Coffee, A Matter Of Taste, Subject To Experience

A friend sent an email asking for a recommendation. Among the four coffees we now offer in the USA, which two would represent the greatest variation in taste? On a rotating basis I taste one of these coffees every morning, while corresponding and reading news. I have tasted each of these four coffees dozens of times in recent months, with time to reflect on their differences. It is a matter of taste. Reading that email, I was also watching the sunrise, and I snapped the picture above. It helped me, in a very specific way, to respond.

Edited for clarity, here is what I told my friend. The single estate coffee we offer from the West Valley region of Costa Rica, called Villa Triunfo, is to my taste the most distinctive flavor of the four. When I say “my taste” I mean something influenced by four decades of drinking coffee. In the first few years of those four decades I drank what most Americans drank, which was mediocre quality coffee. I could drink it again, if needed, but I hope not to. Yet, it must have influenced how I taste coffee. When I first tasted an alternative, it was espresso. That was in 1983, and “my taste” in coffee shifted dramatically. It shifted again when I started tasting arabica specialty coffees over the next couple of years while working as a waiter.

That West Valley single estate coffee offers a small surprise, so pairing it with any of the other three gives good range. The surprise is partly a function of the estate, but also of the red honey process used to prepare the green bean to be roast-ready. This process is not unique to Costa Rica but is a signature of some of the country’s standout coffees. To my palate it adds a little bit of brightness to the rich, deep flavor. That is the sunrise reference to the photo. Surprise.

Most people, whether they know it or not, either prefer the taste of the coffee itself, in which case medium roasts are usually the best bet; or they have a strong preference for the taste of a darker roast, in which case the Italian roast of our Tarrazu coffee might be the best bet, and would be the most unlike the West Valley. Method of preparation is key to this discussion.

I have observed from conversations over the last year with people visiting our shops that it is more common for people who normally drink medium roast to also occasionally enjoy dark roast, whereas people who normally drink darker roasts do not enjoy coffee that is roasted anything less than dark. The Tarrazu single region coffee we offer, roasted to Italian level darkness, works well, either in an espresso machine or brewed in any standard manner, e.g. pourover, French press, drip coffee maker, etc. That would be the flavor profile most unlike the West Valley coffee.

Another option is simply to pair the two Tarrazu coffees, one roasted at medium to emphasize the character of the bean and the Italian roast for those who know they prefer the taste of the roast as much or more than the taste of the coffee itself. Tarrazu is featured twice among our four selections because, in consideration of taste, we know that most people who have become aware of coffee from Costa Rica have most likely had the opportunity to taste coffee from this region. And that has developed into a preference, we believe. I do not think that one single coffee region, or one single estate from any of Costa Rica’s growing regions, could claim to be the quintessential flavor of coffee.

Neither generally speaking do I think that, nor even for this one small coffee-producing country do I think that there is one coffee to beat all other coffees as best representing “what coffee is at its best.” But, get me talking about the organic coffee we offer, which has a flavor profile that appeals to most coffee drinkers except those who only drink dark roast, and I would say there is something ideal in Hacienda La Amistad.

In the few decades since they got certified as an organic producer, they have stood out as a model for what is possible both in terms of coffee quality and in terms of ecological responsibility. So, if pressed, I might hint that this coffee is representative of Costa Rica due to the country’s longstanding leadership in sustainable development and conservation. But I would not for that or any one other reason say this coffee is the best. It is a matter of personal taste.

Tasting An Ethiopian Coffee Propelled To Stardom

Archie Bland being served a very expensive cup (glass) of coffee at Queens of Mayfair. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

In 2018 and 2019 I had the opportunity to sample many of Costa Rica’s best coffees. We were narrowing our selection from dozens of excellent options down to one dozen that we would offer in our shops. Just prior to opening the shops, a friend generously gifted a bag of coffee from one of Panama’s premier growers. They had made the news for the auction price of one of their finest coffees and our bag was not from that lot, but still it was by far the most expensive coffee I have ever tasted. It was an experience like tasting fine wine, as the story below describes. The coffee was excellent. I would drink more if it was gifted but I am not holding my breath waiting. We drink excellent coffee in our home every day, and we sell plenty of it to others as well. I will leave it to the journalists to tell these stories:

‘Reminds me of vegetable soup’: how does a £50 cup of coffee taste?

It is the most expensive sold in the UK and served in a goblet, but is this Ethiopian brew worth the hype?

For £50, you can buy a return flight to Paris from London or Manchester, or a set of Liberty facemasks, or a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne.

Or, if you’re feeling really fancy, you could go to Mayfair, and have a cup of coffee. Well, a goblet of it, to be precise.

This is the USP of Queens of Mayfair, a central London cafe that weathered a corona-cursed first few months to become a popular venue for well-heeled locals in search of a brew and a posh donut. Continue reading

Coffee Rust Never Sleeps

Melanie Lambrick

It is not that we avoid this topic. Over the years we have posted plenty of times on it. It is complex, with no clear solution in view so we have avoided the most depressing stories on the topic, of which there are plenty. The topic matters very much to our current livelihood, so we are constantly on the lookout for stories that illuminate with science, touch with humanity, and/or frighten with clarity. We share one today that does all three. We have featured the work of Maryn McKenna just once before, and now is as good a time as any to do so again. Guatemala is in our neighborhood and the story she tells could have as easily been here in Costa Rica. We thank the Atlantic for publishing it:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

Melanie Lambrick

Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust. Continue reading

Gastropod Defense Team? Not so fast…

Visitors to this site know that coffee plays a significant role in the lives of many of our contributors, so the threat of rust is something we’ve been aware of for some time as well. We’re usually in favor of finding natural and non-invasive solutions to pest problems, but are quite aware that “non-invasive” must be the operative word.

The unintended consequences of using the invasive Asian tramp snail as a biological control could be significant, causing more harm than help. The studies here suggest that selective planting amid the coffee could provide various solutions, which consider the benefits of the polyculture planting methods of shade-grown coffee.

What Tiny Snail Poop Could Mean For Latin America’s Coffee Farms

Zachary Hajian-Forooshani never expected to find snails in the mountainous, coffee-producing heart of Puerto Rico. In 2016, when he was a University of Michigan masters student, he and his peers noticed some curious excrement on the undersides of coffee plants, which they eventually traced to the invasive Asian tramp snail. “Cool things pop out and you follow up with them,” says Hajian-Forooshani, who has made the snails and their colorful poop the subject of his doctoral research. “I just followed a trail of excrement.”

The oddly colored snail poop was, not coincidentally, the same bright-orange color as coffee rust, a parasitic fungus that’s coming for your morning buzz.

Central American farmers have tried breeding hybrid coffee species that are rust-resilient, but the fast-moving fungus is quick to develop an immunity to that resistance. ADAM KEOUGH/PUBLIC DOMAIN MARK 1.0

Coffee leaf rust has been a menace for more than a century. After appearing on Sri Lanka in the late 1800s, it enveloped the island within 20 years, ridding what was once the world’s greatest coffee exporter of its cash crop in near entirety. Traveling on the wind across Africa’s coffee belt, coffee rust reached the Atlantic coast by the 1950s. Its arrival in Brazil in 1970 sowed panic in a heavily coffee-reliant economy, and within 12 years, no coffee-producing region in Latin America, where seven-eighths of the world’s joe is produced, was rust-free. Today, 70 percent of Central American farms are infected, costing the region $3.2 billion in damage and lost income. Continue reading

CSA + NGO = 100% Forward

Organikos had a life before Authentica, but when Authentica opened one year ago the context was different. The Adriatic island and the outpost in India were temporary homes where we were launching projects for clients. Costa Rica is where the entrepreneurial conservation work began, so now we were coming home to stay and build a platform of our own. The logic for Authentica? Several million visitors per year had become the norm for the country over the last couple decades. And for Organikos? On average one million bags of coffee went home in the luggage of those visitors each year, mostly to the USA. Authentica’s location in two of Costa Rica’s most successful hotels would allow Organikos coffee to increase that flow. Good logic, no question.

Until now. This year international tourism is a fraction of that norm, and next year is likely to be similar. It would be easy to see the glass as less than half full, but instead we are looking for ways to refill the glass. We want those million bags of coffee to reach all the people who have either already fallen in love with Costa Rica, or are yet to.

Particularly for those people who have come, or want to come to Costa Rica to support its conservation commitments, our goal now is to provide an alternative way to lend that support. With our coffee as a taste of place alternative while travel is on hold, we have set up a platform for roasting and delivering 4 of our 12 coffee selections in the USA. And we continue to commit that 100% of the profits from the sale of these coffees goes to bird habitat regeneration initiatives in Costa Rica. Our first such initiative is in progress, but we want to expand our conservation outreach. One way to do this might be by partnering with conservation NGOs in Costa Rica. We are starting to explore this option.

Michael Pollan With More On Coffee

When it comes to updating my knowledge about coffee I am omnivorous, and so Michael Pollan’s work is always welcome. He recently shared more about this work, and thankfully the Radcliffe Institute shared the zoom talk. If you are inclined to geek out on coffee, take an hour for that; or at least it is worthy of a few minutes if you only have time to read the summary:

How caffeine changed the world

Author Michael Pollan discusses his latest work on the world’s most-used psychoactive substance

Regenerating, Early Steps

Ornamentals

In the early stages of regenerating this erstwhile coffee farm, moving decades-old ornamentals to the periphery has been an important activity. But some ornamentals stay put. The purple flowers center-left in the image above are a favorite of both hummingbirds and butterflies, so that bush, planted only one year ago, was a no-go. And behind it, a bougainvillea that was planted in 2001 remains because it has become a favorite place for hens to bring their chicks to hide under the foliage from a grey hawk that has taken up residence above in the poro trees.

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In this image above, in the background is a sibling of the bougainvillea planted in 2001, and this one was already closer to the periphery so did not need moving. But in the foreground is an example of another ornamental that has a completely different purpose. It is, frankly, an ugly ornamental as these things go. It does not produce flowers, instead putting its energy and other resources underground to create a strong, deep root system. It is planted for soil retention. And this stalk was cut from a mature version of the same, as seen below. Continue reading

Tending The Pitch

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In previous posts I have pointed my lens to this area, but from another angle and with limited scope. In the photo above, in the distant upper right you san see a small light object which is the top of the bee colony. With this view you can make out where the curvy berms lead and if you squint you can see the long quadrangle. A few months prior to our departure to live in Croatia in August, 2006 I decided that this stretch of relatively flat land would make a good football pitch for our boys and their friends. It was a mess of bramble and brush at the time so I cleared it and removed the big rocks and let it be. We would be gone for one year, and when we came back I would finish the pitch.

Plans change. We did not return to live in Costa Rica for another dozen years. This week, as we move to Plan B I took a snapshot of how that pitch looks right now. I am one quarter of the way through removing all the grasses that invaded the land while we were away. Under their blanket is all the rich soil that earthworms produce when left alone for awhile. That pitch, which now has 30 banana and plantain trees, and hundreds of bean plants as well as beets, will next get watermelon where the land is already cleared. These all will help the soil, and prepare the shade needed, in advance of coffee planting next year.

Planting Coffee, Plan B

TriunfoSeedlings

VTriunfoFIf you have been following these pages for at least a few months, you know that we kept the coffee beans from our last harvest to use as seeds for replanting land that was coffee farm for most of the last century. For better or worse, the photo above is not the result of those coffee beans. It is normal for seeds like our to germinate in 6-8 weeks. As of today we have precisely zero germination. Plan A, complete. Not a failure, just a lesson in the vagaries of agriculture. Plan B has been growing on me since creating the new labels for our coffee. Specifically one of the single estates that we offer, which is produced at Villa Triunfo in the Western Valley of Costa Rica. These specifications, which I received last year during our cupping sessions, were my guide to rewriting the text for the label on the back of the bag:

VTBackThis farm is unique in that it has Starmaya and Marsellesa cultivars which were both developed as a joint venture between ECOM and CIRAD (agricultural development in France). This lot of coffee displays how when Marsellesa, a Sarchimor type varietal is properly cared for, harvested and processed it can rival some of the most desirable varietals in the region. This coffee was produced in the Red Honey method which leaves some residual mucilage on the seed prior to drying. After drying, the parchment coffee appears red in color resulting in the “Red Honey” distinction. With this process, a bit of the coffee fruit flavors make their way into the cup as well.

Today, I will put in motion Plan B, one part of which is the acquisition and planting of seedlings from these hybrid beans (those in the photo at the top) that our friends at Villa Triunfo have been having great success with.

Organikos, Coffee & Community

Walking yesterday’s theme further down a country road: since late March Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been a constant topic of interest. Initially my thoughts were with the family farms supplying our fruits and vegetables. We spent the month of April and much of May looking closely at how we might support them. Concerned that the social distancing and lockdown measures that were sure to come would close the farmers’ markets, putting unbearable pressure on those families and their farms we thought a limited time, limited purpose CSA would help these farmers. It was a good idea, but it was not for us to do. The municipalities, farmer cooperatives and other organizers of the farmers’ markets in Costa Rica proved creative and resilient. So far, so good.

Now, as we prepare to launch our coffee roasting and delivery service in the USA, I see Organikos offering a community the opportunity to support coffee farmers in Costa Rica. Last year, prior to opening, we had projected that in 2020 Organikos would sell 7,000 pounds of coffee in the two Authentica shops. Those two shops were designed to serve the travelers who have been arriving and departing by the millions for the last two decades. We entered into supply contracts based on those projections, and invested in the infrastructure to make it happen. We were on track, through mid-March, to meet the projections. Needless to say, now that will not happen as planned.

We may yet get to 7,000 pounds of coffee sold in 2020. With 4+ months to go, with the website ready to go live and the roaster fired up we will see how quickly we can build a community to support this particular form of agriculture.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Brunca

We have mentioned this region previously, showing where our organic coffee comes from. Brunca is, from my experience, the region most people would neglect to name if quizzed on listing all of Costa Rica’s coffee-growing zones. And while no one would claim it is racing to lead the pack in awareness, it is the region with the oldest certified organic coffee estate in the hemisphere, and if only for that reason, I think its future is bright:

BruncaCoffeeThe beverage’s taste ranges from the very soft, coming from the low and middle areas, to the sweet and complex citrus flavor of the higher areas of Pérez Zeledón and Coto Brus. Light aromas stand out, with fragrances similar to orange flowers and coffee jasmine.

Brunca is a region located in the south of Costa Rica and comprises the Coto Brus, Buenos Aires and Pérez Zeledón cantons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tres Rios

Tomorrow I will highlight a video showing one final region classified by the Costa Rica Coffee Institute. Yesterday I linked to a video of one of the lesser known regions; today, the smallest but historically most prestigious region:

TresRiosCoffeeIts green color has characteristic blue shades. A full-bodied beverage which guarantees, among other features, a pleasant long-lasting aftertaste. A fine and balanced acidity mixed with sweet notes.

Tres Ríos is located a few kilometers east of the capital of Costa Rica, San José.  Its origin dates back to 1820, with the expansion of the coffee area from the Central Valley to other provinces, which grew strongly during the 1840s and until the middle of the century. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Turrialba

From the Central Valley, go due east. You will cross into Cartago province and go through one of the most verdant agricultural zones in the country. If you are lucky to have a sunny day, the variations on green will dazzle you. Irazu volcano will be on your left, due north. When you have driven for about two hours you will arrive in Turrialba:

TurrialbaCoffeeIn this beautiful valley, the early ripening of coffee, extended by multiple flowerings resulting from constant rains, provides special conditions for the bean, which is characterized by its large size. Turrialba coffee is cherished because it supplies both the national and international markets early. The cup is characterized by a mild acidity, light body, and a delicate and soft aroma. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Central Valley

Organikos, the enterprise and its first regenerative agriculture project, is located in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. Also, one of the two Authentica shops is located on a Central Valley coffee hacienda, so we have multiple reasons to favor this region over others. But, no. It is just one more important part of the mix that makes up this country’s remarkably diverse coffee terrain:

CentralValleyCoffeeIn general, Central Valley beans produce well-balanced cups, with flavors such as chocolate and fruits and aromas including honey , among others. Its intensity varies depending on the altitude where the crop is established and may be medium to strong.

The Central Valley is composed of the provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. It is the most highly populated region of Costa Rica, where the capital, San José, is located. Here, coffee plantations were first established and were then taken to the other seven coffee growing regions. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: West Valley

When we talk of shade-grown coffee terrain, the Western Valley of Costa Rica has the classic look that would come to mind for many, as per the video above. The Costa Rica Coffee Institute describes the coffee from this region, which recently has been the “hot stuff” among coffee specialists, in this way:

WestValleyCoffeeFlavors range from traditional and beloved chocolate notes to a more complex selection, where good tasters can find citrus-like flavors such as orange, in addition to peach, honey and vanilla, among others. This is all in line with good fruit harvesting and processing practices.

Inhabitants of San Ramón, Palmares, Naranjo, Grecia, Atenas, Valverde Vega and Alfaro Ruiz in the province of Alajuela, in the Western Valley, enjoy a pleasant climate throughout the year, with well-defined dry and rainy seasons. Continue reading

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Guanacaste

The Costa Rica Coffee Institute, we believe, is a very important factor in the success of the country’s coffee sector, with the Tarrazu region leveraging the Institute’s resources more effectively than most. This, in turn, has played a role in Tarrazu’s exceptional success with its own regional cooperatives. Good growing conditions, of course, are the most important factor. But why else do some regions do so much better than other regions? What explains our neglect of the Orosi region during the first year of Organikos operations?

We have also neglected Guanacaste coffee region, but this seems more obviously based on its geography. If you have been to Costa Rica, as a statistical fact it is very likely you spent some of your time in the northwest of the country. Most visitors spend at least part of their vacation in this zone due to the exceptional beauty of the Pacific coast, especially as contrasted to the arid conditions just inland. It does not sound like coffee country. Read the Institute’s own description, where the bold section might throw off anyone, but the nuances that follow help understand why a closer look makes sense:

GuanacasteCoffeeHigh temperatures and a dry climate result in a bean that is long and soft when roasting. The drink is soft, full-bodied and lightly acid, with well-defined salty and bitter notes.

The Guanacaste region is characterized by the exploitation of coffee crops in small areas, distributed in the provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Alajuela (Sarapiquí and San Carlos). Coffee plantations are located between mountainous areas with the cool temperatures of the Central Volcanic and Guanacaste mountain ranges. Continue reading

Platform Name Change

La Paz Group, having sponsored and administered this site since its inception, was the name up top until yesterday. Now the name Organikos makes more sense up there. For those of you who have been following us for any length of time, this probably does not come as a surprise. We have been talking about Organikos more and more frequently in the last two years. In late August, 2019 La Paz Group opened two Authentica shops in Costa Rica and that is when and where Organikos started selling coffee. As Organikos prepares to sell coffee in both the USA and Costa Rica with its own virtual shop, sponsorship of this platform makes sense. The themes–entrepreneurial conservation especially, and you can see the others on the right column–remain the same. Thanks for visiting.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Orosi

One year ago, when we had completed all the cupping sessions, farm visits and decision-making about the 12 coffees we would start with, a couple regions were left out of our mix. One of them was Orosi, and there was no good reason other than our shelf space considerations. We will resume our search and find a coffee to represent Orosi in our offering soon.

Costa Rica Coffee Terrain: Tarrazu

Costa Rica has a remarkably diverse landscape for such a small country. And that diversity translates into an excellent variety of high quality coffees, each unique according to the region of origin, and the particular farms within those regions. We have chosen twelve coffees from the regions that international tasting competitions have consistently prized the most, including four single estate coffees that stand out for their quality. Continue reading

Curvy Berms, Seedlings & Fertile Earth

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Curvy berm

What looks like an elongated haystack curving downslope in this photo we call a berm. No hay there, just a mix of cut grass covering branches, logs, and such. The purpose of a berm, diagonally traversing this hill, is explained better by others. When we prune trees and bushes, cut grass, and find old logs on the land their biomass help build this berm. Recently we trimmed all our vetiver grass, a soil retention ally that grows waist-high in rows throughout our hills. We cut it back twice a year, and added it to the  top of the curvy berm.

PoroSeedlings

Poro seedlings

To the left of that berm are re-plantings of a type of palm that we had growing on the property already, which birds love for the orange fruit it provides and for nesting. Those 20 palms join the 30 banana and plantain trees on the flat area below, and the dozen or so citrus trees recently planted. The shade-providing and nitrogen-fixing tree called poro will be planted during the next waning moon cycle.

Poro

Poro trees, parents of the seedlings, with vetiver grass downslope

We have collected hundreds of seedlings from the poro trees originally planted when this land was part of a coffee farm.

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This rainbow reminded me to document the work on the land where the bees are, and where the coffee will be. For now, just a quick note. On the lower left of the photo above you can see where I have been using a pickax to loosen soil, dark and rich and teeming with earthworms, for planting in between the rows of bananas. I last cleared this space before we moved to Croatia in 2006. The grasses and vines that occupied this space for the intervening years until recent months, now our enemy for growing plants we favor, have performed an amazing ecosystem service. The earthworms and smell of the soil tell me that.

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End of day, sunset time, back on the terrace of our home, an unexpected spectacle. In the photo below, which is looking due east, the sun is coming from the west, hitting Irazu volcano and lighting it up in such a way that it almost looks like golden lava is flowing down its cone. I’ll take that view, with thanks to whatever caused it.

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Sunset-illuminated Irazu volcano in the distance