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Costa Rica 2004 - Hacienda La Minita

This is a sort of quick temporary page about our recent trip to Costa Rica and Hacienda La Minita. When I go on a trip I always have to play catch-up when I get back, so it is hard to write the travelogue right away - but I do have a lot to write about, so check back in a week! You can click on the images and navigate throught them at full size, or just use this index page to view the ones that interest you. The names are somewhat descriptive ... -Tom 2/6


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History of Hacienda La Minita

The following is copywrite Hacienda La Minita, pictures and additional comments copywrite Thompson Owen, Sweet Maria's Coffee Inc.

The plantation has been owned by the McAlpin family since 1967.  At that time, it was part of a larger farm system.  In 1978, a decision was reached to divest the milling operation and coffee producing property.  Bill McAlpin decided to retain, through purchase, the finest coffee producing lands (about 40% of the original land), he has also maintained the farm management team that has now run the farm continuously for 30 years.  The land, buildings and management team are collectively referred to as Hacienda La Minita.

La Minita means �the small mine.�  Traditionally, local legend has it that pre-Colombian Indians came to look for gold on the land that is now the farm.

Geography

La Minita is located about 1½ hours drive south of San Jose, in the coffee producing area called �Los Santos.�  The zone known as Los Santos includes a series of small villages and towns that begin in the north with San Juan Norte and end in the south with Santa Maria de Dota.  The farm is located within the region from which fruit coffee is received by the Tarrazu coffee mills.   The coffee from our farm is considered a Tarrazu coffee, but we believe the geography and microclimate of the farm produces a much more balanced and flavorful coffee than other Tarrazu coffees.

The plantation consists of a total of 1,200 acres of land of which 800 acres are currently in production.  Of the remaining 400 acres, there are 200 acres of natural forest preserve located on the south side of the farm that will never be brought into coffee production.  

The land lays on a east-west axis, bordered by the Tarrazu river to the south and the Candelaria river to the north.  These two rivers converge at the western base of the mountain spur upon which the farm is situated.  The soil is a pale clay, tan to light red.

Although there is a section of the farm that approaches 6,000ft in altitude, the central block lies between 3,750ft and 5,000ft.  The main house is located at an altitude of 4,850ft.  In spite of the considerable altitude differences, the mean temperature variance is minimized by the cooling effect of the large river flow that borders the farm.  Importantly, the farm faces the west, which allows for gradual warming in the morning and slow cooling in the evening.

Coffee Plantings

There are approximately 680 acres of coffee in production.  We have four varieties of trees under cultivation; Caturra, Catuai red, Catuai yellow, and Hibrido.  After many years of experimentation, statistical analysis and cup quality testing, we have decided to stay principally with the Caturra and to continue to maintain a small amount of the old Hibrido.

We plant approximately 2,500 trees per acre on the farm depending upon the geography of the area being planted and the variety of tree used.  This results in a total of about 1,700,000 trees on the farm.  

We employ a selective pruning system to maintain the health and productivity of the coffee trees.  Highly skilled employees monitor the coffee trees and as necessary, approximately every five years, the tree are pruned.  This will encourage the tree to begin new growth.  One year after this cutting, the tree is shaped maximize its continued growth.  All of this work is performed using hand tools.  Each year approximately 350,000 trees are pruned.

After fifteen to twenty years, the trees become exhausted and are replaced with trees from our nursery.  This nursery is located on a small, protected area of the farm.  The nursery trees are nurtured on this farm for one year prior to being transplanted to the main farm.  In a typical year, we transplant about 150,000 trees.

We use the fast growing, broad-leafed �poro� as our shade tree.  These trees are planted on a grid of varying density depending on the light requirements and need for temperature control in each individual section of the farm.

Growing Cycle

We produce one crop of coffee each year.  For us, the cycle begins with the first rains of the year.  These rains normally occur sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May.  The timing of the first rain is essential, for it is the rain that signals the tree to begin flowering. 

Approximately ten days after the initial rains, small honeysuckle-like flowers form on the trees.  Millions of flowers are produced in a spectacular display.  The entire farm looks like it is covered in freshly fallen snow.  It is a fleeting event, for a few days after they appear, the flowers whither and fall off the trees.  The flowering is of critical importance to the coffee crop, for the node where each flower formed will produce a single coffee cherry, and within this cherry are the coffee seeds which will become the coffee bean.  If the flowering is adversely affected by the weather, pollination wil not occur, no cherry will form and there will be no coffee.

From the onset of the initial rains, we enter into the seven month rainy season.  During the rainy

season, there will typically be four to six hours of rainfall every day.  These rains nurture the trees and encourage the growth and development of the green coffee cherries.  The rains also have the potential to create huge problems of road and soil erosion.  You will notice that all of the coffee is planted on terraces interspersed with complex water drainage channels.  Thousands of man hours are required during the rainy season to control erosion and maintain the road system of the farm.

The rains also encourage the growth of weeds among the coffee trees.  We do not use herbicides to control the weeds at La Minita, but instead hire contract labor who use machetes to clear the weeds by hand.  We do not believe in introducing unnecessary chemical influences to the farm, it is our home and the well being of its plants, animals and people is important.  Each year, every acre of the farm is weeded three times.

All sections of the farm are soil tested twice every year, and we base our fertilization formulas on the results of these tests.  We are careful to use the minimum amount of product necessary to achieve production, and we apply it to the base of each tree three times.  This is done for both economic and environmental reasons.  Additionally, a spray of minor elements (zinc, boron, copper, etc) is applied to the underside of the leaves.  This spray nourishes the plant and protects it from diseases.

Insecticides are not used on the farm.  Fortunately, the geographic advantages of the farm�s climate and altitude limits the number of insect pests.  Most importantly, through our careful cultivation and weeding techniques we produce coffee trees which are strong and healthy.  The few pests that we have do not significantly affect the trees.

With the end of the rainy season comes the ripening of the coffee cherries.  The large green cherries begin to turn either red or yellow and fill with the sweet miel (honey) that surrounds the seeds.  Unlike the flowering, the ripening of the fruit is slow and uneven.  Because of this, harvesting the fruit must be performed carefully.  Only the ripe fruit is picked, leaving the still unripe fruit for subsequent pickings.  We pick each tree on the farm up to five times to harvest the fruit.

The crop cycle of the farm ends with the �repela�, or the final picking of the trees.  This usually occurs at the end of February, and during this pass, all of the coffee cherries, both ripe and unripe, are removed from the trees, preparing the trees for the next year�s cycle.

Farm Infrastructure

The terrain of the farm is very difficult, and we move a great deal of weight in coffee fruit.  To aid in the transport of the coffee and to provide access to all areas of the farm, there are a total of about 30 kilometers of internal road system.

As well as the office and storage buildings, there are 27 housing units within the farm.  There is also a camp with showers, indoor plumbing, and cooking facilities for pickers who live too far away to travel every day.  All of the water used in these facilities is fed by springs and is perfectly safe to drink.

We have had a long standing open invitation to all of our clients to come and visit the farm.  This year we will host some 75 overnight guests and over 300 single day visitors to the farm during January and February.

Our business offices are located in San Jose in Costa Rica, and Bar Harbor, Maine in the United States.

The People

We have a core of 80 full time employees.  This includes; managers, farm workers, clerical staff, drivers and maintenance personnel.  All of these full time employees are provided housing for themselves and their families on the farm.   This core of people is augmented by approximately 150 contracted laborers to perform weed control and over 600 pickers during the harvest.

It is our policy to assist our workers by actively supporting them in their lives outside of working hours.  We contribute matching funds to the workers� association savings plans.  This money is used for retirement savings or to fund large purchases such as appliances or furniture.  Each year the association organizes a bus trip to Golfito in Southern Costa Rica where large tax free purchases can be made.

The association encourages and funds sports programs.  There is a soccer team for the adult men, as well as a junior team.  A choir has been organized for the women with a singing instructor attending weekly practices.

We have set up an at cost commissary on the farm for the workers.  Bulk purchasing power is used to supply inexpensive goods to cover the workers� basic needs.  Fresh vegetables are grown on the farm and made available to the workers.  Additionally, there are 3,000 citrus trees (oranges, grapefruits, and limes) as well as avocados and mangoes throughout the farm. 

Our own medical clinic is located on the farm near the administration building.  A doctor staffs this clinic two days a week to administer to the needs of the workers and their families.  We also have a dentist at the farm three days a week to attend to the dental needs of the farm community.  The goal of this clinic is to provide preventative care.  Detailed records of the medical histories of every person on the farm are kept for future reference.  Private hospital care for more serious illnesses is also available. 

In San Jose, we have eight people who handle the accounting, quality control, mill management and exportation of all of the coffee that we ship.  They supervise the preparation of the coffee at the mills and coordinate subsequent shipping.  Not one bean of coffee is shipped without prior quality testing and approval at this office.

In the United States, we have five people who are responsible for coffee transport management and customer support.  We work closely with our customers to develop blend and roast profiles for the coffees.  Additionally, we provide training and education in the taste profiles and processing of the coffees we import.

Coffee Milling

Our coffee mill, Beneficio del Rio Tarrazu, is located on land adjacent to the farm, just across the Tarrazu River  We believe our mill to be the most technologically advanced and ecologically sound coffee processing facility in the world.  

Wet Processing

The coffee arrives at the mills in large trucks.  These trucks pick up the coffee from the receiving stations (recibidores) on the farms and transport it through the mountains to the mills.  It is critical that processing of the coffee begins within 24 hours of the coffee being picked from the trees.  If the processing is delayed, the fruit will begin to spoil ruining the coffee seeds contained within the cherry.

As the coffee is unloaded from the trucks, it is measured into a large rectangular container called a medida.  The bottom of the medida his hinged to allow the coffee to be dropped into the receiving tank after being measured.  The receiving tank is filled with water, and it is here that the first quality separation takes place.   Any overripe (bellota), seedless (grano vano), or unripe green (verde) cherries float to the top of the tank due to their lower densities.  These are channeled off to be processed separately. 

The dense ripe fruit sinks to the bottom of the tank, and is moved via a siphon through a destoner (despiedrador).  The destoner will remove any stones or heavier density items that may have inadvertently gotten mixed in with the cherries.

A depulper (chancador) then removes the outer skin from the seeds and the miel.  It does this by cutting the skin and squeezing the fruit between an inner drum and an outer surface.  The distance between the drum and the surface needs to be carefully adjusted to ensure the seeds are not crushed by the depulper.  The skins of the coffee are collected and typically trucked back to the coffee farms to be used as a mulch.

The coffee then moves on to a criba .  A criba is a cylinder made of bars separated by a precisely measured distance.  A screw conveyer moves the cherries through the criba.  The purpose of this step is to remove any cherries which did not have the skins removed in the depulper (this may be due to small size or hard unripe fruit) from the properly depulped seeds.  The depulped seeds (first quality) fall through the bars of the criba and move on to the fermentation tanks, while the undepulped fruit moves on for further processing (second and third qualities).

The coffee spends between 20 and 24 hours in the fermentation tanks (pilas de fermentacion).  The fermentation process will break down the sugars in the miel, making it easier to remove the mucilage from the seeds.  However, if the coffee remains in the fermentation tanks for too long, the coffee seeds will pick up the taste of rotted fruit.  The mill manager makes the all-important decision on when to remove the seeds from the fermentation tank. 

From the fermentation tanks, the coffee seeds move to the washing channel (ca�o de lavado).  The washing channel serves three purposes.  First, the cool temperatures of the water halt the fermentation process that is occurring within the coffee mass.  Second, the mucilage, which is now loosened from with the coffee seeds, is washed away, along with any other loose material that has gotten into the coffee (ie. dirt, loose skins).  Third, a skilled mill worker will make quality separations of the coffee based on the specific gravity of the beans.  The lightest lower quality beans will flow down the channel first, while the most dense flavorful beans will move more slowly.  The qualities are separated using a series of slide gates and channels.

Transitional Steps

From the washing channel, the coffee is placed into the mechanical driers (secadores) for the final drying stage.  These driers are set at 60 degrees Celsius (140 F) using indirect heat and slowly rotate to evenly finish the drying.  Again, the mill manager makes the critical decision on when to remove the coffee from the dryer based on its feel, and the ability to remove the parchments skin from the seed.  After the coffee is dropped out of the drier, it rests for about 10 hours before being moved.  A typical drier load consists of approximately 60 quintales or 6,000 pounds of coffee.

The furnaces used to supply the heat for these driers have recently been replaced with new state of the art furnaces.  These furnaces are fueled using the parchment shell removed from the beans during the final preparation for the coffee.  This as almost completely eliminated our use of wood as an energy source.

At this point, the coffee seed is covered by a hard shell (called the parchment), as well as a thin layer of silverskin.  The coffee is moved into large silos, and remains resting for at least 20 days.  This period of time is called reposa .

Dry Milling

The parchment coffee is run through a huller.  This will remove the parchment from the seed as well as the silverskin.  The removed parchment is used as a fuel for the coffee driers.

A catadora is then used to separate the coffee by density.  This is done by using a flow of air to draw the coffee up a chute with various gates.

The green coffee then moves through a screener to separate the coffee by bean size.  One of the best screening machines for this step in the process is a modified grain separator which was made in Scotland.  These machines are extremely accurate (operating using a series of precisely measured holes), and more importantly, very gentle on the coffee.  We are in the process of collecting as many of these machines as possible for use in our new mill.

Further sorting occurs with the winnower .  The winnower is a slanted table that vibrates, shaking the coffee and separating lesser density coffee from higher densities.

The last step for La Minita coffee is the hand cleaning tables.  Here women pore over the coffee looking for a discolored or damaged beans that were not separated by the machines.   A top sorter can clean no more than 50 pounds of beans in one day.

Milling Summary

The milling of the coffee is critical in determining the final quality of the coffee.  Not only are there chemical changes occurring within the beans that will determine their final cup quality, but also a series of separations that remove the lower quality beans.  Of 100 pounds of green equivalent cherries that enter the milling process, only about 23 pounds make it to become La Minita.


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