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What separates a good cafe from a mediocre one? What motivates loyal customers to continue choosing your cafe instead of the competition just down the street? What encourages new customers to give your spot a chance? Is it the atmosphere, the customer service, or the quality of the coffee? These were the questions that I came down to Costa Rica to have answered in my crazy pursuit to one day have a cafe that I can call my own.
I’d been in Costa Rica for a little over a month, and I still couldn’t find any real work. I applied to every, single, cafe in San José (That is no exaggeration) and even to a few outside of the city. Every interviewer always immediately asked me, a bit arrogantly it seemed, “Well what cafe experience do you even have?” I’d reply, “My five years in the Navy has not given me much direct experience with hospitality, or coffee for that matter, but I can assure you that what I lack in experience, I can more than make up for in dedication and willingness to learn…” Didn’t seem to matter.
Tired of waiting for so many 2nd calls or emails that never came, I began thinking that coming to Costa Rica, the source of quality coffee, to learn about coffee maybe wasn’t such a good idea after all. Looking back, I was carrying a decent amount of stress with me and I was losing a good amount of weight. I began toying with the idea of getting a job outside of coffee. Get something that wouldn’t have anything to do with specialty coffee, or even hospitality for that matter, but could afford me the opportunity to survive financially and volunteer after work or on the weekends at a cafe since I “lacked experience.” Swallowing my pride, I accepted a volunteer position (via a good family friend) at Cafeoteca, one of the previous cafes that more or less scoffed at my inexperience. They just happened to be one of the best speciality coffee shops in Costa Rica.
I began volunteering there just about every day from 8AM to 3PM and would use my downtime to search for a paying job. Luckily, I was able to learn quite a bit while “working” from how to use an espresso machine, to how to prepare “Metas” or brewed coffee (Chemix, Aeropress, French Press, V60, Gondola), how to properly steam milk for a Cappucino or Latte, and, most importantly, how to provide great customer service, all in Spanish mind you (It had been a quite a while since I had spoken Spanish daily). After about three weeks of what seemed like indentured servitude at best, I had finally been accepted as an English teacher at a learning academy. The pay was absolutely atrocious, but I could work nights, keep my day schedule at the cafe, and afford to buy food without much stress (Costa Rica is an expensive country contrary to popular belief, its just the salaries that are low).
The English Academy had planned to send me to a “teacher prep course” a month after I accepted the position; however, about two days after I officially accepted the job, one of my “co-workers” had gotten pretty irritated that the cafe wasn’t paying me, but still expected me to work so much. He recommended that I talk to a friend of his, an owner at another cafe, after he put in a good word for me. Not even a day later, I found myself face to face with the world famous Manuel Dinarte, Costa Rica’s 2008 National Barista Champion, and owner of Cafe del Barista. After a brief conversation and demonstration of my recently learned skills (I’m sure the recommendation helped more than anything), I was offered a position as manager at one of his cafes. And that was that. I immediately called the English Academy and regretfully informed them that I was no longer available and got to work.
I quickly fell in love with everything about the cafe. The employees were all a part of Costa Rica’s budding 3rd Wave Coffee scene. Eager to both teach and learn anything and everything there is to know about coffee. The repeat customers were in love with the customer service that they received at the cafe, and that showed not only through their repeat business, but more so with how they interacted within the cafe. Nothing but laughs and smiles the entire hour or hour and a half in the shop. Only once had I ever seen a customer have a bad experience and that was because we closed at 530 PM, but they hadn’t taken the hint by 615. The kitchen, bakery, and baristas all loved what they did and that was easily reflected in the products that we delivered to the customer, be it a delicious, glazed cinnamon roll, mouth watering white wine sauce chicken with rice and beans, or our coffee, at the time, a natural processed Geisha from Herbazu, Costa Rica.
My coffee knowledge seems to have quadrupled, luckily, while working at Cafe del Barista. I was fortunate enough to go directly to the farms from where we bought our beans and see the (sometimes manual as seen above) 1st, 2nd, and 3rd selection process that dictated how much a sack of coffee would ultimately cost.
I was able to, under the guidance of owner Manuel, get hands on roasting experience. Seeing first hand, what it meant for a coffee to “Yellow,” how the official first crack was noted, and what parameters to use to determine when to stop a roast depending on coffee variety, process, and desired taste.
I even got some hands on experience baking. Although, as Cindy, our baker below, can tell you, I have much to learn in the art of baking, and it may just be that I’m not cut out to be a professional baker.
Our cafe was even featured in a TV program on best cafes in Latin America. Guess who the only other cafe was in Costa Rica that made it onto the program…..Cafeoteca.
And in everything that I’ve learned through my experience at Cafe del Barista, I’ve finally figured out what the secret is to running a great cafe. Its not how well the beans are roasted, nor is it the quality of the coffee beans, or the baked goods, or even the food. What turns a good cafe into a great one, is, as you’ve probably guessed, the people. The basic essence of what a cafe is, a place to escape the stressors of life and relax, a place to enjoy good company, share a cup of coffee, and laugh away your thoughts. The baristas serving your cup of coffee, with care and attention, take it from a mediocre cup, to an excellent one, and the difference is easily tasted. The chefs eliminate your growling stomach, with carefully prepared dishes from the heart. And, cafes fortunate enough to have an in house baker like ours, the baker provides the perfect, mouth watering complement to your great cup of coffee.
I’ve heard stories of cafes, in Costa Rica at least, that seem trendy, seem hip, seem like a great place to relax, but the owners treat the employees like trash. I’ve visited these cafes myself. Sure, they have great coffee, good food, and everyone greets me, but each time, there is something that is just off. I’ve never felt a burning desire to go back to these places, to waste away my quiet Saturday afternoon enjoying their coffee, or even support their organization with my money. I strongly believe that is because the people were not taken care of, so how could they possibly fully take care of me.
“You can smell it. The warm subtle notes of fresh Costa Rican coffee calms you as you breathe it in. The steady drip from the pot reminds you of when mother would pour her coffee early Saturday mornings. As you bring the warm cup to your mouth, your taste buds expand, anticipating the beautiful embrace of perfection. Come join us for a cup of coffee.” -Cafe del Barista, written by yours truly.
I met Arturo, an extroverted-intellectual, at the Cafe Expo Tarrazu 2018. The first thing he said to me, “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” went completely over my head. I was still rather new in Costa Rica, and getting adjusted to hearing Spanish all the time that the Japanese didn’t even register. It wasn’t until my wife, who knows a little Japanese, replied in Japanese that my mind finally picked up on the language shift.
先日行われたCafé Expo Tarrazuで外向的な知識人に出会った。彼の名はArturo(アルトロ)。彼が突如に発した「Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu」という言葉は、妻が日本語で返事をするまで、スペイン語を聴き取る頭にシフトされた私のそばを完全に素通りしていった。
The son of a rather large coffee farm owner (obviously the farm is large…the father is in great shape), Arturo dedicates his free time to helping around the farm. Whether that means harvesting, processing, or giving tours, it seems like he’s all over the place and is obviously very knowledgable about Cafe Sol Naciente’s operations. When he’s not helping his father produce quality coffee, Arturo spends his time at his 9-5 as an accountant for the local electric company, coaching professional woman’s soccer, teaching himself Japanese, or, supporting his wife at her professional hand-ball games. Fortunately for us, Arturo was able to set aside some time and give a tour of his father’s coffee farm, Finca Sol Naciente.
大きな敷地に作られたコーヒー農園の所有者の息子、(農園は明らかに大規模だ。父は偉大である…。)アルトゥロは使える限りの自分の時間を農園を助けることに充てている。コーヒーの実の収穫、処理、また農園見学のツアーなども行っている。彼の仕事ぶりから、明らかに、この”Café Sol Naciente”のオペレーションに欠かせない存在で、非常に知識深いことがわかる。
彼は普段、地元の電力会社で会計士として勤めていて、他にもプロサッカーチームのコーチングや自身の日本語の勉強をしている。彼の妻は、ハンドボールでコスタリカ代表に選ばれる程で、そのサポートも行っている。 そんな多忙な彼のスケジュールの合間を縫って、私たちは幸い、”Sol Naciente “の農園を見学することができた。
Cafe Sol Naciente literally translated comes out to Coffee Rising Sun. It’s no surprise then that Japan, Land of the Rising Sun, is this farm’s target consumer, and, fortunately enough, their leading importer.
“Café Sol Naciente “は文字通り”Coffee Rising Sun”。 “Café の出ずる場所””Café の生まれ来る場所”の意味を持つ。日本もここから生まれるコーヒーをインポートしている。
The farm itself sits just outside of the small town of San Marcos, Costa Rica. After a nerve-wracking 20 minute drive through near vertical mountain “roads” (I will never take a FWD sedan again), we arrived at the entrance to the Finca, where a welcoming sign in Spanish, English, and Japanese invited us to the farm.
The day we arrived, even though towards the end of season, Arturo and his family were in the middle of processing some recently harvested coffee fruit.
The coffee fruit is picked, boxed, and driven to the processing plant, where, depending on the finish, it is stripped of its outer layer, dried, and finally bagged.
Since some fruit sneaks by with its outer layer still intact, as seen above, the selection is sent through again, sometimes three times to ensure uniformity. It is absolutely crucial, when coffee farms are producing a certain wash, or aspiring for a certain taste, that there is uniformity among the beans. One bean picked too early, not processed enough, or dried too little, can completely change the taste of a cup of coffee. Although some coffee defects, such as Shells or Floaters, are nearly impossible to prevent, and even harder to detect, specialty coffee farmers must go above and beyond to prevent and detect what they can, in order to provide a quality cup.
Cafe Sol Naciente has a goal of repurposing 100% of their waste. As a result, they dry the stripped outer skin, and re-purpose it as fertilizer on the farm.
“Café Sol Naciente”では、コーヒー作りでの廃棄物を100%利用するという目標を掲げている。
Natural finish coffee, as seen above, is dried with the outer layer still attached to the coffee. This gives the cup a much frutier taste, compared to other processes.
“Honey” processed coffee, what Costa Rica is known for in the coffee industry, is dried with its mucilage still intact, as opposed to “washed” or “full wash” coffee where the mucilage is removed. The coffee dried with the mucilage still attached provides a much sweeter cup. To make matters even more complicated, there are varying levels of “honey” finish, with gold honey, red honey, and black honey. As the level of honey intensifies or “darkens,” so does the sweetness of the cup. However, black honey, dried slower using more shade to leave more mucilage intact than gold and red honey, requires much more maintenance and care as the risk of “souring” or undesired fermentation increases drastically.
豆の乾燥には時間がかかる。豆に付いている粘液を洗い流せば、早く乾燥出来るが、この粘液を残すことで、さらなる甘みを作り出せる。この粘液を業界では”honey”と呼び、そのコーヒーを”honey coffee “という。さらに、この”蜂蜜”には[ゴールド→赤→黒]と、乾燥の色の状態での分類があり、乾燥させるほど、甘くなる。しかし、黒くさせるには、日陰干しにし、多くのメンテナンスが必要になるほか、「酸味」や発酵してしまうリスクが高くなるのだ。
Cafe Sol Naciente experiments with different fruit planted next to coffee plants. The fruit, in this case, banana, mango, or lemon trees provide natural shade for the coffee. Arturo Sr., also wants to see if the byproducts of the fruit trees will have any effect on the taste of the coffee. Very excited to try the results.
As the tour winded down, Chris, Arturo’s nephew who accompanied us on the tour, was our saving grace as he asked all the questions I hadn’t even thought of. My personal favorite, “Why does coffee taste so good?” has stayed with me to this day. Some people say it’s the phenolic lipids in the coffee, but I’m more interested in what Chris has to say on the matter the next time we visit.
We couldn’t be more thankful for the tour. Hopefully one of these days, I’ll be able to taste the results of the “fruit tree” experimentations or, equally as enticing, see my first professional handball game. Until then, I wish Cafe Sol Naciente and family the best of luck.
私はこのツアーに心から感謝している。上手くいけば”フルーツツリー”の実験結果を味わえるかもしれない。または最強プロハンドボールの試合を観るきっかけも。Café Sol Naciente の幸せを願っている。
This weekend I had the honor of touring Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, located just an hour and half south of San Jose. Being March, most of the coffee had already been picked, processed, dried, and stored, however, we were still able to see all of the equipment and process of how everything functioned.
The harvest season in Costa Rica is generally from December to March. Workers arrive from Nicaragua and Panama to pick the fruit, which is then sent to the processing plant via truck.
Upon arrival at the plant, the coffee is sorted, stripped of its outer layers (depending on the wash [we’ll get into that in a following post]), and dried. Cafe Doga uses mostly water, gravity, and sun to achieve these goals with a “home-made” engineered system.
The fruit is placed into these storage tanks which sorts and temporarily holds the beans until they are ready to be sent, via water, to the “de-pulper.”
After the fruit is transferred, it is stripped of its outer layer (unless it is a natural process which we will get into later) and sorted based on quality. Sitting in water, the beans that float are not yet ripe and are pushed down the line, to be collected in another section and used “Para la casa” instead of being sold or exported.
The heavier, better quality beans, fall through the small slits in a rotating drum and are collected at the bottom on a wheel barrel. The water that brought the fruit to this stage is then recycled back to the beginning to be reused on the next batch.
The coffee is then taken to be dried on African Beds or concrete flooring. African beds are an elevated lining that provides a porous underside, which allows air to flow upwards into the beans, helping prevent moulding and fermentation. On concrete flooring, the beans are also dried by the heat of the ground, however, since there is no airflow as found in African Bedding, the beans must be raked many times a day. Both concrete and African beds take just over 10 days to fully cool the beans.
Interestingly enough, upon arrival to BioCafe Oro Tarrazu, coffee beans usually have a moisture level of about 50%. By the time they are bagged and ready to be shipped, they are sitting at 10.5%. Too much moisture and the risk of mould increases, as does the amount of money the buyer pays for each bean. Too little moisture, the coffee will lose most of its flavor and the farmer will earn less per bean.
Once coffee reaches the desired level of moisture, it is stripped of any leftover casing and bagged, ready to be sold. They must be stored with extreme caution, as extra moisture in the bag could spoil the entire shipment.
Although Cafe Doga is a small, family owned coffee estate, they do provide quality coffee that is carefully processed. Compared to the other estates in the area they are relatively new, but have already made a name for themselves in Costa Rica coffee.
Also, Cafe Doga has started a quite intriguing Ponche de Cafe line. They offer a liquor filled and alcohol free version of the cold milk coffee beverage. I was pretty exhausted from the tour that I didn’t realize which one I had, but I do remember that it tasted amazing.
To the family of Cafe Doga and Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, specifically Mrs. Vargas and Ms. Madrigal, I can’t thank you guys enough for your warm hospitality and an opportunity to see a part of coffee that not many people get to experience. Look forward to running into you guys at the next coffee event!
If you’re interested in contacting Cafe Doga for more information or would like to purchase some coffee, check out their Facebook. Ask them how they came up with the name Doga! Interesting history behind it.
You can’t talk about the history of Costa Rica without mentioning coffee. In fact, if it wasn’t for coffee, Costa Rica may have suffered the same fate as The Mosquito Kingdom, a place you’ve never even heard about! Fortunately, Costa Rica possessed all of the natural ingredients for producing the savory bean we know and love today.
As with just about any “first” in history, there is still much debate about how the first coffee bean arrived in Costa Rica. Some say that the first seeds were brought from Jamaica by a sea captain under orders of the Costa Rican governor. Others, insist the bean emigrated from Panama or Cuba at the end of the 18th century. Still others argue that the bean was transported directly from Ethiopia in 1779, the theory of which I am personally least convinced. You can be the judge of which story seems most probable. Regardless, it is well known that in the beginning of the 19th Century, the Costa Rican government saw the potential value that the coffee bean had and highly encouraged its production.
After Costa Rica’s (read: Central America) independence from Spain, the government began offering plots of land to anyone that was willing to grow and harvest the plant. With fertile volcanic soil, favorable temperatures year round, a varying elevations, the crop grew quite easily in the country. By the end of 1821, there were over 17,000 coffee plants in the nation, producing a crop that, for the most part, was still not being exported. In 1825, in an effort to promote growth in coffee production, the government exempted coffee harvesters from paying a tithe. Four years later, coffee became the leading crop in production, easily surpassing cacao, tobacco, and sugar.
By 1832, Costa Rica finally began “exporting” coffee. The bean was sent to Chile, where it was rebagged and renamed “Café Chile del Paraiso” and then sent to Europe. After learning of “Cafe Chile del Paraiso’s” coffee bean’s true origin, an Englishman by the name of William Lacheur arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to negotiate the purchase of Costa Rican coffee beans. Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo, the owner of the farm prospective exporting farm, was suspicious of this Englishman and his “promise to return with silver” in exchange for his coffee beans. In 1843 he allowed Mr. Lacheur to take over 5,000 sacks of coffee and set sail for England under the watchful eyes of a Costa Rican trade specialist. Six months later, both men returned, paid the coffee growers in pounds in sterling and fully loaded another two ships for export. England had acquired a taste for Costa Rican coffee and a new market had been discovered.
Cultivation of coffee in the early 1800s had transformed Costa Rica from a remote, struggling country to a leading exporter, allowing a stable middle class and a wealthy coffee oligarchy to form. By 1850, coffee comprised over 90% of Costa Rica’s exports. The coffee industry transformed the economy and modernized the country. The revenue generated funded the first railroads connecting the capital to the Atlantic coast in 1890. In 1897 it funded the building of The National Theater in San Jose (modeled after a Paris Opera House). Thanks to the revenue brought in from coffee, Costa Rica was one of the first cities in the world to have an electric lighting system in 1884.
After World War 2, the demands for Costa Rican coffee was steadily increasing and productivity was falling short. The Typica and Bourbon varieties of low productivity, were replaced with small caturra and catui varieties. This led to an increase from just over 10,000 coffee plants per hectare to an average of over 30,000 plants per hectare. By the late 1980s, coffee production had increased from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons.
Today, coffee is the third largest export in the country, behind Medical Equipment and tropical fruit. It accounts for 3% of exports at an export value of $308 Million. The top importers of Costa Rican coffee are the US (52%, $161M), Belgium (14%,$44.2M), Germany (4.1%, $12.5M), Italy (3.6%, $11.2M), and Australia (3.5%, $10.7M). Japan is 10th on the list at 1.8%, $5.63M. Still, with so much revenue generated from coffee exports, Costa Rica provides less than 1% of the world’s coffee production! However, the per capita consumption of coffee in Costa Rica is the highest of all coffee producing countries in the world.
If you find yourself in Costa Rica and would like to learn more about Costa Rican coffee, there are plenty of coffee farm tours available throughout the 8 coffee producing regions (Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, Guanacaste, Turrialba, Brunca, and Orosi). Or you could take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee in Heredia, a quick 20 to 30 minute drive from San Jose, depending on traffic. If neither of those sound interesting to you, then head over to Barrio Escalante and check out some of the new, up and coming 3rd wave café’s that have coffee from all over Costa Rica in different plant varieties, washes, and roasts. The coolest part about Barrio Esclante is you can still see some coffee plants on the sides of buildings and restaurants, remnants of the first coffee farms in Costa Rica.
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Yesterday I had the opportunity to check out Viva el Cafe 2018 at Costa Rica’s National Stadium located in La Sabana District, a quick 15 minute car ride from downtown San Jose.
For me, personally, this event was nowhere near the energy level that was Expo Cafe Tarrazu. Perhaps it was the large tent we were in that didn’t allow any sunlight in despite the beautiful weather outside. Or it may have been the bigger names in coffee that were at this event that didnt feel the need to “sell” the coffee they were passionate about and instead could simply stand behind their display, knowing customers would buy. Or perhaps it was the $4 entry fee that made the “free” Viva Cafe bag seem that much less desirable. Whatever the reason, the Tarrazu event was much more intimate, with smaller, family owned brands promoting a product they’re proud of.
Of course that’s not to say that there were not enthusiastic brands, excited to tell you about their coffee, there certainly were (with amazing coffee as well) , just to a lesser extent.
Nonetheless, if you have an interest in coffee, it is worth the visit, especially if you live in San Jose. Unlike Expo Cafe that had beans just from the Tarrazu region, Viva Cafe had beans from all over Costa Rica, Single Origin, specialty blends, and even an anaerobic blend that had the fruttiest taste I had ever experienced with coffee (a bit too much for me, but I can see there being a market for it).
The best part of Viva Cafe 2018? Running into old friends from Cafe Doga! Back at it again with great coffee and amazing customer service. I don’t think Coffee brands were ranked based on hospitality at Viva Cafe, but if they were, Cafe Doga would win, without a doubt.
Above is a $60,000 roaster that takes all of the guesswork out of roasting. Mr. Cercone and his company Espresso Latam SA are giving a roasting course using this futuristic roaster from 21-23 March in Alajuela, Costa Rica to anyone interested.
Lastly, if fresh coffee and high-tech roasters aren’t enough to entice you, simple yet aesthetic coffee “gadgets” like the one seen above and below prove that Viva Cafe did in fact have something for everyone. Now if only they could have the event outside next year…
As many of you may know, one of my biggest passions in life, besides sharing positive vibes, is coffee (see referenced coffee post here). There are so many aspects to the world of coffee. From growing it, to processing it, to exporting it, to even serving it, the possibilities are near endless. And with such a variety on growing conditions, processing procedures, and preparation methods, the possibilities are in fact endless. And with Costa Rica being the center of coffee culture, both historically and currently, it was a no brainer that I ended up here. Fortunately for me, just a few days after I arrived to Costa Rica, I learned that a pretty big coffee event was happening just 90 minutes South of San Jose, Expo Cafe Tarrazu 2018. Another no brainer.
Now, if you look at a map of Costa Rica, and see the distance between San Jose and San Marcos, where the event was being held, you might think, “Oh, only 60 km away, we’ll easily be there in under an hour.” Well if that is your first thought, then you, my friend, have never driven in Costa Rica.
If you look at the map above, and compare it to the map below showcasing the distance between Virginia Beach and Richmond (and ignoring my low battery percentage of course) you will see that the second map, is nearly double the distance of the first, but takes roughly the same amount of time. Why? Well driving here is certainly not for the faint of heart. With sudden turns, dramatic inclines, two lanes abruptly turning into one, landslides, and misplaced guard rails that allow enough of an opening to let your imagination run wild, it’s no surprise that 60 km takes well over 90 minutes to trek through.
Well, we were brave enough to make that trek today in search of coffee and we’re very glad we did. San Marcos/Tarrazu is located in a beautiful valley surrounded by the Talamanca Sierra Mountains. With a minimum altitude of just over 1300 meters above sea level, and a maximum of 3000 meters, the area is perfect for growing quality, high-land coffee. Its been said that the coffee grown in this region is the most desirable coffee in Costa Rica, which in turn makes it the most desirable coffee in the world. To prove as much, in 2012, coffee grown in Tarrazu was the most expensive coffee sold in Starbucks in The United States.
Expo Cafe is held here annually and it consists of local producers showcasing the quality of their beans/coffee at various stands throughout the marketplace. Below are a few pictures from the event, with small pieces of info about the brand, and a link or email if I could find one. The event lasts a full two days and is supplemented with clothing stands, jewelry stands, and of course food stands, all Tico flavored.
Some of the show casers, like Cafe Ave del Paraiso, are relatively new to the coffee scene, introducing fresh ideas and vibrant energy into coffee cultures. Others are more established, having been in operation for countless generations, defining the standards expected of the coffee bean from the region.
Extremely friendly family with great recommendation for coffee, not just their own.
This photo above may have been one of my favorite pictures, but thanks to my sister’s….sorry, thanks to my camera’s mistake, the focus didn’t quite come out right. Nonetheless Ms. Tatiana Gutierrez was one of the most helpful and friendliest owners I had the pleasure of meeting today (not to mention the coffee was outstanding) Really excited to get back down to Tarrazu to check out the source of their coffee!
Another producer I had the pleasure of meeting today, Arturo (pictured below), was actually studying Japanese and caught me off guard with a quick “Yokouso.” Very pleasant, down to earth guy that was obviously very knowledgable in the world of coffee. Of course to make things even better he had absolutely delicious coffee as well. Also looking forward to visiting this farm. Best of luck with your Japanese!
Overall was an amazing event and I can’t wait until the next Expo Cafe. Took home a few beans today (from the three stands with great taste and excellent customer service) that I can’t wait to try first thing in the morning. Appreciate the amazing experience Tarrazu.