This week, we’re drinking the last of the coffee I brought back from Costa Rica. I returned last summer with bags and boxes and tins of dark roast, light roast, decaf (for my mother-in-law), eco-friendly organic, shade-grown, ground and whole bean. For months, we’d simply head to the freezer after finishing a package. But it’s gone now.
I’m remembering the day I visited Coopeldos, a little coffee cooperative in a green valley far from the noise of any town. I almost missed it. I was on my own, lingering in Costa Rica a few days beyond my companions. I was all set to board a bus and head north until a little pamphlet changed my day….
*Please note: the photos in this story are taken by yours truly. Professional photo hubby was not along for this journey.
Some days happen, just like magic. I’m packed and ready for a bus to Cañas when I find the pamphlet for Coopeldos. The coop sits halfway to Monteverde, less than 30 kilometers from my guesthouse in Tilaran, but an hour by bus—so bad and bumpy is the road. I’ve wanted to see a coffee plantation. I must go.
The bus drops me at an L in the road in a tiny village with a church, a minimart, a restaurant and a cluster of homes set among emerald Kentucky-like hills. Everywhere, green. And today: mist and clouds, alternating breezes and cruel humidity. But the walk is nothing short of splendid.
It’s a steep, rocky 3-kilometer path downhill from the bus stop. I follow the signs and trace the edge of a hill with gifted views. The pastures are mostly shorn, grazed, planted. Small patches of jungle trees sprout from fields of pineapple and grasses that feed goats and cattle. The air is thick, sweet, dense. Birds perch in the trees around me.
I reach the coffee when I reach the oranges. Shade-grown organic beans grow on small plants beneath towering citrus, bananas, laurel, cedar, corn, beans—anything. My guide, Hairo, later tells me the trees are good in every conceivable way. They prevent erosion, protect the coffee and welcome the animals—all of which help Costa Rica’s ecosystems to thrive.
This time of year, Coopeldos slumbers quietly through the off-season. Hairo, the only front-room employee on duty, seems a bit perplexed by my solitary presence—but no problem. He’ll give me a solo guided tour, which begins with an informative video on the coop’s history and the steps to processing coffee beans. I learn that Coopeldos, established in 1971, has more than 500 members who give a percentage of their profits to various social projects in education, forestation and health care.
Hairo leads me through rows of coffee, showing me the tiny berries that will be ripe and ready for harvest in fall. Each plant produces more than 6 kilograms of fruit in season. The ripened fruits should carry rich flavors and an aroma like chocolate, he says. Then he points to a leaf with tiny yellow spots, which he calls golden dust. It’s evidence of coffee leaf rust, one of the industry’s most menacing enemies.
I follow Hairo to the factory, where giant vats collect bushels and bushels and bushels of berries until the vats fill, the floors open and the tonnage drops into massive white-tiled bins below. At least, that’s the way he describes the process. Everything is quiet now. A catwalk gives us an overhead view to the empty bins below.
Hairo guides me through a series of machines that sort, rinse and dry. All we want in our coffee is the bean—the seed—from within the berry. The unused pulp is removed from the beans and shot through pipes into a giant compost bin. This all-natural fertilizer is spread around the plants from which it came. Not only is this good for the environment, Hairo says, compost is cheaper than nitrogen fertilizer.
The beans are fermented for 10 hours, then washed and dried by machines fueled by firewood and other organic matter. Anything else, Hairo says, and “the coffee just tastes like highway, pavement, smog.”
He shows me the “inferior” patio, to which reject beans are brought. These beans, he says, are sold locally, roasted and mixed with palatable additions such as vanilla, which makes for a spicier drink.
He takes me to a sheltered area, where the coop’s organic beans are dried naturally in the country’s intense sunlight. Workers rake the beans every few hours. Only 1 percent of this coffee stays within Costa Rica, Hairo says. The majority is exported to countries with higher demand (and, presumably, deeper pockets).
The only other workers on duty today are packers. One man packages individual bags of coffee and places them into a giant box, to be shipped to Alberta. Two women patiently clip dozens of distribution labels. Each bag is given an expiration date one year after packaging. All of this is done by hand.
The beans, of course, are roasted before shipment. But Hairo takes me upstairs to the tasting room, where I can watch a tiny black roaster (it looks like an air popper) turning green beans into varying shades of chocolate brown within four minutes. The beans pop and crack as they roast. Hairo says it’s critical to stop the process before the beans burn.
Tasting requires more nose than throat. We begin by breathing in the aromas of five little cups filled with different types of dry, ground coffee. What do I smell? Chocolate, toast, citrus, vinegar and nothing at all.
Next, Hairo pours boiled water into each cup. The coffees steep, then we stir and smell again. We “feel the aroma,” which differs from the first round. Before tasting, we “clean the top,” skimming foam from each sample. When we finally taste, we do not swallow. We dunk a spoon into each variety, noisily slurp the coffee, then spit it out. Three or four times, and we can really feel the acid and understand the flavor, Hairo says.
What do I taste? The first es perfecto. The second has a deeper roast. The third reminds me of an awful truck-stop coffee in the middle of Nowhere, USA. The fourth is burnt and acidic. The fifth tastes like a pot of coffee heated all day, with water added as the hours grow long. “Old-age coffee,” Hairo calls it.
He confirms my nose. The first two coffees are fresh; the remaining three are old, bad roasts. “Some people love it,” he says. “Not for me.” Those old roasts remind me of grandma’s percolator gone bad.
At the end of all that tasting, I get to choose a good cup to drink in the lounge, with wide windows overlooking a verdant garden. I ask for a light roast of the freshest variety, a little milk, no sugar. “You are a good coffee drinker,” Hairo says.
Several days later, I’m on my way home. I’m stuck for a few hours in the Atlanta airport, where a perky, polite waitress repeatedly calls me “Miss Pretty.” She serves a terrible cup of an abhorrent roast. I know what’s wrong with it—or at least the possibilities: old grounds, perhaps a fungus on the beans. It’s a dark roast, probably beyond the point of no return—the point at which Hairo says nothing is left but “charcoal.”