Great coffee tour - still hate the stuff!

Published: April 27th 2014
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A few of us get dropped off at the bakery on the way back to the hotel to grab some lunch before we have to be ready for the afternoon's coffee tour at the Don Juan coffee plantation. I have always hated coffee despite it smelling so lovely, but I'm still interested to find out how it is produced.

We find out loads from our jolly coffee tour guide. She tells us the two types of coffee bean are cafe robusta and cafe arabica. The first has more caffeine and is more bitter to the taste but is not as good quality. It is however a lot quicker and easier to produce than cafe arabica. In Costa Rica coffee was first produced in 1800 brought over from Ethiopia in Africa. At first both types of bean were produced. Now only cafe arabica is grown in Costa Rica. Cafe arabica needs lots of rain, high altitude, lower temperatures and most importantly volcanic soils. Costa Rica provides these conditions perfectly, so much so that producers have now been banned from growing cafe robusta to keep coffee growing specialism to the arabica bean.

To grow coffee plants the bean is sown and the first shoots are called 'little soldiers'. The shoots grow a bit more producing a couple of small leaves called 'butterflies' due to their shape. Once large enough these seedling plants are transplanted to plastic bag 'pots' to grow on. One year later they are transplanted to fields planted out in rows on the hillside. Three years later they are ready to be included in the coffee bean production cycle and will last for up to 30 years in total. Some pruning takes place during the plant's lifetime including cutting completely back to the ground which involves missing a couple of years production.

The plant produces small white flowers. Once pollinated these turn first into green beans which turn to orange and finally red when completely ripe. This takes place over a period of 9 months.

There is only one picking season of three months in the summer. The school holidays used to be timed to coincide with the coffee bean picking season as the children were needed to help their families pick the beans. Since Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1948 the government has used the money to provide good quality, compulsory education for all and so children are no longer allowed to help their families pick the coffee beans. Instead migrant workers from Nicaragua are allowed to come to pick them. The wages are good compared to what they would get back home so they welcome the chance to carry out well paid work.

Our guide showed us the box called a cajuela that is used to measure quantities of beans picked. To get the best rate pickers have to get at least 80% red beans in their cajuela. Coffee producers sell on their roasted beans to exporters. When the coffee finally gets to the consumer the amount earned from one cajuela box of picked coffee beans shoots up from $1.5 for the picker to about $600 for the likes of Starbucks!

We meet Mr Juan who is the father of the owner of the coffee plantation we are visiting. He started picking coffee beans when he was six years old and has been in the coffee production business all his life. Now aged 77 we find out he has 9 children, 26 grand children and 4 great grand children!

We take a look at some of the coffee plants growing. The flowers smell very pretty, like jasmine. The fruits are small and oval shaped. There are about five layers covering the coffee seeds inside and a process of squeezing the seeds out of the pulp layers is carried out by machine. The pulp mixture waste is used for fertilising the coffee plants. A centrifuge machine gets more layers off and as the green seeds are lighter and smaller they fall through the mesh holes and are collected ready for drying.

The best way to dry the beans is in the sun and the process takes 2 weeks. They can also be machine dried. Once the seeds have been dried they are stored in bags for a year prior to roasting.

Before roasting the final layer needs to be taken off, much easier now that the seeds are dry. This used to be done by pounding the dried seeds using a big wooden pugel stick, but now a machine does this. Finally the coffee beans are ready to be roasted. During roasting you can hear a cracking noise a bit like popcorn and the colour changes. Depending on the amount of time the beans are roasted different colours and grades of roasting are produced. These can range from light roast to expresso and the flavours vary greatly for each type of roast. Blends are different grades of roasted beans mixed together.

In Costa Rica children are introduced to coffee at a very young age and grow to love it as their favoured adult drink.

Coffee drinkers amongst the group get to taste the different roasts and stock up on some packets of their favourites to take home. We also see some oxen with brightly painted carts that used to be used to transport the roasted beans to the coast ready for export. These carts have been listed by UNESCO heritage of humanity.

We also get a quick run through of the chocolate production process and get to try both this and some freshly squeezed sugar cane. See previous blog page to find out about the chocolate production process.

What a fascinating insight into one of Costa Rica's biggest export items. Still hate the stuff personally though!

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