Tag Archives: Coffee

Day 31 – Heredia: coffee in even more depth

Tuesday 21 March 2023 – We are staying at Finca Rosa Blanca, which is primarily a hotel/resort.  As well as the architectural quirks I mentioned in yesterday’s post, it has a nice line in decorative tiling.

and some other unusual touches in décor, such as this vine and Oropendola nest by reception.

It’s also billed as a coffee farm. There; that’s the revelation I promised in my last post, and it also gives you the tiniest clue as to what most of today’s entry is about. Yes – we had a coffee tour included in the schedule prepared for us by Pura Aventura.

Our guide was Paulo,

who was very knowledgeable and clearly passionate about his coffee.  We walked a few paces down the road to the entrance to the coffee farm

whilst he told us a little of the history of the place.  It was really not what I expected.

The original coffee farm is quite old, whereas the hotel part is relatively new, having been built in the 1980s. When the old coffee farm was put up for sale, the hotel owners decided to buy it, to prevent the land being used for property development.  Having bought what was a traditional, non-organic farm in 2002, they took the radical decision to make it organic.

This is not a trivial matter.

It involves ripping out whatever was there – all of the plants had been treated with chemicals, for example – and replacing them with a completely new plantation of coffee plants and other trees as well.  The process of being certified organic took six years, and so in 2008 they could start with the production of organic coffee.

They replanted coffee (Arabica, of course), as part of a mixed planting, with trees (eg Poro and Banana, underplanted with eg Monstera) to provide shade – important for temperature control, extra nutrients to the soil and to balance the water content, since Arabica is picky about soil moisture. Like the Nortico cacao operation, it’s a mixed system to provide the best growing environment and to preserve the richness of the soil.

The farm is small – 12 hectares – which makes it tiny compared to the 926 hectares at Aquiares, the biggest plantation in Costa Rica.  It’s so tiny, and so directed by the rigours of sustainable, shade-grown, organic coffee production that actually its main customer is the hotel itself. The farm sells a small amount of coffee in its own shop and possibly one or two other local sellers, but that’s it; it’s a sideline for the hotel, but an interesting one.

Listening to Paulo was to start to realise that the layers of complexity about coffee we’d started to peel back at Aquiares were, you guessed it, only a part of the bigger picture.

The Rosa Blanca farm produces sustainable, organic, shade-grown coffee, and it roasts its own – very different from the Aquiares operation which is not shade-grown, not organic and produces mainly green coffee beans which it sends to roasters for them to process.  This is not to say that the Aquiares products are at all inferior; but they are different; and it was interesting (and, yes, boggling) to understand this extra level of subtlety in assessing coffee.

We walked through the farm

towards the mill

with Paulo filling our already-boggling brains with more and more information.

For example: the farm had just finished its harvest.  This started in November, and consists of a first pass, where red cherries (i.e. good quality ones) are hand-picked for processing, followed by a second pass in January to (again hand-)pick any remaining red cherries.  Then in March, the final pass picks everything else – green or red., doesn’t matter; this third pass is destined for lower-grade coffee and it’s important that the coffee bushes are left stripped so they can start regenerating as part of preparation for the next crop.

Thus, when it started raining a couple of days ago, this was bad news, as the bushes started growing flowers again.

Flowers will lead to cherries, but they will ripen just as the rainy season starts (September) and will thus not be picked – not the right weather, and also no workers around to pick them.

We were already familiar with the distinction between Arabica and Robusta coffees. But – oh, goodness gracious me! – there was more to understand here, too.  There are some clear distinctions between the two sorts of coffees.

Arabica (originally from Ethiopia, rather than the Arabic part of Africa, actually) is picky about where it’ll grow – it has to be the right temperature, the right amount of rain (not too much, not too little), the right amount of sun, and it’s self-pollinating – in Costa Rica this means at a specific range of altitudes, between 800 and 2,000 metres above sea level. This sensitivity, by the way, is exposing the Arabica strain to considerable threat from climate change. According to some analyses, it won’t be long before Arabica coffee becomes a thing of the past.

Robusta is not a species, like Arabica, but a collection of species with similar characteristics.  They are, in a Ronseal kind of way, more robust about where they will thrive – so they will grow in lowlands, under a wider variety of weather conditions, and require insect pollination.  Robusta varieties are higher in caffeine which makes them more resistant to insect and other predators.

Robusta is lower quality than Arabica (right now there is no Robusta in Costa Rica). All instant coffee, everywhere, is made from Robusta strains. In Costa Rica, virtually all the top quality (first and second pass) coffee in the entire nation is exported; in the shops, the coffee will be on three shelves:  top shelf, $15 a bag, high quality; middle shelf, $4 a bag, lower quality; bottom shelf, maybe $1 per bag, is made from the third pass remnants. In Europe, supermarket (non-instant) coffee is all premium quality first or second pass coffee.

There’s a sort of Periodic Table of varieties. Here it is.  There will be a quiz later on.

Can’t read it? Doesn’t matter. It’s just too complicated unless you’re a complete coffee nut.

I was quite surprised to hear that coffee is not a principal component of Costa Rica’s export business. For all that most of their coffee is exported, it’s not that much in money terms. Costa Rica’s main export, it seems, is medical technology, an industry developed after Intel first came to the country in about 2005 and their presence catalysed the medical tech business here; it buggered off shortly thereafter, but the med tech companies stayed and are now Costa Rica’s main business.

Here’s the league table of coffee production (as of 2021):

Well, “there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”, as the song goes, so no surprise there. But – Vietnam? It turns out that Vietnam’s coffee is based on Robusta. So, surprisingly, is that of Brazil. If you factor quality of coffee into that figure, many countries, Costa Rica among them, float up that chart.

If you can recall our day at the Aquiares plantation, you’ll remember the bewildering scale of the operation to process the cherries, which involved large buildings, lots of bits of machinery and vast numbers of sacks of coffee awaiting their journey to all corners of the globe.

Here’s the Rosa Blanca operation:

Skinning and initial fermentation

Everything else

Inside the Everything else building are various bits of machinery for dehusking,

sorting by density

and roasting.  All their roasting is done by one expert, Charlie.

It’s not large-scale or high tech, but it’s what’s needed for Rosa Blanca to make their coffee; and their coffee has won first prize awards, too.


With all of these extra shades of subtlety about coffee varieties, history, production and quality, Paulo then boggled us further with a tasting session.  We went upstairs where the table was laid out for us

and Paulo ground two sorts of coffee for us to examine, first dry

to sample the aroma, and then with added hot water (between 85 and 91°C, 190°F).

On the left is medium roast coffee and on the right, dark roast. If you watched the video above, you might have inferred that medium roast coffee is denser than dark roast coffee, as more gases inflate the dark roast beans in that extra minute of roasting. This can be seen just by dipping a spoon lightly into each sort

whereupon you can see that dark roast grounds tend to float more than medium roast grounds.

Having sniffed the dry grounds, we then sampled each coffee, trying to identify the various overtones that are available. The lighter the roast, the more floral or fruity the taste; the darker roast has less acidity but more bitterness.  Paulo pointed us at a flavour chart in the (completely unfounded) expectation that it would help us

I could have told you it was coffee and that the two tasted different from each other; Jane got a bit further by identifying a couple of key tastes. But I’m as useless at such subtlety as I once discovered that I also was with wine.  So it was interesting to note this level of nuance in the tasting of coffee, but Paulo gave us the most important rule:

The best coffee is… the one you like.

The way coffee is ground (coarse, medium, fine), the way it’s prepared (drip, French press, espresso machine) and the amount it’s roasted (light, medium, dark) all affect the final product.  Like wine or music there is no good or bad, simply what you like or don’t.

There were some nice decorative touches in the mill

Traditional coffee transport – ox-cart

Various grinding solutions

and outside there were racks for drying beans in the sun.

Rosa Blanca do fully-washed and other processes – fermented, honey, natural, as shown by the colour of the beans.

Left to right – Fermented, Natural, Honey, Fully-washed

All in all, it was another absorbing, educational and intense education session for us about the intricacies of coffee.  We walked back to the hotel, where another cup of coffee was made for us, to round off the experience, whereupon we retreated to our apartment to mull over what we’d learned (and I tried to write it up before I forgot all the stuff that I’d just been told).


This has brought you up to date. I sit here, typing in the present tense after a late lunch and we now start preparing for our departure from Costa Rica tomorrow, because this was our last call on our 13-stop itinerary around an extraordinary country.

It has been extraordinary.

In 31 days, I’ve taken a smidge over 4,000 photos on my Big Camera, and 1,300 photos and 200 videos on my phone. Jane has recorded over 1,400 photo and 65 videos on her phone. 200GB of content. Thank you, Nikon and Samsung, for your help with the quantity.  It has been a pleasure seeking the wheat from amongst the very considerable amount of chaff, and dressing it up so you can read about the many wonderful things we’ve seen whilst we’ve been here; thank you for accompanying us as we’ve stumbled from place to place.

Our taxi arrives to take us to the airport at – oh, fucking hell! – 0515 tomorrow.  I shall try to pull together some valedictory thoughts over the next couple of days to close off this section of this blog.  In the meantime…

Thank you. Thank you for reading my blog.



Day 17 – Aquiares – Fully Washed or Natural?

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.

Wilman disembarks from our “Tour Bus” into the coffee plantation

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

Today’s cherries in the foreground, older ones behind it

Fermented cherries in the foregound

(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?