Into the Mountains
After an overnight rest in the glossy San Jose hotel, six of us from Batdorf and Bronson were picked up in a "turismo" van rented by the employees of the La Minita Estate. We crawled south through the city, from busy freeway to winding streets which thread their way through the outskirts of San Jose. The narrow roads are lined with tightly-packed shops and houses surrounded by high walls topped with coils of barbed wire or glittering shards of embedded glass.
Then, at some indecipherable bend, we emerge from the traffic onto an almost empty stretch of road winding up into the hills. The air coming in the van windows clears of exhaust fumes, and cools dramatically as we climb, leaving the dusty city below us. The road is lined intermittently with tall trees, their upraised branches bearing vaguely maple-shaped leaves and lit with flaming orange flowers. These are the Poro trees that happen to burst into blossom at the same time as the coffee cherries ripen. Not only are they common shade trees for coffee farms, but their flowering is considered a signal for the impending harvest.
As we climbed up a steep and winding road into the hills we were surrounded by a patch-work landscape of high-altitude coffee plantings. This coffee is grown starting at 3,000 feet, and results in more complex flavor than lower-grown coffee. Sadly, the "roya"--"leaf rust," a fungal disease that damages the plants irreparably--could be seen in spreading bald patches among the green thicket. This is a deeply concerning epidemic in Central America right now, resulting in reduction of harvest when it first hits, and the removal of thousands of established trees. It first appears as small brown dry patches on the leaves, and within weeks it halts the berries development where they grow, transforming them into desiccated brown husks.
La Minita - The Hacienda
The smooth road had long since given way to an increasingly steep and rocky track, with dust pluming up behind us we bounced slowly up the mountain. Arriving at Hacienda La Minita is like pulling up to the edge of the world. Emerging from the van, we found ourselves at an oasis carved from the side of the mountain. A few white-washed, red-roofed structures stepped down the hill around a carpet of tough green grass, ringed by low coffee bushes, and overlooking the Tarrazu valley below us. From our vantage we were looking down on the backs of giant vultures as they flew through the valley on wind currents.
The weekend was spent standing up in the back of an open-bed Land Cruiser work truck with high sides, lurching up and down the steep roadways while dodging low-hanging vines and suppressing the urge to snatch the ripe oranges that hung in glowing clusters from the trees dotting the roadside. We explored the farm, trying our hands at coffee picking, and visiting the coffee mills.
La Minita (Little Mine, as in Goldmine) is a steep 800 acres of active coffee farm within about 1200 acres of property. The remaining acres are left untouched as a nature preserve which maintains wildlife diversity. It also has the added purpose of being used as a control for soil testing; the chemical makeup of the farm soil is compared to the natural soil in the preserve, their goal being to match it as closely as possible.
La Minita - The Beneficio
The beneficio, or mill, that processes all of the coffee from the La Minita farm, sits nestled in the valley below, alongside the Rio Tarrazu. They use the river water in the wet mill to sluice the fruit from the bean in a multi-step process of soaking, washing, and fermenting. As we approached, we were engulfed in the sweet stink of discarded coffee-washing water, thick with pulp, as it is treated organically in a huge holding tank before being released back into the river.
After the coffee is washed clean of its fruit, it is still encased in a thin membrane, called parchment, which is removed during the final drying process. After they are washed, the beans are then dried one of two ways: either in the sun on special patios, periodically shifted into fresh rows by a mill-worker slowly pushing a rake, or they are dried in a mechanical drum dryer fueled almost entirely by the parchment removed from previously fully-dried beans.
At the end of our tour, we enter a large, high-ceilinged room filled with about 100 women sitting at what look like deeply rimmed drafting tables. This is the final sorting stage for the beans, where the workers examine the coffee visually for any defect, separating them out with a quick plucking and flicking motion of their hands. They chat amongst themselves, and examine us interestedly as we stand and watch the hive of their quiet activity.
Though we know that producing coffee is a labor-intensive process, we are still amazed at actually seeing the many stages involved in the processing of good coffee. From the pickers picking out the green-colored fruit in their "cahuelas" (picking baskets) to the many mechanized steps throughout the mill (floating them, air-jetting them, screening them over and over) and finally to these focused women at the very end of the line. My companions and I have now seen the hands that care for these beans from the moment they are harvested to the day they are roasted and bagged for delivery to cafes and homes all around the world as our Costa Rica La Minita del Sol. What an amazing thing.