Saturday, January 2, 2016

Monteverde Coffee Farm Tour: Life Monteverde



Well, this post was a long time coming. Life is beginning to settle (a little) with my two kidlets. Avy is almost two and Parker is almost seven months old - I can hardly believe how fast they are growing! I am hoping that 2016 will see a return to our travels as the kids are now accustomed to each other, and both are quite good travelers, other than the fact that Avy gets car sick every now and then. I would relish any advice on car sickness in children, because I'd like to do a road trip this summer with them down into the United States to check out some parks.

My family - a future troupe of travelers?

My husband would really like to spend some time in Costa Rica again this year, and since we've been chatting about it, I realized that I still haven't written about our amazing coffee farm tour from 2014! So here we go...

We visited Costa Rica in November of 2014 with our daughter when she was 10 months old. She was a fabulous traveler and we were so pleased. I was, on the other hand, not such a great traveler as I was suffering from extreme morning sickness, being pregnant with our son at the time. But that's another story. Despite the multiple stops we had to make on our drive to the cloud forest, we did eventually make it to Monteverde and spent one day touring Selvatura Adventure Park.

I had also booked another day trip to explore a real-life coffee farm, Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. It was a 'green' farm, so I was really interested in how they produced and maintained their product in such an environmentally sound fashion.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Touring a true-blue coffee farm sounded excellent to me!

A company van picked us up at our hotel and drove us out of town to the farm, which was located at the top of a relatively steep hill that provided a stunning view of the Monteverde valleys and slopes. My husband, daughter and I were the only participants that morning, and it was nice having a 'private' tour of the establishment. Apparently we were there between busy times, as the company offers work experience semesters for local and foreign agriculture and environmental studies students. Our guide was a former environmental studies student who liked the 'green' aspect of the farm and signed on to help increase its effectiveness.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Joey and Avy having a chat with our guide.

Our tour started in a mess hall-type building, where we sat for a short slide show depicting a brief history of farming and agriculture in the Monteverde region, naturally focusing on the coffee trade. I won't go into detail here, but it was interesting to hear how coffee plantations developed in the region. We didn't stay long here, as our daughter was getting squirmy, and since no one else was there to object, our guide decided to just give us a casual walking tour of the farm and threw the formal tour guidelines to the wind.

Unripe coffee beans on the bush

We wandered through the coffee fields, which featured a variety of older, more established plants growing among younger, smaller coffee plants. Every now and then, a lime or orange tree would tower above the coffee bushes.

There were several distinct, separate fields, but my favorite was the one planted right on the steep hillside with a fantastic view of the valley.

coffee tour Costa Rica
A coffee field with a view.

Our guide showed us the various stages of coffee bean maturation on the plant. Green beans were still immature and not ready for picking. Red or brown beans were ripe and ready to be harvested. We pulled a few red beans from the plants and our guide showed us how to skin them to find the coffee bean used for brewing inside.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Ripe coffee beans, picked fresh from the bush.

He explained that different coffee flavors come not only from roasting times, but also from how the bean is peeled. Some prefer an unpeeled bean, some prefer coffee beans with the sticky, sweet middle membrane intact (called a 'mucilage'), and some prefer a bean completely peeled and washed of the sweet membrane. He showed us how to scrape the bean of its outer layer to find the mucilage, and encouraged us to taste it. It was surprisingly sweet, and I was curious how this layer would affect the flavor of coffee. Naturally, I was due to find out during the course of the tour.

coffee tour Costa Rica
A coffee bean with its sticky, sweet mucilage still intact

One special field was being used to test a particular blight that affected coffee plants. The coffee farm does not use pesticides or herbicides, but tries to employ natural resistances to plant disease, and they were using this specific field as a testing ground. You could see which plants were infected, as they had shriveled, yellowed leaves with pock marks on them. Their beans were smaller and seemed dried out.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Evidence of coffee plant blight

The employees of the farm were open, friendly, welcoming, and very informative. The man harvesting the yuca was using the moon as his guide, harvesting during the waning moon, as the plants' water content is affected by the pull of the moon's gravity. If harvesting during the waning moon, the root lasts longer in storage, and the stems have more water present so it is easier to grow a new plant from the unharvested portion.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Harvesting yuca.

The farm also produces other plants, such as yuca, and sustained a small number of animals, such as pigs and chickens. They used the animals for food, and collected their waste for fertilizer. It was an extremely efficient and economical business, where nothing was wasted and everything had a purpose. Even the pigs' waste was useful - it was stored in a giant methane bag. From there, the methane gas was piped into the kitchen and used as gas for cooking.

Avy was not a fan of the chickens - one of them squawked and lunged at her and she cried for about fifteen minutes afterwards!

coffee tour Costa Rica
The methane gas is stored and used to power aspects of the farm.

After learning about the farm and its environs, we were led to a building which stored the picked coffee beans and layed them out to dry. The building also acted as a greenhouse for coffee tree seedlings. There, the guide showed us several trays which demonstrated just how versatile one coffee bean can be. One tray held unpeeled beans, dried in the sun and ready to roast. Another tray held beans that had been peeled down to the sweet mucilage. One tray had dried beans that had been completely peeled. They all had distinctive appearances, and I knew that they would also inevitably have very different tastes.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Dried beans ready to be roasted. Who knew they came in such a variety?

Finally, the farm portion of the tour ended back at the mess hall, and this time, our friendly yuca harvester was waiting for us. He had plates piled with fried plantains for us to snack on - Avy was a huge fan! (It was here I realized that cooking with methane made from pigs' waste was probably not meant for my home.)

The yuca harvester demonstrated how to brew coffee in a traditional Costa Rican brewer, made from wood (like the one at the farm) or dried yuca stalks (which is what we bought) and a cloth filtration bag. It was a very slow, methodical brew process, but the coffee it made was thick and rich and delicious! I can't remember what type of bean he ground for us, but it had a strong flavor that was perfectly complimented by the sweet plantains.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Brewing coffee the Costa Rican way

Once we'd had our fill, the two men (our guide and the yuca harvester) decided that instead of taking the giant tour van to the coffee mill, we'd all pile in their rickety farm truck so they could deliver some beans and kill two birds with one stone. We were super casual about the tour and didn't care at all - in fact, it was quite fun to be treated as a local instead of a formal guest, just piling into this dusty ol' truck! The two men loaded the truck bed while Joey, Avy and I climbed into the backseat. The two men hopped into the front seats, and we were off to the mill.

The ride was extremely bumpy, and I think it was Avy's favorite part! She giggled the entire ride while I just tried to keep from getting jostled right off the seat.

coffee tour Costa Rica
The coffee lab is part of the collective, where all local farmers have their beans roasted and packaged.

The mill, Monteverde Coffee Lab, is not part of the Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. We learned that it is a separate, independently-owned business that services all of the coffee farms in the area. Its main job is coffee quality control, and coffee farming education, but it also works with the smaller coffee farms to act as their roaster. When we arrived, however, we were once again the only ones there and got special, personalized treatment. It was fantastic.

The roast man was amazing. He was young, but so passionate about what he was doing it was infectious. He knew his stuff! He didn't speak English, but the speed and vehemence at which he spoke translated well enough. Our guide tried to translate everything, but we knew we were missing information because the roast master was going a mile a minute, he was so excited to share his knowledge.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable roast master.

We learned the difference between roasting a light roast, a medium roast and a dark roast. The light and medium roasts are the most difficult to make, because they require diligent attention on part of the roast master. He has to listen to the sounds of the beans as they roast, and take them out after the first few 'pops' before they get too dark. He had the system down, and roasted two batches of perfectly light roasted coffee while we watched all without referring to his charts (but he charted every batch anyway). Of the dark roasts, he said dismissively, "Anyone can burn coffee beans." A true artist!

coffee tour Costa Rica
An unroasted vs a roasted bean - the roasted beans expand to twice their original size.

It was quite fun watching the beans roast in the big metal vat. It was a like a giant popcorn machine, and indeed, the beans sound like popcorn as they heat. Chaff gets puffed up into a vent by the heat and air flow inside the roaster, and what is left after the process are pure and delicious smelling beans.

coffee tour Costa Rica
The roasting equipment at Monteverde Coffee Lab

I enjoyed the open bags of beans in the back room of the coffee lab. I liked to sink my hand deep inside the beans and feel their silkiness as I wiggled my fingers. There was something very alluring about working in that coffee lab, surrounded by the wonderful smell of roasted coffee beans, the cozy heat from the roasting vat, and the possibility to relax and sip delicious fresh coffee between customers. Oh yeah, and you live in Costa Rica. I seriously began to question my life's career choices.

coffee tasting Costa Rica
The inviting interior of Monteverde Coffee Lab

After the last batch was roasted, the roast master took us to the front room and introduced us to the idea of 'cupping', or coffee tasting. The roast master took five different beans, and had us first stir the coffee and smell the aroma, then taste the coffee to try and determine which roast and type of harvested bean the coffee was made from. I got three out of five.

My favorite coffee turned out to be the medium roast of the bean harvested with the mucilage membrane still attached. This roast is called "honey roast" and for good reason: it is sweetened by the membrane but not so much that it tastes like someone just added a packet of sugar to the brew. It left a delightful aftertaste as well. The most surprising coffee was made from the unpeeled, or natural, bean. Because the coffee bean's casing is left intact, the coffee actually tastes much more plant-like, and has a blackberry aftertaste.

monteverde coffee lab, cupping coffee
Our 'cupping' session - tasting one delicious coffee after another.

Our coffee tasting session ended a little early, because Avy, tempted by the mesmerizing liquids in the steaming hot cups, shoved her little hand inside of one. Luckily, it had been after quite a long period of coffee tasting, and the brews had cooled a little. She wasn't burned, but she was quite upset at the nasty surprise.

We left the tour laden with bags of coffee: Joey bought a medium roast fully-peeled bag of beans, and I chose to get some of the honey roast I liked so much. We also bought a bag of the natural roast because we knew no one would believe us that we had drank coffee that tasted like blackberries, without anything added to it to make it taste that way.

I highly recommend attending this coffee tour if you are in the Monteverde area. It is loaded with information about the region's history, biology, agriculture, and economics. You will learn about self-sustaining farm practices, harvesting rituals, and planting processes. You will get a first-hand look at how coffee is roasted and might even get to help. And of course, you get to drink delicious fresh coffee made locally and roasted before your own eyes. You can book with them here.

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