Monday, 13 December 2010

Monteverde Coffee Cooperative tour, Monteverde, Costa Rica

After an early morning bus from San Jose we arrived in the beautiful town of Santa Elena, near Monteverde in Costa Rica.  The region is known for its biodiversity as it is uniquely located inbetween cloud forest and rain forest.  It was Rachael’s first day on holiday visiting James and I and she fancied a fairly relaxed afternoon so we decided to visit a local coffee plantation to learn a bit about how the cooperative worked, how coffee is grown and more importantly to sample it!  We chose the Monteverde Coffee Cooperative tour.  The tour began well when we realised that it was just us and the guide – a bonus of travelling in the low season!

The Co-operative
The tour began with an introduction to the cooperative which consists of 42 farmers working together.  By working as part of a co-op they are able to gain mutual benefits such as receive training into organic farming methods, and help with acquiring certification for fair trade and organic farming.  Our guide explained that it is very difficult to gain and maintain organic farming status but that it is important to them to be able to educate farmers around this area.  The co-op also helps the farmers become more profitable and get the most from their land.  The co-op has bought an area of land where they plant coffee plants and grow them to a certain age and then they distribute them equally to the farmers.  The land is used as a classroom for quality coffee farming practices.

We were shown how the coffee plants are organised – for example, it is not wise to just have coffee plants on your land.  The prime reason is that it is good for the soil to receive nutrients from other plants so they plant them amongst fruit and veg such as bananas, oranges, papayas, avocados, mangoes, green beans, ginger, and sour mandarins. This is beneficial for the taste and quality of the coffee beans.  Furthermore, our guide explained that the farmers in this region only work small areas of land and would never earn enough just from growing coffee so they need to grow other plants.

The Coffee plant cycle
One thing that surprised us all on the tour was just how complex coffee production is.  Farmers need to be very organised and time their different crops.  In addition weather conditions are crucial to a plants success.  Once you plant a tree, for the first 9 months it stays in a plastic pot and can take as much water as it rains.  Once it has grown large enough to bear fruit it is moved to a suitable area in the farm.  It will then take 2 years for the first fruits to grow, after which the plant is cut down and it will take another 5 for it to fruit again.  Our guide also stressed that it takes 5 years for it to become a decent quality to use for coffee – this is a long time for a new coffee farmer to put in work before beginning to see a reward.  If a plant is organically farmed then a plant can last up to 60 years.

When the coffee plant bears fruit and they turn red they are ready to be picked.  From the first yield most will be turned into fertiliser.  Two types are produced, one where the fruits are given to the earthworms and a year later a rich soil has been produced.  For the other the beans are pealed and left to rot to produce flakes.  These natural fertilisers are then used on a 50% ratio to normal soil.

If there is too much rain it will ruin the crops which can be devastating for a farmer.  In my time in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this year I have experienced many locals being concerned about the amount of rainfall they have received, and as you can see by local news articles it has been a huge topic of discussion and concern this year.  In addition, whilst we were exploring the coffee plantation it rained incredibly and you can see here just how soaked we got!!

To combat this the Monteverde co-op has some measures in place to help manage this, such as a main buyer in Texas will contribute $1 per bag of coffee back to the co-op to go to helping the farmers pay for education for their children.

Depending on what stage the farmers sell the beans at depends on how much money they make.  The earlier they sell the less they get, however most farmers do sell early as the amount of work and cost for the production of coffee beans is too high to warrant the work.

The process
The coffee beans are picked by hand (workers are paid $2 per basket and can pick between 10 and 20 in a day).  Then the beans are shelled using a machine as shown here, and also by using a giant pestle and mortar, and left to dry for about a week.

Once dried they are roasted in a large vacuum for about 15 minutes for light beans where it sounds like pop corn when it is ready.  (longer for dark beans).  You can watch this stage by clicking below:

Then they grind and/or packet the coffee.  Coffee stays fresh for 2 – 4 months but can be used for up to a year after.

Types of bean
Until this tour I really didn’t know too much about coffee or that you could really get different types of beans, so this section I found particularly interesting!  Our guide discussed the different types of coffee in the world, Arabica, Rooibos and Liberia.  Roobus is illegal to be grown in Costa Rica, as it is deemed as not a high quality because it has too high levels of caffeine.  Arabica is the type grown here.

Within this type you can get 3 types of bean:

  • Light bean
  • Dark bean
  • Natural bean (where they are not shelled – not typically sold but the farmers drink this themselves)

People tend to think that the darker the bean, the more caffeinated it is…however, this is not true as the more you roast a bean, the less caffine content remains.  The more you roast a bean the more bitter (or strong) it becomes and this tends to be more popular.  We sampled all three and although it is quite hard to work out what you are thinking I preferred natural, then the light and then the dark.  So I like caffinne apparently!

Accompanying our coffee we had beautiful cakes – a banana and carrot cake which were both divine!  Despite being rained on during the tour we really enjoyed it and learnt a great deal so I definitely recommend visiting a coffee plantation yourself if you get the opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoying reading the blogs Love Laraine

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