Tuesday 7 March 2023 – The day held a fully-guided, whole-day programme for us, to learn about the place we were staying – Aquiares; not a Spanish word at all, but from the pre-Columbian native language meaning “the land between rivers”.
The Hacienda set us up with a nice breakfast, with fried eggs and the ubiquitous Gallo Pinto, accompanied by coffee, served in a delightful filter pot.
This was a startling deviation from our usual breakfast fare which is tea, preferably Earl Grey, preferably with milk, because we’re English, so deal with it. Coffee was provided and we never actually felt that asking for tea would be a good idea. Jane, whose nose makes much more of scents that mine does, noticed a strong overtone of farmyard in the aroma of the coffee, which was also served without milk. It was good coffee, but very different from what we would have had mid-morning at home.
And it is coffee that Aquiares is all about as a town, the Hacienda where we were staying is a refurbishment of the farmhouse for the coffee farm, and the day was to be about exploring coffee and Aqiares in more detail. Our guide Wilman, was, as far as locals were concerned, a stranger, since he hailed from Turrialba, a whole 5 miles distant. He gave us a full and intense day, as absorbing, entertaining and educational as our cacao session had been the day before, only much longer, deeper and more intense.
As we left the Hacienda, he bade us note the Ox Cart by its door, specifically its dimensions. Remember this for later.
Then we were taken deep into the coffee plantation. This was possible because it’s huge – 926 hectares, the largest in Costa Rica and so big that it has 82 kilometres of trails in and around it. Our transport was not luxurious, but it was authentic, being one of the trucks used to transport the workers to the coal face.
Since we were among the coffee plants,
Wilman then showed us how to pick coffee. The things you pick are called “cherries” and the idea is that you pick the red ones.
Here’s what Jane and I ended up with after some 20 minutes of picking coffee.
It’s a back -breaking process, and the coffee plantation employs between 800 and 1,000 pickers (about half of whom are itinerants from Nicaragua) to pick the crop over about seven months of the year (July until February, roughly).
After we’d done this, he led us to a picking gang, whose chief was called Antonio
and a picker called Gerard but nicknamed Piggi, who showed us how it was really done.
Experienced pickers like Piggi would collect over thirty baskets every day. Antonio boasted that he once picked 80 baskets in a day (he started as a picker and worked his way up to be a chief, taking responsibility for a team of people picking in a certain area, marshalling them and making sure that the job is done effectively). The working day for a picker starts at 6am and finishes at midday, a siren at the factory sounding loudly (its a massive farm) to mark the beginning and end points.
Wilman also explained the anatomy of a cherry. Inside the skin are two beans, which are covered in pulp, called mucillage (similar in principle to what we saw with cacao yesterday).
The mucillage is sweet and floral and the skin is fruity; these give the final product its distinctive taste. This got us into the topic of varieties. Although all the coffee plants at Aquiares are of the Arabica type, there are varieties within Arabica, each with their own characteristics and quality levels. The finest quality beans are planted high on the hillside, the lower quality ones lower down. So there is a tight control system to make sure that the right plants are seeded in the right place. That said, we found a rogue bush.
This had found its way in through natural processes, and the beans would never get picked for the quality of coffee that was to be produced from that area.
Although the sun wasn’t beating down, the scenery was attractive.
The trees with orange flowers you can see are Poro trees and are important, as they are of the legume family, which means they enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen in it. We could also see Aquiares town, with its coffee factory and church.
We then embarked on a walk, during which we could see the amazing extent of the plantation and the orderliness of the planting.
Wilman also told us about some of the farming methods used to maximise the crop while making the operation sustainable – cutting them back every so often to 60cm high, to increase bushiness;
planting new crops to replace older ones after about 25 years;
and sometimes planting two close together so they compete to grow more cherries.
On the way, this being Costa Rica, we saw plenty of birds – vultures
and a Black Hawk
as well as many birds too small for me to photograph (I left my Big Lens behind for the day).
We descended further and further, past rainbow eucalyptus trees
which are not endemic but have been planted because they take moisture out of the soil and thus mitigate any rotting of the coffee plants, and also provide essential oils for creating other, non-coffee products.
Down and down we went
until we emerged at one of the rivers that give Aquiares its name.
There’s a waterfall there that even an Icelander might consider to be worthy of the name.
There are a lot of boulders and stones in the area
and Wilman told us that the previous July there had been so much rain – twice as much as the average rainfall for the whole month fell in one day – that the river actually changed course. It used to run behind the diagonal line of bushes you see beyond the boulders in the middle of the picture. All of the rocks had been moved there by the sheer volume and weight of water during that rainfall. That must have been an impressive sight!
We toiled back up the slope to the Hacienda for a nice lunch – chicken, rice and beans! – and then Wilman took us on to part 2 of the day – a visit to the coffee factory and the village of Aquiares.
Aquiares was founded in the 1890s by farmers looking to take advantage of Costa Rica´s railroad to the port of Limón. An English family, the Lindos, acquired it in the early 1900s and built houses in the village and around the plantation, to house the workers and to attract more into the area. There are still some of the original houses there
as well as buildings that were the original theatre and supermarket.
In order to qualify as a village, and also to support the incoming workers, who were largely Catholic, the Lindo family also imported a church.
The aluminium shell came from Belgium, the clock from Germany, the wood for the interior from Italy. There was some repair work going on – indeed, the church seemed to be supported by prayer alone –
and therefore it was open and we were able to take a look inside.
But the main thrust of the afternoon was to see round the factory, which turned out to be quite a brain-boggling visit, both from its scale and the variety of coffees it deals with.
It’s a big place
overlooked by the “Tree of Life”
from which the coffee farm takes its logo.
Coffee, Community and Conservation are three important things to the farm – conservation because 75% of the plantation is given over to coffee plants, but the other 25% is forest and trees which are not only the basis for the company’s conservation efforts but also make the entire operation carbon negative – it produces more oxygen than CO2. The farm is also part of the Rainforest Aliance.
Wilman took us through the process of taking the picked cherries and turning them into beans to be shipped all over the world, both with a view of the original processes and also of the modern ones, which involve all sorts of conduits, feeds and sophisticated machinery for sorting the beans by quality and size.
The vast majority – 85% – of the cherries go through a process called “fully washed”, where beans are deposited into silos
(note that the green hopper is exactly the same size as the ox cart outside the Hacienda, which was originally used to transport the cherries or beans).
From here the cherries are flushed along with water, and are sorted as part of the washing process – poor quality cherries sink, good quality cherries go on to have the pulp and mucilage mechanically removed before ending up in a huge drier
and then are stored in silos as part of the maturation process.
Then the beans are sorted in various ways (by density, weight, size and colour)
and end up in sacks – white for lower quality, brown for higher quality.
You’ve been paying attention, so you’ll know that there are still 15% of the beans unaccounted for. Well done. I have to say that by this stage in the day my brain was definitely begging for mercy as Wilman threw more and more complexities into the mix.
The 15% that are not “fully washed” may go through one of several small batch processes: “natural” where whole cherries are laid out and dried by the heat of the sun
(in case of no sun – like today; it was raining outside – there’s a hot air blower, driven by a furnace fired by excavated old coffee plants,
as part of the sustainability aspects of the operation). Retaining the pulp gives fruity notes to the finished product.
The “honey” process involves drying the beans with their mucilage covering which gives honeyed and floral notes.
The beans may be fermented, either in their own mucilage or added molasses or even kefir, and the various different varieties are treated in a variety of different ways. The number of combinations is bewildering but there are basically four coffee varieties and three treatments that form most of the company’s output. More details about the operation, the history and the credentials can be found on the company’s website, of course. My brain was begging for mercy by this point; having tried to understand the complexities of cacao yesterday, absorbing those of fine coffee today was proving a bit too much.
But the general lesson is clear – chocolate and coffee are as subtle, varied and complex as wine. The coffee we had at breakfast at the Hacienda was a Centroamericano variety, made by the Natural process. It will be interesting to get back home and try our usual coffee to see if all this education has had any effect at all.
So, foot- and brainsore, we headed back to the Hacienda, past a view of the factory and its coffee drying greenhouses
and some of the colourful houses in the village,
including one which I have to say I would find exceedingly annoying were I to live here.
However, I don’t, so it’s none of my bleedin’ business.
We took a light supper at the Hacienda and eventually headed for bed in slightly eerie circumstances – the Hacienda staff had gone home and we were the only guests. We had the whole place to ourselves and it felt really quite odd. This was also the second day without either gin or Earl Grey tea, which contributed further to the other-worldliness of the experience. But we surived, and slept well in preparation for moving on the next day.
The morrow should be pretty dull. We simply have to move on to our next destination, San Gerardo de Dota. What can possibly go wrong?