Sourcing Coffee in Central America - Pt. 1, Costa Rica

In February, the Central American coffee producing countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua were on the itinerary. Traveling to this region in the early part of the year is ideal -- the harvest is underway, the mills are in full swing and samples are starting to become available for evaluation. It had been a couple of years since I last visited Costa Rica and I was especially looking forward to making contact with some of the growers whose coffee we have been roasting and enjoying at Equator since then. In addition to meeting with farmers we have been working with, travel to origin inevitably leads to introductions to new producers, many of whom are doing outstanding work with their coffee.

First a few visits to long term partners in Costa Rica’s Tarrazu growing region. La Lia mill and the farms owned by Luis Monge might just be the best kept secret at Equator. We have been purchasing his coffee for several years to include as a seasonal component in our flagship espresso blend, Tigerwalk. This is the blend we pull shots with every day our at coffee bar located inside Proof Lab Surf Shop in Mill Valley. The La Lia component brings sweetness, body, subtle fruit-notes and serves to harmonize the flavors of Tigerwalk Espresso. This year, in addition to the coffee we will use in this espresso blend, we plan to celebrate Luis and his hard work by bringing in a micro-lot from La Lia. Stay tuned this summer as we finally present one of his coffees as a single-origin offering, in addition other fine coffees from Costa Rica and neighboring countries.

While in Tarrazu we also visited Roberto Calderon and his family’s mill, Benficio Los Angeles, as well as La Bisunga, one of their farms. Since their Cup of Excellence win in 2011, the Calderon family has expanded operations, purchasing new land and increasing production. I tasted samples from a number of farms and have selected an exceptional coffee from one of these new plots. For years, Roberto worked side-by-side with his brother Omar; together they farmed coffee, selling it to the local cooperative, and later, establishing their own mill. A couple of years ago, as each of their families grew, the brothers decided to divide their holdings, with the intention of eventually passing along their businesses to their children. As such, Roberto retained the Los Angeles mill and Omar established his own mill, Granitos de Altura del Ortiz, literally across the street. We evaluated some delicious honey processed samples that we plan to feature later this year as well.

Next stop was in the West Valley growing region, near the town of Zarcero. I finally had the opportunity to meet the inimitable Señor Gillio Francesa Ferraro, the owner of the farm and micro-mill El Espino. Gillio’s coffee continues to charm us on the cupping table. We have featured his versatile coffee on its own and in blends such as past versions of the seasonal Eye of the Tiger Espresso and Holiday Blend. The term micro-mill is frequently bandied about the coffee industry but, in Gillio’s case, nano-mill might be more appropriate. His mill is so small, it fits onto a trailer. When I visited, the mill had been transported to one of his outlying farms to process coffee fruit on site. Gillio is an octogenarian with a philosophical outlook on life and farming, his easygoing nature seems to translate directly to his coffee – a complex yet effortlessly elegant and complete cup.

A visit to a new micro-mill called Monte Brisas was scheduled after a sample of their black honey processed coffee practically jumped off the cupping table the day before. This meticulously maintained facility is preached high atop a hill overlooking part of the farm and the valley below. The coffee is grown on Finca Salaca, a farm owned and operated by Maria Elena Castro and her son Luis Salazar, who also own and manage the brand new mill. We look forward to developing a new relationship with these quality-focused producers and to test their coffee on our production roasters.

Finally, just a few kilometers away from Zarcero we visited La Perla del Café in the West Valley’s Lourdes de Naranjo micro-region. The mill is owned by Carlos and Diana Barrantes. Although the young couple has been involved with coffee for a long time, the mill is just over a year old. Previously their coffee was processed at the renowned Herbazu mill, which is owned by Carlos’ brother. We have been purchasing coffee from Carlos and Diana since before they established their micro-mill. One of our favorite coffees from a couple seasons ago was their SL28 variety lot and last year we savored a red honey processed lot of their Villa Sarchi variety coffee. We can’t wait to find out what the new crop has in store.

Part two of this travel blog coming soon, featuring a trip to the northern reaches of Nicaragua to visit the coffee farmers and cooperatives that produce some of our certified coffees.