by Drew Billups, Zoka Coffee Roaster
It’s been a desire of mine to visit origin since I first started out in coffee seven years ago, so when Zoka offered me the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica for this year’s coffee harvest, I jumped at the chance. The geography of coffee, the way it connects us to people and places across the globe, has continually fed my infatuation with this drink, and I was thrilled to be able to experience how it is grown first hand. I knew I’d be able to meet farmers and experience how coffee cherries are processed, from picking to milling. But the part I didn’t expect was the full extent of the hospitality and warmth with which we were welcomed by the Costa Rican coffee farmers, and the evidence of how directly the government of Costa Rica helps support them in their endeavor to grow great coffee.
The Roasters Guild and ICAFE sponsors the annual trip, and this year about 20 participants from cafes, roasteries, and importers from across the states met in Costa Rica for a week in early January. Throughout my years in the industry I had seen countless photos of origin that prepared me, at least to some extent, for what I would see at the farms and mills. There was nothing, however, to prepare me for the smell that pervaded the air as we walked through the receiving stations, passed the machines that de-pulp the coffee and out to the African beds and concrete patios where the coffee is dried in the sun. The air was filled with an unmistakable perfume, like that of sweet grain, fresh hay, and fermenting apples.
I was not expecting the extent and warmth with which we would be received by the farmers and their families. The first full day of our trip was drawn to a festive conclusion when we were hosted by the Trejos family, owners of ‘La Flor del Roble’ farm. They held an outdoor banquet at their home with mouth-watering barbequed meats and homemade food. Several days later, while visiting the Urena Rojas family farm, they provided us with a lovely lunch of pork and white beans and sweet plantain. We dined while sitting on beautiful mountainside surrounded by banana trees and coffee plants overlooking a racing mountain stream.
This trip showed me how much of a difference positive government involvement makes in the life of the farmers and the quality coffee. Icafe is the Costa Rican government coffee association. They go to great lengths to sponsor research and pass that knowledge along to the farmer. Icafe works to promote the best growing practices and to encourage sustainable practices among the farmers, most notably in regards to their use of water and pesticides. Throughout the country they have encouraged farmers to invest in their own processing equipment. This gives added value to the farmers’ product and preserves coffees of distinction that carry the true taste of place. Prior to this a farmer’s only option was to loose the identity of their coffee as it was blended with others at large mills.
There’s something about the smell of a place that pictures and words cannot communicate. There’s a connection that happens when you share a meal with the hardworking people that grow coffee, and shake hands with the family members as fond and genuine words of gratitude are exchanged. All this serves to make the geography of coffee more tangible and complete, more about people, and good memories and smells than preconceived ideas.