The pin-pricks of coffee’s tiny guardian mosquitos remind me that in the dense, diminutive forest of it’s mountainsides I am a guest, and its harvesters are armored with long sleeves and t-shirts around their heads appearing like so many muslim women, faces protruding from a habit of Hanes. Like soldiers waiting to be called upon to defend the coffee. I skirt amongst outstretched branches, a turnstile of spindly sticks and corrugated leaves, the smallest of which have a thick, rubbery texture that seem to transmit to me the health and wellbeing of the plant when I caress its surfaces as one in love.
They ask me why I touch the leaves that way.
I like to feel them.
They ask if I have children.
The coffee trees are my children.
They say I have a lot of children.
I love coffee. It’s fruit is a life-force I pluck with earnestness and purpose. I select the ripe cherries intently and pop them in my mouth for a chew on the fibrous skin and I tuck the twin seeds in my cheek to taste its slimy fructose-covered shell, like a chipmunk storing up for winter. Or I pop them in my blue jeans pocket, filling with seeds of the Maragogipe or cherry of the Yellow Caturra. Amongst millions of trees, each bearing over a thousand cherries, they ask why I put several in my pockets.
These are magical beans.
They think I am crazy.
I look into the eyes of the coffee picker and I ask her name and she says Claudia. She tells me she is thirty years old. I ask her how long she has been picking coffee and she tells me, “All of my life.” I tell her she is beautiful.
I examine the strong yet delicate hands of the farmer whose skin is creased with a lifeline that parallels the family tree of his coffee. The sticky stains of coffee juice show upon his clothes and the knowing way he manages the harvest.
And the processing of our coffee crisscrosses cultures and interweaves several centuries of rudimentary practices. I ask, when was the contemporary machine invented that removes the skins of the cherry and which is so pervasive across the coffee washing stations throughout the world. They tell me around 1650, when the Dutch took coffee from the arid mountains of Yemen and planted it in the island rainforests of Indonesia. An enduring method and machine, invented of necessity by interlopers.
The history of the process is the history of the cup. From the port of Mocha in Yemen to Java, Indonesia, the world’s oldest blend was born. The traditional dry process of Yemen and Ethiopia yields distinctly different flavors than the wet process that enabled coffee cultivation to be spread throughout the world. The colors and fragrances of these unroasted, processed coffees trickle through my fingers and into my nose as I sift through my burlap meditation garden.
Coffee is the history of bondage and freedom. Of the slavery once predominant in plantations of French and English and Dutch colonies and of the uprising of the suppressed. In roasting coffee, as the color changes from green to straw to tan and the aromas evolve, the coffee is absorbing the heat from its environment in the roasting drum. But at a certain time and temperature in the cycle, our coffee begins to rise up exothermically, audibly snapping and releasing energy in a vibrant celebration of life and liberty.
I snoop around a coffee mill and I feel the tears in the plastic mesh flooring of a raised bed built for a special project of naturals just for me. A European roaster inquires curiously but conservatively, and I ask if he is interested in the natural.
NO, he snaps.
They tell me someday my palate will mature and I won’t like those coffees any more.
I think, maybe my respect for mankind will mature someday and I won’t like freedom or diversity any more. And I’ll take my elite cupping spoon to Costa Rica to subdue the coffees under one standard profile. Should we not question the status quo and ride away in container ships back to San Francisco, our bland, unwavering coffees barely allowed to reach that exothermic crack before being put down, hushed.
In Costa Rica, coffee transformed from ornamental garden plant into the chief export in the mid-1800s.
Seeing a weakness in the recently-independent states of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, a privateer named William Walker gathered a small army and set sail from San Francisco to make slave states of those emerging countries. His success in Nicaragua was quelled by an uprising of meager but impassioned farmers from the rolling countryside of northern Costa Rica. The impromptu civil defense drove the pirates back into Nicaragua, trapped in a hostel in the town of Rivas. One young farm boy-turned-drummer boy from the town of Alajuela charged the hostel and set fire to its foundations, laying waste to the fortress and sending Walker and his cohorts fleeing to Honduras where they were summarily executed by firing squad.
Inspired by the young Alajuelan, Juan Santamaria, whose nickname was El Erizo, we pay homage to his bravery and forthrightness. Our first special coffee for this holiday season, El Erizo, is a departure from the pent-up standards espoused by San Franciscans, where they roast only washed coffees and only until they begin to hear the coffee cry out, whereas the voices of the past make them nervous and the emerging uniqueness of flavors, of freedom, are dismissed, enslaved. And we burn down those walls and release the sweetness and amazing flavors within the coffee, within the farm boy who planted and picked the coffee. With Thanksgiving we offer this rare treat - a Honey Process from Alajuela that tastes, in all my experience, like a beautiful natural.
They ask me why I love the coffee.
It personifies freedom.