Wasp Nest
Wasp Nest
I heard a Vespa yet there was none. Here's why.
Demugilaginador
Demugilaginador
Yes, it's the demucilage machine. After removing the skin, this sucker takes off however much of the fruity mucilage layer you want ... more on this later.
Oscar and Sharon
Oscar and Sharon
The family lives less that 40 feet from the mill, a sign of the dedication of many small CR coffee farmers with micro-mills.
Ah the stench,
Ah the stench,
Las Lajas is organic, so rather than have a third party haul off their coffee skins for composting, they do it all themselves.
Fermentation Accelerator EM-1
Fermentation Accelerator EM-1
To aid in breaking down the coffee pulp - skins - for compost they use this bacteria product. Then they introduce the california red worms to complete the composting.
Honey Coffee
Honey Coffee
Las Lajas seems to focus a lot on the Miel coffee.
Francesca and the miel
Francesca and the miel
Francesca shows us the different types of Miel coffee.
Fully Washed
Fully Washed
Fully Washed is not really washed and not fully. With the demucilage machien you get about 95% of the fruit off, max. And there is no fermentation and washing of the coffee, so it's not what we call washed at all, but cups out similar.
50-50 Semi Washed coffee
50-50 Semi Washed coffee
This is the Lajas half washed coffee, with 50% of the fruit left on the parchment shell of the coffee.
75% Pulp Natural Honey Coffee
75% Pulp Natural Honey Coffee
This lot has roughly 75% of the fruity mucilage intact for drying.
100% Pulp Natural
100% Pulp Natural
This is a true pulped coffee,basically Indonesia style, where the coffee cherry skin is removed, but all the fruit is left on the parchment for drying, making the cup more rustic.
Beautiful organic farms
Beautiful organic farms
Lajas farms have more shade than others we saw. These farms have been in Oscars family for 50 years. It's not incredibly high, 1300 meters, but another farm they have is up at 1500 meters.
Caturra cultivar, new flowers
Caturra cultivar, new flowers
Flowering for next year's crop on the caturra plants. They have caturra and catuai mostly.
IMG_0967.JPG
IMG_0967.JPG
Someone's hitting the sauce
Someone's hitting the sauce
It's not Habenero, but a typical Costa Rica wine bottle with a super macho image on it.
Caturra Flower Buds
Caturra Flower Buds
New caturra flowers, which will probably open within a day or two.
Cana de India
Cana de India
Cana de India is used to make natural fences around coffee farms and provide some wind protection
Agribusiness, Costa Rica style
Agribusiness, Costa Rica style
As you fly in you see a lot of this around the capital, San Jose, huge agriculture operations under shade cloth and greenhouses. This one grows ferns. All are air-exported to the US for the cut flower market.
Ojo de Gallo
Ojo de Gallo
Ojo de Gallo is a fungus, always a problem in Costa Rica, but easily managed by controlling shade trees.
I think I lost my shoe
I think I lost my shoe
Seriosuly, I had these same Nikes way back when ... like the early '80s
The Broca
The Broca
Broca is the seed boring coffee insect that has spread through much of central and south america. It can be managed with pheremone traps, and by keeping the trees and ground clean of old coffee cherry.
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