Our little white car, expertly navigating the narrow mountainous roads, comes to a sudden halt. “These are the new cowboys of Costa Rica,” Alex tells me. Two men on bicycles herd a large group of cattle across the road. We had left the small lively beach town of Coco Beach to head into the mountains in search of coffee. On this side of Costa Rica — the Pacific side — the air is dry and hot. The terrain seems burnt by the sun, unlike the “other side,” where the Caribbean climate produces lush green rain forests and mucho rain year round. Alex, an expert in all things Costa Rica and our guide for the day, accelerated up the mountain furiously. Two hours and a little motion sickness later, we arrive at Matambu coffee plantation in the town of Hojancha.
Costa Rican coffee is produced in smaller co-ops like this, rather than by large companies, ensuring better conditions for farmers. Hojancha is a small town nestled in the mountains. The small, local co-op of Cafe Diria employs nearly 200 associates from the area. The region of Guanacaste — a sparsely populated region along the Pacific coast — produces unique coffee unlike most other Costa Rican beans. Known for its fruity and acidic finish, Costa Rican coffee is renowned as some of the best in the world; so much so, that Starbucks imports most of their coffee from the country. But Guanacaste, with its distinct dry and rainy seasons, grows coffee a little less acidic and a bit more balanced — a beautiful, easy cup to enjoy.
Upon arrival, we meet Byron, a man of small stature and a bright smile; he is to lead us around the vast, colorful equipment. Once a coffee picker, he lasted a mere fifteen days. “It’s a very difficult job,” he says. Too short to reach the highest cherries, he would pull the plant down to gather the fruit, accidentally snapping many of the fragile branches; he was fired.
Founded fifty years ago by five families, this coffee plantation is ingrained in the community, touching everyone in some way. In fact, many parents send their teenage youth to the fields to learn responsibility, to earn their own. The coffee is grown in the mountains at high altitudes. When harvest is finished, pickers are sent to collect the cherries — the fruit that yields coffee beans. The terrain is steep, and rife with venomous snakes, wasps, and other pesky creatures. The farmers set out with baskets strapped to their waist, looking for ripe, red cherries, disregarding green ones that are not ready to be picked. There is no machinery to aid in the fields here — picking is done by hand. Each farmer fills their basket discerningly, and empties the cherries into sacs, only to begin again. “There’s no storage room in the mountains,” Byron quips, so a farmer is usually carrying a back-breaking amount.
Toting sacs of coffee, along with lunch, filling their basket all the while, the farmer moves along the fields. Compounding this is the notorious rainy season of Costa Rica. The harvest in this area is picked during the months of October through February — during October, one of the wettest months of the year, farmers work in slippery conditions. “Sometimes they eat lunch full of water,” says Byron.
Nonetheless, it is a very social job. The farmers are out in the mountains together for long hours, five days a week, building a strong bond. They are not paid by the hour, but rather by the kilo; each hour must be fruitful.
The coffee is brought back to the plant and washed. The fruit of the cherry is removed, revealing two small green beans. The beans are covered in a “slime” which can ferment if not washed immediately, and are placed in a large tub of water to soak overnight, usually eight hours. (Unwashed beans are more aromatic and acidic, and can be dried by the sun. According to Byron, the farmers prefer these beans).
The beans are then sent to dry in a chamber, reaching a certain humidity. After this they are further dried by machines, fueled by a kind of wood that does not emit a strong, smokey odor when burned — this could alter the taste of the beans. At this point, there is still more work to be done to reach the green coffee bean. After drying, another machine is used to separate the final layer: the shell, or husk, covering the small green beans that one roasts. The beans are then separated by shape and size prior to bagging by a large blue machine, labeled Oliver (“Oliver who? Oliver Twist?” Byron wondered). Regardless, Oliver vibrates loudly and violently, separating the small beans from the large. In this case, Byron tells us, “bigger is better!” The larger beans signify a healthier, more mature fruit was picked; these are the beans that are considered best quality.
A room with a large roaster and grinder is where small batches of the beans are roasted and served to a “taster.” Above all else, “his opinion is absolute” in determining whether the coffee is good. (I later found out he spits the coffee out, crushing my dreams of perhaps finding the ultimate job in the world — to sit and taste coffee each day). Every part of the coffee fruit is later used; the shells help fuel the dryer, the fruit as compost to fertilize the land, and the smaller, less quality beans make various coffee products — Kahlua being one of them.
Though difficult, these coffee farmers are grateful for a well paid, sustainable job. All coffee here is fair-trade, ensuring farmers are treated fairly and ethically for their labor. Eighty percent of the coffee produced at Cafe Diria is exported; “Costa Ricans drink the worst coffee, and export the best.” A sad irony for a place that grows some of the finest coffee in the world.