Days 2 and 3 from Costa Rica’s West Valley – Picking Contests and Coffee Cupping

The Roasterie crew is still in Costa Rica learning more about the region’s unique milling processes and experiencing the rich culture. On days 2 and 3, the team had some fun competing in a coffee bean picking contest and developed a deeper appreciation for the people who go to extremes to ensure the highest quality coffee. Come with us as we reflect on our experience.

Day 2

Stop 1: El Pacayal

The Roasterie crew gathered for a coffee cherry picking contest in El Pacayal
El Pacayal – Picking Contest

The Roasterie crew started out today with an exciting coffee picking contest at El Pacayal, an hour’s drive from our hotel near San Jose. Picking coffee is not easy. It takes a lot of care and attention to details to do it properly, especially when selecting “sangre todo,” meaning “totally red” ripe cherries.

On average, it takes the professional Costa Rican coffee picker 1 1/2 hours to fill one basket. Twenty baskets equals the amount of coffee it takes to fill a standard jute coffee bag (152 lbs.) Pickers typically receive around $2.00 per basket.  I hope these figures help put things into perspective.  We all had a good deal of fun and reflected on the impact and importance the people in the field have on quality coffee. 

Stop 2: Cerro San Luis Micro-Mill

Alexander Delgado, owner of the Cerro San Luis micro-mill has won international attention with the Cup of Excellence in 2011/12 and 2012/13, placing in the top 20 with his coffees processed here. It was a very insightful and educational visit, learning in detail how the “honey-process” uses significantly less water during processing, making this process not only better for the environment, but adding more complexities to the cup profile overall. Mr. Delgado has also implemented a few innovative drying techniques, where he has built “bunk beds” for drying coffee.   

"bunk beds" for drying coffee

With this manner of drying, it allows the beans to become “stressless,” having only the wind and a longer drying time to gently decrease coffee to an acceptable level of moisture and water activity. His additional raised beds include placement for both direct sun drying along with covered raised bed drying space, much like a greenhouse.  His options for drying and processing are numerous, and his spirit for experimentation is inspiring.  We also discussed our future ambitions to separate the orange geisha and SL-28 varietals for micro-lots in the coming years. He ended our tour with a short demonstration on how he combats insects known as the “coffee berry borer” in an environmentally safe manner, using plastic cups, some liquid and plenty of hands on management, rather than choosing to spray insecticides.

Stop 3: Las Lajas Micro-Mill 

Tuesday afternoon we visited Las Lajas micro mill, owned by Oscar Chacón. He placed in the top 20 Cup of Excellence competition in the year 2008 and 2009.  They started production in 2006 mostly processing fully washed caturra and catuai varietals.  In 2008, a major earthquake struck the region, cutting off water and electricity to their mill, so they had no other choice than to choose to use the “natural” process, which uses minimal amounts of water with overall little input. After producing a few lots of natural processed coffees, they were recognized by several buyers for successfully producing high quality lots, and ever since have been well known in the region for this process.  They haven’t changed their vision since.  They are now processing a good deal of honey and natural coffees, placing in several Cup of Excellence competitions within the past years. 

Oscar Chacón showing Jon how to read degrees of Brix
Oscar Chacón showing how to read degrees of Brix

I asked Oscar if he measured degrees of Brix on his coffee cherry, and he was the first farmer to show me how to use the refractometer to measure the sugar content in a cherry. He demonstrated by opening up a cherry and smearing mucilage over the glass component of the refractometer, held it up to the light and read 15 degrees, letting me know that this is typically the best time to start picking coffee, although 20 degrees Brix is the ideal and ripest time for the sweetest cherries to be picked. So many details, so little time. We were also lucky to be offered a great selection of ripe tropical fruit snacks including granada, mango, melon, and watermelon. 

Stop 4: Don Sabino Micro-Mill

a handful of ripe coffee cherries

The Don Sabino micro-mill is located in a house where Steven Vargas’s grandmother once lived. There is a 10kilo roaster in one of the bedrooms, bags of parchment in another bedroom, and in the garage is the depulper and delivery station, and in the backyard rests several raised beds. It was a very clever use of space, right in the middle of town.


Day 3

Stop 1: Deli Cafe, San Jose

We had an exciting opportunity to cup several coffees from Las Lajas, Don Sabino, and Cerro San Luis at Grace Mena’s cupping lab at Deli Cafe this morning.  We spent several hours cupping 44 samples, all of which had 3 cups per sample to evaluate, totaling 132 cups tasted. I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the selections to be quite tasty, even for the first picking. Most coffees mature in flavor after a few months of rest after picking, so this was a positive sign. One of the most interesting and rewarding results after blind cupping all the samples was that the Don Quijote sample from Lomas al Rio cupped out with one of my highest given scores. 

cupping coffee
Louise and Blair Anderson cupping coffees at Deli Cafe, Costa Rica

Stop 2: Aprocetu Cooperative, Cerro de Turrubares

After our full morning of cupping we traveled a few hours up rugged terrain reaching Cerro de Turrubares to visit the Aprocetu Cooperative.  

The cooperative has produced coffees at this mill for the last five years and have been making quality progress ever since. One very interesting component to this mill is their method of fully washing coffee with a pulper that uses very little water. The pulper can be adjusted to allow certain amounts of pulp to remain on the parchment to produce honeyed coffees. They have covered greenhouses where they are currently drying beds of natural coffees. 

They are slightly lower in elevation, which increased their harvest season, so most of the coffee they were processing today was the last of the crop this year. The last picking is typically not the best, with a wide variety of over and under ripe cherries.  Nonetheless, the beds were full of naturals with great potential. In the photo below, it appeared that natural coffees were mixed in with honey processed coffees. The coffees which have the skin removed started as fully natural, but when some of the cherries were rinsed, the pulp was so ripe it fell off in the process. These drying cherries, when opened, had a very strong resemblance to the fruit of a tamarind tree, both in flavor and actual fruit consistency. It was a pleasant surprise to witness this similarity.