SAN LUIS MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Little did I know, coffee is more than just a Frappuccino from the closest Starbucks.
As Oldemar Salazar showed our group through a tour of his own coffee cultivation, production and sale, I found that coffee is more than a commodity; it is a way of life. From “seed to cup,” as he put it, Salazar involves himself in every aspect of his coffee.
Salazar greeted our group heartily as the van pulled up in front of his house. He certainly looks the part of a coffee farmer, from his rubber boots to his torn, dusty blue pants and all the way up to his tattered, mildly discolored hat.
Seventeen years ago local Quakers helped find donations to purchase a 55-hectare farm in San Luis Monteverde, Costa Rica. Salazar, his wife and their three children are one of 28 families who each work a hectare of the Finca la Bella (“The Beautiful Farm”) in exchange for free living space.
Although Salazar acquired the land 17 years ago, he has only focused on coffee for the last seven years. Not only does he grow, process and sell coffee, Salazar provides tours of his entire operation.
“I enjoy sharing my knowledge with a group such as yourselves that are engaged and ask good questions,” Salazar mentioned as he showed us the process of roasting coffee beans.
Salazar’s operation begins out in the field behind his home in the upper region of San Luis, where he grows five species of arabica coffee.
Unlike many larger coffee plantations here in Costa Rica that are composed of straight, identical rows of coffee plants connected by concrete walkways, Salazar’s 5,000 coffee plants are interspersed with several additional plants. These include chayote, lemons, oranges, bananas, figs and larger native trees to Monteverde.
By incorporating diverse plants, Salazar provides natural groundcover for the coffee plants that decays into compost full of microorganisms and nutrients without the use of chemicals or additives. Additionally, these plants provide another option for potential pests to feast on and help attract pollinators like bees to the farm.
In Salazar’s opinion, most other plantations are simply “coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee” and fail to provide a naturally rich soil and environment for the coffee plants to flourish. Because of Salazar’s organic production system, his coffee plants survive and produce coffee beans much longer than his more industrial competitors’.
After handpicking only the ripe coffee “cherries” — as they are called because of their rich, almost maroon color — Salazar carries his spoils back up through the winding dirt path to the metal awning adjacent to his house. Here, he processes the beans six different ways over the course of the next year to produce the flavorful beans he packages then sells from his kitchen.
First, the ripe coffee cherries are fed into a depulping machine to remove the fleshy outer covering and reveal the seeds within. The coffee seeds flow down a chute into a holding area and the machine spits out the pulp, which Salazar will use to fertilize new coffee plants later.
Allowing the seeds to dry slightly overnight, the next afternoon Salazar floods the holding area with water to remove another membrane from the coffee seeds that are now referred to as “acorns.” Coffee acorns that float are lesser quality and are picked out by hand so that only the best quality coffee beans continue through production.
Salazar sells the lesser quality beans after this stage to customers who prefer to buy lower quality coffee. These beans are used to make products other than pure coffee, such as flavored coffee, instant coffee and blended coffee drinks.
The higher quality acorns then dry in the sun for no less than 30 days. While other coffee connoisseurs prefer to use a wet method to process their coffee beans, Salazar believes his dry method produces a far superior product.
Next, Salazar transfers the dry coffee beans now called “parchment” into large sacks, and he stores them in his shed a minimum of three months and up to a year or more if necessary.
Coffee parchment that leaves the shed must have yet another membrane or “husk” removed before it can be roasted. At first, Salazar used a large wooden barrel and heavy mallet known together as a pilón to separate the husk from the coffee “gold.” But this process is not only time consuming, it is also more labor-intensive than the machine he uses today. What took him seven hours to separate before by hand now takes Salazar 15 to 20 minutes by machine.
Now, after at least four months of processing, the coffee beans are ready for roasting. Salazar creates two different roasts from his coffee beans: medium and dark roast. Coffee beans are roasted 25 minutes for medium and 30 for dark.
While Salazar’s medium roast is smoother and has more caffeine, his dark roast has a stronger, more robust flavor. Customers can choose either whole beans or ground coffee for purchase.
When the tour ended and our group had the chance to buy coffee, we noticed even the packaging of the coffee was made in Monteverde. Salazar sells his coffee in recycled paper bags made by the women of the Eco-Bambu cooperative of lower San Luis, just down the road from his farm. This practice helps the environment and the local economy.
Salazar does not produce coffee because it is the easiest, most lucrative business in the world; coffee is how he lives and what he lives for.
“I do it and I do it because I like it,” he told me just before our group headed off to another part of Monteverde.
What more can you ask for?
— Amy Esker