Coffee! It’s the most addictive drug in the world. Many of us could barely function without it, but have you ever toured a coffee plantation? I hadn’t until I stumbled upon a coffee plantation and inn called Finca Rosa Blanca near San Jose last week. We were set to arrive in Costa Rica just before nightfall and the idea of immediately heading south to our first stop, Manuel Antonio National Park, in the dark didn’t seem enticing.
Finca Rosa Blanca (FRB) is only about 25 minutes from the San Jose airport and they offer coffee tours twice daily, so it’s an ideal place to start or end a trip to Costa Rica depending on your itinerary. Glenn and Terry, the American owners of FRB, moved to the country in 1985. Glenn’s mom purchased the land where the inn sits intending to build a vacation home, but she died and Glenn decided to open an inn on the land she purchased. Twelve years later, they bought some adjacent land that had been part of a commercial coffee estate with the intention of expanding their business to produce organic, shade grown estate coffee.
As we walked across the street from the inn toward the coffee plantation, Leo told me that he was born near Venice, Italy, and his father, an engineer, moved the family to Costa Rica in 1978, after he was offered a two-year contract to work in San Jose.
“But we liked it here, so we decided to stay,” he said, before pausing and adding the phrase, muy bien.
In the roasting room, Leo gave us a primer on worldwide coffee production. There are 103 coffee species, and about 6,000 varietals, but only three species have commercial value: liberica, which makes up about 5% of the world supply of coffee, robusta, (23%), and Arabica, ( 72%).
Nicholas, a Frenchman who was on the tour to learn more about coffee for his job at a New York restaurant, made a joke about robusta coffee but Leo quickly corrected him.
“We never say robusta is terrible coffee,” he said. “It’s just a different species.”
Leo said that Norwegians drink the most coffee, while Brazil produces the most, at about 53% of the world’s supply. Vietnam is #2 in production at about 17%, though they only produce robusta, which was illegal to produce in Costa until 1978. Costa Rica produces only about 1.5% of the world’s supply of coffee.
“We used to be thought of as a banana republic and a coffee country,” he said. “But these days tourism is by far our most important industry, followed by high-tech and coffee is considerably further down the list.”
Leo told us a little bit about the lengthy process of becoming a certified organic producer and about how some corner-cutting producers add all kinds of nasty things to their coffee.
“Producers used to mix in arsenic but it was killing their customers,” he said. “Some used blood, iodine, and other things and then in 1894, they started using sugar.”
Nick, a thirty-something New Jersey native, told the group that his employer was conducting research on the dangers of sugar and scared the hell out of us all when he said, “The coffee you drink from Dunkin’ Donuts could kill you.”
“When you go to the store, the labels on the coffee usually don’t tell you anything useful,” Leo explained. “You want to know what region the coffee is from, the altitude of that place and lots of other things. You need to buy from reputable specialty stores and ask questions.”
He said that it took FBR 7 years to become certified as an organic producer and complained that the cost of the process unfortunately has to be passed onto consumers.
“Basically, the industry made such a huge mess, using sugars and all these things that today we have to pay more just to go back in time to produce coffee the way our grandparents did 60 years ago,” he said.
We trekked through the lush, tropical plantation, with Leo stopping to show us things, like how banana trees were essentially living “irrigation systems” (see photo) and offer insights, usually punctuating each sentence with the phrase, muy bien.
It was a perfect morning. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the temperature was about 75, the birds were singing, and there was a light breeze sweeping through the green terrain of banana plants and trees. I couldn’t have been happier.
Leo told us that in 2012 FRB produced 148 100-pound sacks of coffee, 80% of which was sold or consumed at the inn. FBR had just concluded its harvest in mid-January but there were still some beans left on the trees unpicked. Leo said that a typical workday for the coffee pickers was 6 a.m. – 2 p.m. They are paid based on productivity and good pickers make about $25-30 per day. Unroasted coffee sells for about $1.28 a pound on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
“Once roasted, we get about $16 a pound for our coffee, retail, or about $6-7 a pound wholesale,” Leo said, before noting that about 7-8% of what they produce goes to the U.S. and Canada through an importer called Café Milagro.
After our walking tour, we returned to the inn’s restaurant for a coffee tasting. Leo put a big scoop of cheap coffee from a producer that uses sugar in a glass of ice water and then put a scoop of FRB coffee in a second glass.
“You see,” he said. “The sugary coffee turns the whole glass of water a murky brown, but our coffee, it sights right on top of the water.”
So there’s a litmus test for you to find out how good your coffee is.
“Coffee tasters have no manners,” Leo said before giving us two FBR varietals to try. “I want you to put your nose to the drink, then moved it along the whole cup to breath in the aroma. Then I want you to slurp as fast and as noisy as you can. Pay attention to the tip of your tongue.”
My little boys, ages 3 and 5, loved Leo’s noisy slurping and then when he spit his coffee, they were truly thrilled (see video above). Leo gave us an introduction on how to taste for sweetness, acidity and bitterness and as the tour drew to a conclusion, there was only one more thing I wanted: more of their damn good coffee.
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]