We drove off the pavement and up the hill following Google Maps when the dirt road ahead turned sharply, offering an unnerving, precipitous vista. We were a bit lost in the heart of Guanacaste in northwest Costa Rica looking for Planta Procesadora Diria: coffee!
Rule #1: A three point turnaround isn't done at these points.
We gingerly made our way in the rented subcompact back to the highway, well pavement, and with local directions teased by our poor Spanish arrived in time for our tour by Dennis, our genial guide at the 53-year-old Diria coffee production facility.
We say that "simple things done well make life richer." But what we do in the cafe is largely within our control -- quality coffee, roasted well, ground precisely, pure water at proper temperature all carefully prepared in the hands of our baristas.
Dennis would note that making a cup of coffee may seem simple but that growing the coffee isn't. Just nurturing from seedling to a shrub's first crop takes three and a half to four years.
A good picker may fill a basket with 25-pounds of ripe coffee cherries in 45 minutes, earning 1,000 colones, or $2 if the pick passes high-quality muster by the farmer. The work is on steep hills watchful for snakes and insects and done under a hot sun. Costa Ricans are early birds, rising before the sun to take advantage of relatively cooler weather. Siesta has purpose here.
Diria serves a cooperative of 150 farms, which in turn draw workers from nearby towns like Raphael, a tidy, wide spot on the winding road above Diria. Coffee from the mill is combined with other mills for local and export markets. Diria is a wet mill and pays farmers a premium for fine, properly ripe organic coffee, which amounts to about one-fourth of the coffee it processes. The last portions of the season's organic production dried on a patio below the wet mill. Importers and then roasters like Conscious Cup pay premiums for fine-grade, organic green coffee.
The remaining first quality coffee at Diria not organic and is machine dried, or of second quality and destined for consumption in Costa Rica, perhaps in baking products or grocery coffee boosted with sugars and flavoring. Second-quality beans are bin-dried under the Costa Rica sun and with hot air pushed from the drying machines and Diria's roaster.
Dennis proudly noted that Diria coffee is shade-grown, a result of Costa Rica's turn beginning in the late 1980s from a commodity quality emphasis on quantity to higher-earning fine coffee. Coffee grows beneath mango, avocado and cashew trees. In general, each crop ripens at a different time. One benefit is that farm workers don't have to be away from family to migrate from region to region pursuing work, Dennis said. The communities and families are more stable and children can be in school. Another benefit: Shade produces better, higher-vitality coffee shrubs.
As a wet mill, Diria demands water which is collected during the rainy season (our late summer and fall) into huge cisterns from the plant's maze of metal rooftops. Water from the mill is used to sort the coffee. Under- and over-ripe beans float and are separated. The cherries are milled to remove the skin, mucilage and silverskin from the hard, desirable beans inside the cherry. The skin and mucilage byproducts are used as compost or livestock feed.
Furthering ecological sustainability, water used at Diria is filtered in three ponds, first with limestone, then an algae pond, and, lastly, a pond with water lilies and tilapia fish. While not of drinking quality, the water is recycled to the wet mill or for watering crop. At the end of the coffee harvest, the farmers, pickers, and mill workers have a fiesta, fishing out the tilapia for a feast. As this season's harvest ends, their party is near at hand.
Dennis also demonstrated raking on the patio, pushing hard through the beans. "It's like shoveling snow, no?" he smiled, acknowledging our Midwestern roots. Perhaps raking coffee is harder as at peak harvest workers push through six inches of dense coffee beans.
From each 25-pound bushel of cherries, just 8 pounds of market-ready green coffee beans emerge. Such beans, carefully roasted at our Crystal Lake cafe, will lose another 20% of weight before bagging for retail or for use in brewing and espresso-making.
Diria's roaster is an ancient, steampunk machine Dennis patiently fiddled with to demonstrate for us. The gears loudly rotate a ball drum above a roaring open, gas flame. This is a brute operation requiring hard-acquired skill to produce a consistent roast. (Alec, our roaster in Crystal Lake, geeked out over the photo, wondering if he could build one himself.)
Back up the hill, we entered a beautiful tasting room where Dennis introduced my wife Roseanna, sister Denise, and, brother-in-law Ray, to the pleasantries of formal cupping. The organic and non-organic fine coffees were clearly differentiated in aroma and flavor, roasted to the same, light level from a small sample roaster. The organic coffee was crisp and clean; the other was darker by nature of its drying and carried a roast flavor you may be familiar with but I find dull and lacking distinction.
Ray and I enjoyed a pleasant hot cup, finish-roasted darker as is typical to CR that carried a dominant roast flavor. In the heat of the day, we finished with a delicious coffee, vanilla and ice cream drink before wishing Dennis well and taking careful directions for the scenic, winding but not nervously precipitous back way to Playa Carillo and Playa Samara, where we were staying.
The Best to You,
Photos of this trip can be seen in the Gallery.