Coffee was first planted Central America in 1740. It arrived in Costa Rica in 1796. Arabica coffee [from Arabia via Ethiopia] was planted on moist mountain slopes where the trees were not subjected to long hours in the tropical sun. By the early 19th century, it was the country’s principal agricultural product.
The Doka Estate, not far from San Jose, is in Sabanilla, Alajuela in the central highlands. It belongs to the Vargas-Ruiz family who have operated it for three generations since 1949, but the estate owns the oldest water-powered mill in the country which dates back to the late 1800s.
Coffee plantations historically led to deforestation, erosion and water pollution. But modern farmers along with others in Costa Rica have acted to reduce the environmental impact of their operations. Natural fertilizers are used. They plant fruit trees and banana plants among the coffee plants both to provide shade and give insects something to eat rather than the coffee fruit. The banana plants also retain moisture in their roots.
Coffee trees take about four years to mature and fruit. They produce about 5,000 fruits per year. If not pruned, a coffee tree could reach as high as thirty-feet, but they are kept at worker-height. They are harvested for the next four years until they become too woody with fewer flowers. Then they are pruned. It takes another two years for the new flowers to become established; then they can harvest for another four years before the process is repeated. In all, they get about fifteen to twenty years production from a plant.
Doka has 480 acres at the site we visited. They bring in about 300 pickers, primarily from Nicaragua coming to get work (Costa Ricans can generally find better work). They are paid two dollars a basket, get about forty dollars a day, and there housing is supplied. The houses we saw looked fairly nice from the outside. The main harvest season runs from November through January.
The fruit is picked when ripe and red. When we were there in late January, it was the end of the season, and they were picking everything from red to green. We were told it would be used for the least expensive coffee.
The fruit has a sweet pulp beneath the skin that is removed for use in compost and fertilizer. Beneath the pulp is what our guide called “slime,” a honey-like layer which some companies use to make liqueurs like Kahlua.
Inside the pulp and slime are usually two coffee beans covered with a parchment like skin. Sometimes there is only one bean, the so-called pea-berry, which is considered to produce finer coffee.
Doka has the oldest water-powered mill in the country, 120 years old. The fruit from the field is first dumped into a vat of water. The heavier fruit sinks while leaves and twigs float.
The outside is then mechanically peeled before the beans are moved into fermentation tanks. Taken from the fermentation tanks, the beans are then dried. Most are dried in revolving cylinders heated with wood fires. The finest beans are sun-dried. The advantage of sun-drying is the beans do not pick up any smoke flavor.
We were shown a roaster used for local consumption. The darkest coffee is roasted for about twenty minutes. Lighter coffee is roasted for about seventeen minutes, and the lightest only fifteen minutes. The darkest roasts have the least caffeine. To produce decaffeinated coffee, their beans are sent to Germany for processing. The German company does not charge, but keeps the caffeine for sale to companies like Coca Cola.
The beans swell during roasting; the longer the roast, the bigger the bean. And
the roaster not only times his production, he can also can tell the condition of the bean by crackling sounds the beans make as they swell.
For the most part, Doka and other Costa Rican producers do not roast any of their beans except those for local consumption. The rationale is all the exported beans can be roasted to the taste of the ultimate consumers, different brands and in different countries.
Costa Rica cannot compete in volume with countries like Brazil, so they compete in quality. First, by law, all beans are Arabica which is considered to produce finer coffee than the cheaper robusta. Then, Costa Rica farmers seek “Fair Trade” certification indicating labor practices meet higher standards and “Rain Forest” certification meaning they use sound environmental practices.
I noted it was late in the season and the beans weren’t the best. Our guide claimed 85 percent of Doka’s coffee was of
the first quality and the only coffee exported. Ten percent was second quality, and five percent was third quality. He said Costa Ricans often drink the third quality because it is the cheapest. Also, they use large quantities of milk and sugar in their coffee, so quality isn’t as important.
As much as I love coffee, caffeine affects my blood pressure. As decaffeinated was not offered, I took small sips of a couple types of the Doka coffee for sale at the plantation. Their special “pea-bean” was actually too weak and thin for me. Going to the store in Jacó, I bought a bag of “export quality” dark roast decaffeinated, and I loved it. It was definitely better than what I have been buying at home.