Margarita Persico / Special to the Tico Times
Nestled in the Central Valley’s volcanic mountains are approximately 5,900 coffee parcels and plantations and nearly 100,000 hectares dedicated to coffee in the country, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute’s 2006 coffee growers’ census. But it was only when I toured a couple that I realized there were so many.
I chose to visit Doka Estate and Café Britt coffee plantations – not a careful selection on my part, but merely because they were popular and the ones available at the tour companies.
My Doka Estate tour guide, Miguel Zamora, was also our bus driver, a one-man show who toured us from San José to Poás Volcano, northwest of the capital, pointing out coffee fields as we went up the mountain and explaining that Poás is one of seven active volcanoes in Costa Rica.
The 12,000-hectare Doka Estate coffee plantation, on the slopes of Poás Volcano in Sabanilla de Alajuela, has been owned by the Vargas Ruiz family since 1949. We started our visit to the estate with a gallo pinto breakfast along with a Doka coffee tasting. The Doka Breakfast Blend was strong and the Espresso Italiano bold, while the memorable Peaberry Estate was smooth.
Soon after breakfast, the tour began. The field was full of short-growing arabica coffee plants. A hummingbird stood on the branch of a fruit tree that shaded several coffee bushes. Banana plants also protected coffee bushes from the scorching sun. Their long, shiny green leaves shaded the red coffee berries like parasols.
Zamora explained that the plants are pruned when they reach 15 years old, to maintain bean quality. (Doka Estate replaces the plants every 20 to 25 years to ensure quality production.) Another thing that guarantees the quality of Costa Rican coffee is that it is hand-harvested so only the ripe fruit is picked, Zamora explained as he put on a strap to suspend a wicker coffee-picking basket from his waist. He showed us some ripe red coffee berries the size of holly berries.
Coffee-pickers get paid $2 per full basket, Zamora said. A fast coffee-picker can fill 25 baskets a day and earn $50. Most pickers are Nicaraguan immigrants, as there isn’t enough labor in Costa Rica during the harvesting season, and for Nicaraguans who earn perhaps $200 a month in their country, $50 a day is a lot, Zamora said.
According to Warner Villegas of the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE), coffee production provides permanent and temporary jobs for about 300,000 people, including some 200,000 jobs related to the coffee-harvesting season.
After the coffee is picked, it undergoes several processes, Zamora said. Once the shelling process is done, the coffee beans are set to dry in the sun. Workers rake the beans, stirring them several times a day until they are dry and ready to roast. At Café Tres Generaciones, a small roasting plant on the estate, 10-year Doka employee Hugo León roasted Peaberry Estate coffee while Zamora explained the process.
After the tour, I purchased Peaberry Estate and Doka Organic coffees at the souvenir shop. As we exited Doka Estate through a back road, three generations of a smiling cinnamon-skinned family watched us from the door of one of the small, wood-framed row houses on our left – coffee workers’ homes, Zamora said. We smiled and waved at each other.
Coffee and a Show
Some time later, I visited Café Britt, an interactive plantation on three hectares in San Rafael de Heredia, north of San José. Our group was greeted with a shot of cold cinnamon coffee that had guests going back for more. While waiting for the tour to start, guests explored Costa Rican memorabilia on a balcony with a wood-burning stove, blue enamel dishes, cups and saucers. On the grounds were statues on wooden stumps of Costa Rican fables and legends, including Doña Zárate, a witch who lived in the mountains of Escazú, west of San José; legend says that anyone who took a look at her would be lost.
A Café Britt employee greeted us and was followed by several costumed others who performed a skit. Comedy and interactive education are part of the tour at this small coffee plantation. At the first stop, we learned about coffee plants and their growth stages. On display were trays of sprouts, small plants and larger ones ready to be transplanted. We learned about the harvesting stage and saw coffee beans roasting.
Café Britt’s suppliers are approximately 1,000 small and medium-sized coffee growers who comply with the company’s social, environmental and quality requirements, said Pablo Vargas, CEO of Café Britt (no relation to the Doka Estate Vargases).
After the walking tour, we stopped at the theater where world and local coffee history was featured interactively with the employee-actors and guest participation. A movie was shown on screen. Here, we also learned about how coffee has helped the Costa Rican economy.
According to ICAFE’s Villegas, coffee has been a fundamental pillar of Costa Rican society and an economic engine for the past 200 years, which is why it has been called the “grano de oro,” or the golden bean.
After the tour, we headed to the store to purchase souvenirs and got a free pound of coffee for registering online. And we loaded up with Café Britt’s wonderful chocolate-coated coffee beans, fruits and nuts.