Coffee Blog Post on RPA's Blog

26 February 2012

In July I traveled to Costa Rica to attend a friend’s wedding. During the trip I was able to visit a coffee plantation. Ever since then I have thought about the visit whenever I fill my coffee cup at RPA. I wrote a short blog post about my experience on RPA’s culture blog.

[Update June 2020: It has come to my attention that this blog post is no longer on RPA’s blog, so here it is below:]

“Bienvenidos a nuestra fincá de cafe.”

We were standing in front of a small outbuilding in the center of an ocean of glossy green leaves in a small Costa Rican mountain town. The patriarch of the family, Juan Leiton, an older man wearing a round hat addressed us in Spanish. My own Spanish is poor, although I understood most of what he told us about his farm, his family, and his career as a coffee farmer. I understood without translation that there is a deep and meaningful story behind every sip of coffee.

I am often reminded of my trip to a Monteverde coffee plantation whenever I fill up my coffee cup at RPA. In July, my wife and I traveled to Costa Rica to attend a friend’s wedding. When I found out we could tour a coffee plantation I made plans to visit. I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie, but I do like a good cup of coffee. For me, coffee consumption and the rituals that surround it are closely related to the concepts of work and collaboration. But on a coffee plantation, this relationship is reversed, with years of work and collaboration going into creating the ingredients for a cup of coffee.

Our tour began when our driver parked the van in the middle of a steep section of a road that headed almost straight down into a valley. Our guides Marco Vinicio and Joyce Leiton Evans lead us, visitors, to an overlook with a spectacular view of the mountains. Ms. Evans explained that the plantation we would visit today was part of Cooperative Santa Elena that included several small coffee plantations in the community. This one was run by her father, Mr. Leiton. Marco Vinicio and Ms. Evans had both grown up in Monteverde (Green Mountain), a rural settlement suspended between two preserved cloud forests. Fog hung in the background over the cloud forest covering the opposite hillside.

The coffee is grown by the families without pesticides but the cooperative was still in talks to gain additional organic certifications. Lots of inspections, paperwork, and waiting periods were required. “But the certifications were good,” Ms. Evans said they allowed the families to sell their coffee at higher prices and protected them somewhat from the constant variations in the commodity’s price. She explained that the rules of the cooperative required the farmers to re-invest any windfall profits back into the community, mainly into education and infrastructure improvement. One lady asked a question about the technical merits of one certification over another. It seemed like a strange question to me, given our surroundings. As I experienced the coffee plantation firsthand I was already convinced the family’s coffee was the real deal. That is when we piled back into the cars and headed down the hill.

When we climbed out of the van again, we were parked in a driveway next to a small house and an outbuilding with a slanted roof. Laundry was hanging out to dry and there was a dog bouncing around the yard. Most of the talk was conducted by Ms. Evan’s father, Mr. Leiton. He described how a few selected coffee berries from previous harvests are planted in small pots and the seedlings are grown under the outbuilding for six months to a year before they are transplanted. When a plant reaches five years old it begins bearing berries worthwhile to harvest and each plant can yield about one pound of roasted beans per year for many years.

The process of creating the elixir of techies is remarkably low tech. Coffee berries are harvested by hand and carried by the workers in sacks to a small red grinding machine which is used to remove the flesh of the berries. Mr. Leiton explained that in his father’s time a large wooden mortar and pestle were used to mash up the berries by hand. Today the machine makes the work a little easier. After the coffee beans are removed from the berries they are placed on screens behind us to dry them out before they are collected and brought into town for roasting. Traditionally coffee is grown in the shade of existing rainforest trees or fruit trees and from where we stood I could see banana and papaya trees interspersed within the coffee bushes with the coffee plants ringed by tall rainforest trees.

A young girl chased a medium-sized brown and white dog around the yard as her grandfather spoke and started to climb a fruit tree. “How old are you?” my wife asked as she waved to the little girl half-way up the fruit tree. “¿Cuántos años tienes? ” asked her mother, Ms. Evans “Siete.” came the reply. “You are getting so old!” my wife said, turning to Ms. Evans, “She’s beautiful.” After my wife and I petted the family dog, our group walked up the hill through the plantation and into the trees. It was clear that this wasn’t just a coffee farm, it was a home. We could sense that the family felt a deep sense of pride in their land. Mr. Leiton explained that before the property was passed down to him the area where we stood was clear-cut from virgin rainforest. He had decided since then that he only needed to plant coffee on the smaller portion of the property below. Now we could see that twenty years later, the rainforest was slowly reclaiming the landscape. A pair of colorful butterflies wandered through the trees. Mr. Leiton told us that monkeys and birds had begun to return to this small corner of the recovering rainforest. Demand for shade-grown artesian coffee had certainly created a wonderful life in Monteverde. Now it was time to sit on the porch and drink coffee. It was fantastic. We all got a chance to talk about where we were from. Both of our guides, Marco and Joyce had studied abroad in the United States for university, which explained their flawless American English. People in our group were from places like Atlanta, Indiana, Washington state, and California. After we finished up, we got back into the cars and went back into town to the beneficio (coffee mill).

All the cooperative’s green coffee beans are roasted in a small coffee mill in Monteverde. Coffee roasting produces the characteristic flavor of coffee by causing green coffee beans to expand and change in density, color, taste, smell. Costa Ricans generally like their coffee lightly roasted. We were told this is because lightly roasted coffee preserves the earthy flavor notes and the acidity that come from the terroir (geography, geology, and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant’s genetics). Because coffee beans lose mass when they are roasted, there is also an economic incentive for coffee growing communities to roast their own beans and export roasted rather than green coffee beans. Roasting takes 3 minutes for a light roast and 30 minutes for a very dark roast so even an extra 10 minutes in the coffee roaster can make a big difference on the characteristics of the finished product.

The nitty-gritty aspects of coffee cultivation were only hinted at during the tour. While studying at UC Davis in California’s Central Valley I learned that farming requires patience and dedication along with back-breaking labor. Costa Rican farmers were lucky because the coffee industry had developed differently there than in other parts of South America. As elsewhere, a group of coffee barons arose that reaped the rewards from the booming industry, but in Costa Rica, there were shortages of land and labor. Coffee production is labor-intensive, with a long and painstaking harvest season. Small farmers became the principal planters and the elites monopolized processing, marketing, and financing. The coffee industry in Costa Rica created a wide network of high-end traders and small-scale growers, whereas in the rest of Central America, a narrow elite-controlled large estates, worked by tenant laborers.

Unfortunately picking coffee berries is hard work, even in Costa Rica. Along with the labor, another hardship is the threat of losing a harvest to disease. Mr. Leiton did show us coffee leaves that had been attacked by coffee rust. The disease can come on suddenly when the plant leaves are moist for long periods of time, which happens often in the climate. Farmers are victims of the elements in these situations, especially if they have sworn off pesticides to fight insects and disease. Somebody asked Marco how often he left Monteverde and he said it was hard to leave the farm. I could understand. I told him that a friend of mine grows grapes on his family’s land in California’s Napa Valley and he tended to stay close to home too. It takes a special person to choose a career in agriculture. Their commitment to their land wasn’t an environmental slogan, it is their obligation to protect the family legacy for the next generation.

In a world that seems to be constantly upended by technological progress, it is amazing to find right in the middle of all of it, filling the cups of hackers and creative types all over the world, an industry almost completely resistant to change. The coffee slurped by us office dwellers is still cultivated mostly by hand in Monteverde using techniques that are decades old. It is gratifying to learn that the coffee harvest is improved incrementally through experimentation and observation rather than through complex computerized quantitative analysis, at least for now, there are just too many variables to measure. But a part of me can’t help but notice changes. A group of Quakers living in Alabama was jailed for refusing to fight in World War II (Quakers are pacifists and are forbidden by their religion from fighting), upon their release they settled in Monteverde. Costa Rica had just abolished its military and Monteverde was an appealing place to raise cattle. The Quaker families lead both the efforts to preserve the ecologically diverse cloud forests from logging and the efforts to oppose paving the roads connecting Monteverde to the outside world to discourage tourism. We had braved unpaved roads in order to go on the coffee tour. Even within the coffee-growing families a generational technological and cultural divide seems to be developing. Mr. Leiton who enlivened the tour with his personal stories in Spanish about his plants and his land might just be an endangered commodity. I was honored to been briefly welcomed into the world of coffee farming in Monteverde. You can go too. Check out