Auren Chacón pulls a lever on an espresso maker. She then slides her hands over several buttons. Three cups are slipped under separate nozzles. Moments later she sweeps the cups out from under the bulky, silver machine. Chacón combines the cups’ contents, pouring the milk last.
The pouring of the milk takes craftsmanship that must be seen. Chacón gently maneuvers her hand back and forth. The outline of a silky white flower forms in the center of the mug.
Chacón has turned making espresso into an art form.
“Latte art,” explains Roberto Mata, general manager of coffee cooperative Coopedota.
Creamy but not thick, sweet but with no sugar, hot but not scalding, the coffee demonstrates the work of the best barista in Costa Rica. Chacón, 19, is one of the successful apprentices of Coopedota, a cooperative in the coffee town of Santa María de Dota in southern Costa Rica’s Los Santos region. She and the other top three finishers at the March Costa Rican barista championship all trained there.
The championship requires competitors to make 12 coffees – four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty coffees the barista invents – in 15 minutes. Each cup of joe is graded for taste, aroma, texture, appearance and temperature. Baristas also are graded on technical skills such as how much milk they use or how well they grind the beans.
“I am very proud,” says José Solís, third-place finisher, “because the competitions are between baristas with a lot of experience, who are very professional and have a lot of passion and a love for coffee.”
Winner Chacón – whose signature coffee combines green mango, sugar, almond and corn-based atole – will now represent Costa Rica and Coopedota at the June World Barista Championship in London. And she won’t be the only Coopedota representative there. U.S. champion Michael Phillips also qualified for the finals with the help of Coopedota beans.
Two of Costa Rica’s top three baristas can be found in San José at the newly opened Café Raventós in the Melico Salazar Theater on busy Avenida 2. The coffeehouse on the theater’s first floor opened April 23, founded by Coopedota and the Friends of the Melico Salazar Theater Foundation.
Dora Nigro, executive director of the foundation, says the café already has regular clients. And she has the evidence to prove that customers keep coming back for the baristas’ coffee mastery.
Nigro says one person got up and asked, “Who made this espresso?” before telling the baristas, “Congratulations. This is the best espresso I’ve ever tried.”
Mata says the company tries to emphasize barista skills as much as the coffee itself. The four-decade-old cooperative has been pushing barista training over the past nine years.
Two keys stand out when training to be a successful barista, Mata says. The one Coopedota has focused on more recently is “Practice.
Practice. Practice.” The other crucial aspect of serving up quality brew comes more naturally to coffee producers in Costa Rica: Everyone needs to begin with a solid product.
“If the barista doesn’t (start with) a good coffee, the coffee won’t be nice,” Mata says. “The espresso needs to be creamy. The cappuccino has to be very nice.”
To improve the baristas’ skills, Coopedota invited Phillips and other U.S. baristas from Chicago-based coffee roasting company Intelligentsia to come down to the facility in the DotaValley to help trainees.
This year’s three best baristas from Coopedota all received assistance from Phillips. His instruction was the reason Mata offered Phillips Coopedota beans to use for qualifying competitions in the United States. Phillips won his second consecutive national championship with a specific bean of Coopedota coffee not yet offered at Intelligentsia.
But that highlights one of the most celebrated benefits of the World Barista Championship (WBC), says José Arreola, one of the lead judges for the WBC. These contests create a demand for better coffee.
“When anyone tastes a good cup of coffee, they will go back to that coffee,” Arreola says. “People will talk about the good coffee. People hear about it, and they very much would like to go and drink (the winning) coffee.”
The WBC’s growth since its inception in 2000 underlines Arreola’s point about coffee consumption. Coffee drinking – such an ingrained routine in many cultures – begets better coffee connoisseurs. This leads to a demand to discover the best coffee out there.
The WBC’s barista challenges help coffee aficionados satisfy that craving.
A decade ago, seven countries made up the WBC. Now the organization consists of more than 50 countries. This year’s world championship will take place in England, a country known for its obsession with tea – coffee’s archetypal rival. Arreola has judged events in the United States, Central and South America, France, Russia, Iceland and a six-country Africa championship. He presided over Coopedota’s dominating victory two months ago in Costa Rica.
“They don’t spare any money when it comes to training,” Arreola says. “Because if you have coffee, if you have good baristas, then you can give people good quality coffee. Coffee by itself can’t be extracted. Someone has to operate the machine. You can have the best coffee in the world; if the barista is not trained properly, it will destroy that coffee.”
Two organizations in Costa Rica, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica, known as ICAFE, and the Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica regulate the WBC competitions in Costa Rica. The groups aid barista training and promotion of Costa Rican coffee. Now, on the strength of Coopedota’s coffee and baristas like Chacón, Solís and Phillips, it appears Costa Rica has found a new movement to extend its influence in the world of coffee.
“It’s not just about being a representative of one coffee farm,” Chacón said, “but of all the people who are national coffee growers.”
Coopedota offers tours of its facilities in Santa María de Dota, in southern Costa Rica’s Los Santos region. The 40-year-old cooperative’s expansive plantation gives tourists a glimpse of an organic coffee farm and the opportunity to watch the harvest, visit the processing plant and check out the roasting area. Ninety percent of the coffee beans here are exported – primarily to Starbucks – with the remaining 10 percent roasted on site. Visitors may sample this coffee, served up by barista Melina Fallas, second-place finisher at this year’s Costa Rican barista championship, and buy a kilo of fresh coffee ($10) to take home. The tour costs $13. For information, call 2541-2828, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.coopedota.com.