The Roasterie Costa Rica Trip: Thoughts from an Entrepreneur (Days 2-4)

WRITTEN BY HERB SIH

In January of 2013, friend and fellow Kansas City entrepreneur Herb Sih joined The Roasterie on its annual trip to Costa Rica.  Never having been to a coffee bean farm, Herb was able to provide a fresh, new perspective for the coffee-growing region in the blog post below.  Herb also acted as trip photographer and was able to flush out his own entrepreneurial ideas including one of his new ventures, Smart Coffee.  Learn more and follow Herb through his day-to-day adventure in Costa Rica with The Roasterie.

Read about Day 1 here.

We go to another coffee farmer operation.  Only this time, we have to get there via bus on dirt roads that are barely fit for a pack mule.  We get bounced around the back of a pickup truck (we use pickups as chase vehicles to take over when the bus no longer can safely navigate the road). We twist, wind, climb and descend; all the while I get to listen to Paul Massard and Danny talk about life, coffee, the farms and families we are visiting and more, as they sit high atop the front of the pickup truck bed side holding on to the roof for support. The O’Neill kids, by the way, are riding with us the whole time. Laughing, playing and living this experience. Has anyone told them how special these memories will be one day to them of this great adventure they live with Danny and Carla?

When we finally arrive at our destination and we tour the coffee farm. Danny and Paul spring into action as they leisurely converse with each farmer. The farmers, all very friendly, appreciate the importance of this trip. Danny is not just a buyer, but someone who has taken to heart the needs of the region and the importance to create a win-win relationship with each coffee producer.

Fair trade, while well intended to help the coffee farmer, has not done all that it was really intended to do. The reality of today’s coffee farmer is that it takes a lot of work, time and money to produce a good product. $1.40 per pound of coffee, which is the fair trade minimum price set by the agreement, is just not enough for many of these farmers. Unfortunately for those farmers whose labor costs exceed others that can make the $1.40/lb work, it is a losing proposition. And after riding up and down roads and seeing how manual of a process it is to pick high quality beans at the right time, I am amazed that we do not pay more for a cup of good coffee.

Mental note to self: Be willing to pay more for good coffee knowing what it took to get my little daily morning miracle brew into my coffee cup. 

The farmer we visit shows us his operation: the mill, the storage area, the drying beds. We even get to sample the finished product. But then we are in for a real treat. This coffee farmer takes us to his house for lunch. By any American standards, many might call his house a shack. But when this “shack” seems to be the rule not the exception in the particular area, you begin to appreciate even more the role coffee plays in multi-generational families and the daily life that unfolds without an afterthought to the conditions. We enter the patio outside of this 3-room house for a meal. The kitchen area has a wood burning stove/oven and the smell of wonderful but nearly unidentifiable food wafts out through the entrance. I really wish I would have paid more attention to my 3 years of Spanish in school, but I don’t think any schooling would have helped me navigate the menu this meal was based from.  The meal is delicious, but I could not tell you for the life of me what it was that I ate – or especially drank. The drink during this meal was some type of juice that had the consistency of Aloe Vera, seeds like overgrown kiwi fruit and the taste of a subtle fruity flavor, but so subtle that I can’t quite place it. I also feel a bit guilty knowing that this amazing meal is probably the equivalent of an American’s Thanksgiving Day meal. This family does not eat this well every day…I am not really sure if they even eat this well on their version of a Thanksgiving Day. I silently give great thanks for this meal and hope they have a good coffee season so they can continue to provide for all of us coffee drinkers around the world while providing for their family too.

Another farm we visit takes the concept of “family business” to a whole new level. Several brothers work together, and with their wives and kids, bring the total family business to around 30 people. The level of love I see in these families all living together is amazing. By day they grow coffee, working hard to harvest the best product to supply both Grace and Danny thousands of miles away. The miracle of coffee happens daily on coffee farms just like this, in which the fathers lead the coffee production while the mothers help support the family unit. But support is relative, as this given day nearly 20 kids were part of the work landscape. These families play, smile, laugh and love with each other…it’s just how they are. I don’t think this scene could easily exist in the US. I quietly think to myself, has technology and advancement benefitted us as much as we really think?

The coffee farmer I most fell in love with was Carlos Urrena Ceceliano. Carlos is the operator of La Pira, a coffee farm located in the high altitude Dota Valley of the Tarrazu region. This region is well known for producing some of the world’s best coffees, and Carlos’ farm is no letdown.

This relatively young estate (50 years old) was started by Carlos’ family, and Carlos took it over to continue the family tradition. When he initially took over, the farm was a certified organic coffee producer, but over the years he realized this was a very difficult and expensive proposition, so Carlos looked for alternatives to being able to create a different type of coffee operation.

Driving up to the farm, I knew this was going to be a special place. It looked different from any operation we had seen. Driving up, you notice the dog in the field, watching over the operation and presumably providing some type of security despite his cautiously friendly, majestic appearance you see from wise-old dogs that know better.

Once you start walking around his farm, you also notice something else that I had not seen at any other coffee farm. He has chickens, pigs, sheep and other animals, in a “barn” area, that apparently provide diversification from his coffee operation. Growing coffee is a hard business, and the sheer fact that Carlos has thought about the aspects of agricultural risk management, is impressive. I am intrigued and want to know more.

Apparently the sheep have multiple uses, besides providing wool, lambskin and meat.  According to one article I read about his operation (Carols was too busy to tell me this AND my Spanish is VERY POOR), the sheep are “employees” of the farm and help control weeds by eating their way to agricultural bliss. Because of the sheep, Carlos has been able to eliminate the need for herbicides, as sheep do NOT like the taste of coffee leaves, but apparently DO like the taste of weeds. I wonder if other farmers know this.  It’s important to note that the by-product of the sheep is good fertilizer, which helps even more to produce the world’s best coffee.

Carlos is a problem solver and thinks outside of the box. He wears a motorcycle helmet while that has a hole he drilled into it to accommodate his cell phone cord so he can talk while riding through the fields on his 4 wheel ATV. He has an intern from France working in his production facility, so they can mutually exchange ideas and learn from each other.

One innovation that Carlos realized was that if he left the fruit of the coffee cherry – mucilage – on the berry a little longer, the coffee would absorb more of the sugar from the fruit and make the coffee sweeter.

A few other innovations became visible upon his explanation that accompanied our tour. He found a way to “cool” the berry using a swamp cooler technology (water cools as it vaporizes as it releases heat/energy) that also helps produce additional sweetness in his coffee berries. He even found that he could capture the methane gas that is produced during the fermentation process and use it to power his home.

The spirit of innovation, combined with the passion to produce the best coffee in the world, led Carlos down this path and has led La Pira to many awards. And because of this quality, the path then led to Danny O’Neill in his pursuit for the world’s best coffee.

Come back tomorrow to learn about Day 5 of Herb’s Costa Rica trip.  Want to experience Costa Rica with The Roasterie just like Herb did? You can!  Simply enter The Roasterie Adventure Photo Contest and win a bean-picking trip to Costa Rica with The Roasterie! Only a few days left to submit! Enter here.