An Unforgettable Coffee Tour At Finca Rosa Blanca In Costa Rica

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.

The inn is set in a lush, tropical forest in hilly Heredia. At night, the temperature dips and there is no need for air conditioning. We slept with the windows open and woke to the sounds of chirping birds, a delightful novelty for city dwellers. After a delicious breakfast, we met Leo Vergnani, our coffee guide, along with three other visitors who’d be joining us on the 2-1/2 hour tour. ($35 per person, kids are free) Our group included two Leos, two Nicks, and two Jens, plus me and my son, James.

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]

In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.