Off the Grid in Costa Rica: Our Trip to Hacienda La Amistad
Last month I had the opportunity to travel to Hacienda La Amistad, a fully self-sufficient, sustainable, off-the-grid organic farm in the depths of the Costa Rican rainforest. Accompanying Jim Cannell, founder of Jim’s Organic Coffee, and Nick Hardiman, Jims’ New England Regional Sales Manager, I was excited to see the inner workings and large scale production of the organic farm where we source our Costa Rican coffee.
We embarked on our trip to Costa Rica on December 3rd, leaving for Boston at the bright and early hour of 3:10 AM. Jim and I flew to San Jose, where we met up with sales manager Nick Hardiman. Nick had been in Costa Rica for a few days before we arrived, enjoying the beach - so needless to say, he was pretty relaxed, and ready for adventure. San Jose is a beautiful city, surrounded by mountain ranges. This area used to be a major coffee growing zone but as the population grew, coffee farms were moved away from the city.We boarded a small, brightly painted single engine plane that was heading south to the southern pacific region of Costa Rica. As we took off, our pilots warned that we were flying into bad weather. Naturally this made us all a bit nervous, but our pilots seemed confident, even casually using their cell phones for navigation as we flew through thick clouds and rain. Our descent into the town of Golfito had almost no visibility, with heavy cloud cover and the sky darkening as the sun set. Hats off to our amazing pilot who landed us safely on a dimly lit runaway - we had arrived! We were met by Roberto Montero, owner and operator of Hacienda La Amistad, as a light rain began to descend on the tarmac. Jim has known Roberto for well over a decade and it was an honor to see these two organic coffee pioneers and founders catching up - not just talking coffee, but also about life’s more important subjects, like family and travel. We piled into Roberto’s truck and began the 2-3 hour drive into the mountains, heading to the Cotos Brus County in the province of Puntarenas, Costa Rica. La Amistad operates not just as a farm but also as a lodge, and we were greeted with lemonade and a hearty meal of soup and rice.
Day two began with excitement and anticipation as to what the day would bring. The farm was incredibly bright and colorful in the morning, with a beautiful view, lush green trees and flowers, the chirping of birds, and howler monkeys calling through the treetops. We enjoyed a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of eggs, rice, beans, fried cheese and fruit. During breakfast we had in-depth discussion about organic and sustainable practices.
Roberto’s estate is unique in that it is totally self-sustainable in everything they do. They use hydro-electric power from the mountain streams to power the farm and the coffee plant. They forage for downed trees to keep the fires of the ovens burning, instead of cutting down healthy trees. And they maintain the biodiversity of the rainforest by not using fertilizers or pesticides, growing coffee in harmony in nature - a tradition that has been passed down through the generations. Roberto is proud to practice a safe work environment, free from the chemicals that conventional coffee farms use to spray on their plants. Finishing up our breakfast, Roberto took us on a walk-through of the facility to give us a better understanding of what it takes to maintain and run an organic coffee farm.
While the facility is where the coffee is processed, the coffee first grows in the thousands of acres of rainforest surrounding the estate. Arabica coffee plants are planted first as seedlings in a nursery, then replanted in the forest under the shade. Coffee ‘cherries’ grow in clusters along the branches of the coffee plants, first as hard green berries then ripening to a bright red, ready for picking. Inside each red cherry are two coffee beans. These cherries, gathered through selective picking, where workers pick by choosing red cherries over unripe green ones, are delivered to the wet mill for depulping. Roberto took us on a tour of the large wet mill on the farm, an impressive system of piping, waterways and troughs that move the coffee cherries throughout the depulping facility. The depulping occurs by putting the ripe cherries through a mill, removing the skin of the cherries to reveal the two beans inside. The beans are covered in a sugary substance, called mucilage.
Once depulped, the coffee beans are put into fermentations tanks. Through the process of fermentation, which last about 24 hours, the mucilage is removed. The coffee is then dried, with a moisture content of no more than 10-12%. The wet beans are placed inside giant tumble dryers to begin the drying process.
Dry coffee is moved into large silos where it will sit for a period time. Here, the coffee bean is still covered with a shell-like substance, or hull, that we call pergamino in Spanish, which means parchment. That parchment is removed with yet another milling process, revealing a green coffee bean. The dry, green coffee bean is sorted with a machine called a density sorter. The density sorter will remove low quality beans from high quality, denser beans. The lower quality beans will be separated, ready to be sold to local markets as instant coffee or in retail bags. The highest quality beans are separated for special export, a portion of which are purchased by Jim’s Organic Coffee, roasted as the Costa Rican single origin coffee that our customers know and love.
At each point in the processing, Roberto has implemented quality control standards to make sure that only the best, highest-quality organic coffee is produced and delivered. Even the lower quality coffee that is sold to local markets is far superior than non-organic conventional coffee. The reason for that is that his estate is located in a nutrient-rich environment that really sets La Amistad apart from other coffee farms. I was really taken aback by the entire process. It is clear that every step of the way, Hacienda La Amistad is taking the time, and often using more costly traditional methods, to grow and produce the very finest coffee. It makes me even more proud of the partnership that Jim has created with them over the years. Learn more:click here for Part 2 of this Travelogue - Jonathan Cartagena, Cupping Technician/Educator, Jim's Organic Coffee