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    • We visited Diriá Coffee in Costa Rica. They are a cooperative of farmers who sell 90% of their coffee to Costco as part of their Signature brand. Costco's Costa Rican coffee is a mix of beans from Diriá and a supplier near San José.

      It turns out 30,000 families in Costa Rica still make their living picking coffee in Costa Rica. They have passed laws to ensure the country protects its reputation as a premium coffee producer, such as making any other bean besides arabica illegal to grow in the country. Also, mechanized picking is against the law for several reasons, one being the belief that pickers make sure only the beans on the plants at the peak of ripeness end up being picked.

    • Coffee plants produce the best beans when they are under some stress. So they always plant two plants together to make them compete with each other. They also don't plant them below 2,000' altitude because they produce harder, denser beans with better developed sugars at altitude where the stress on the plants is higher.

      Some coffee cherries have two beans in them, and some have just one. The cherries with just one produce more flavorful coffee. Plants are more likely to produce just one and smaller beans if the plants are under stress, such as having less water. So weather patterns like El Niño affect the coffee harvest; drier conditions product better coffee.

      Altitude serves another related purpose: the soil drains faster in mountainous regions.

    • The farmers depend on great pickers and there are vast differences between the best and worst. First of all, the best beans have the most developed sugars, which are dense. So the best beans sink in water.

      The pickers wear baskets around their waists that hold about 25 pounds of beans. The pickers are paid by the basket, $3 for fair trade coffee, which this cooperative is certified to produce. $2 for coffee that isn't fair trade which is produced in countries like Honduras.

      The best pickers can pick two baskets per hour, the worst can take a few hours per basket, and everyone else is somewhere in between. The best pickers typically have small hands and are usually women.

      The farmers have to constantly check the pickers to ensure that 95% of the beans they pick are ripe, and to do that they pour them in water.

    • The best beans come from shaded plants, so they plant them under various varieties of fruit trees. The fruit is chosen so their ripening season is different from coffee and that way they can keep their workers busy throughout the year harvesting other crops.

      The standard of living in Costa Rica is high relative to other Central American countries so fewer Costa Ricans want to do the backbreaking work of picking, which means more farmers depend on immigrants or migrant workers.

    • There are large machines involving water to collect the ripest beans and remove the outer shell, but one of the critical steps that dictates the taste of the coffee is the drying process.

      Organic beans are dried in the sun, a longer, more expensive process that produces the most valued beans. They are laid out in the sun like this.

    • The alternative is drying them in wood-fired ovens like these, using teak as the wood because it imparts the fewest smells and flavors to the drying beans.

      They let us drink coffee from the beans that emerge from the ovens versus the beans that come from sun-dried beans, and we all could taste a big difference. Same with the smell. I could tell instantly that the organic coffee was smoother and more aromatic.

    • The next step was a shaker machine which separated larger beans from smaller ones. Like the difference in oven-dried and sun-dried beans, you can tell the smaller beans are better, and they fetch a higher price among premium coffee sellers.

      A growing alternative to arabica beans are robusta beans that don't require altitude and shade, and are more resistant to a fungus afflicting arabica plants. Chains like Starbucks have figured out that you can use them in flavored coffees and get away with their extra bitter taste, so more robusta beans are being slipped into the coffee supply, reducing the price sellers like Starbucks have to pay. That worries the Costa Ricans, because growing robusta is illegal here.

      Here is the output of the shaker machine. The better, more valuable beans are smaller.

    • We talked briefly about roasting, but that seems to be the tech that everyone has: rotary roasting drums that apply heat evenly on all sides of the bean, slow enough roasting so the center of the bean gets heated to the right temperature, not heating the bean enough to oxidize the oils in the beans, etc.

      Anyway, that's what we think we learned about coffee. Questions? Corrections? One thing's for sure: I will forever appreciate what goes behind the cups of coffee I drink.

    • Chris, that was a great balance of information and pictures. A ride report of sorts. Also more proof it it wasn't already clear of the problems large suppliers driving profit affect the lives of so many.
      Thank you.

    • That's interesting about robusta: at least when I worked there a decade ago, Starbucks didn't (knowingly) buy ANY robusta at all, so unless they've changed that, I guess they'd have an interest in making sure they're not being 'slipped' any robusta beans!

      Robusta doesn't taste as good as arabica, but it does have some traits people like. It's higher in caffeine content, and (I have no idea how/why) it contributes to a better 'crema' -- the tan part of an espresso shot that rises to the top like the head on beer. So a lot of classic espresso blends have some small (1/5, maybe?) percent robusta to arabica, to give it punch and crema. For this reason when I worked at Starbucks, some people actually gave me guff for Starbucks refusing to sell/use any non-arabica beans. <.<

    • Awesome! Costa Rica is my #1 source for Central American coffee. It has a distinct characteristic that clearly comes from the care they put into every step of the process. Thank you for sharing!