The Tarrazú and Candelaria rivers converge into a boulder-strewn flow at the foot of Hacienda La Minita, disappearing into more coffee country and carving up the highest elevation and highest quality coffee-producing regions in a land of coffee excellence. This entire area is known as the Tarrazú region, undulating between towns named for saints: San Marcos, Santa Marta, San Lorenzo, San Carlos, and all the other santos. In fact, the larger area encompassing Tarrazú and Dota and León Cortés Castro (named for a former president of the country) is called Los Santos because of the substantial number of towns named for saints. And the Tarrazú part of that is a veritable Mount of Olives, producing some of the finest coffees on the planet.
Every year when I visit La Minita, I lace up my running shoes and endeavor to run from the farmhouse at 4,500 feet down to the confluence of the two rivers at 3,000 feet, and back up in less than an hour. It’s hard to say how far it is. I’ve clocked it at both 4.5 miles and then 5.6 the following day. GPS can be sketchy on steep, winding mountain roads. My friends on the farm, Jose and Jhonny, always marvel at my runs, and probably wonder why the hell I would actually do that, asking how long it took me (and remembering how long it took me to ride my bike on that path back in 2005). This year I knocked down a lung-crushing 49 minutes.
The Candelaria River cuts the northern boundary of the farm and the Tarrazú marks the southern with a pie-shaped point on the western end where they meet and the Tarrazú empties into “Rio Grande Candelaria.” None of this is important except that these physical features on the landscape mark a separation between this and that. This side of the Candelaria is La Minita, while the other side is NOT La Minita. The Tarrazú marks the division between La Minita’s agriculture side and its processing side. Cross the Tarrazú in the back of a coffee truck (or on a cable suspension bridge) and you’ll find yourself at a large factory where the coffee cherries harvested on the opposing mountainside are stripped of their skins, washed of their meat, and dried in their shells before being sorted by density, size, color, and consistency. It’s a dramatically different scene from what’s happening among the shrubby Caturras and Typicas where Ngäbe-Buglé Indians from the comarca in Panama hand-pick ripe cherries from spindly, intertwined branches and drop them into baskets tied around their waists.
There are divisions, but the whole system works together toward the same end: to produce the best coffee we know how. Lest you think the humble harvester isn’t important in this whole quality calculation, let me explain another division: ripe vs unripe. Recolectores, as they’re called in Costa Rica, have a tough job. They’re required to only pick the ripe coffee and leave the unripe or half-ripe coffee on the tree. Oftentimes ripe and unripe cherries are in a large cluster all together on one branch, so the harvesters must dexterously pluck the red and leave the green. Each year at La Minita we taste the quality separations performed at the mill: first quality, second quality, third quality, and unripe coffee. The cups are both distinct and degrading. Only around 15% of the coffee on the farm makes the cut to be called “La Minita” and everything else is distinctly NOT La Minita. I once asked the head cupper, Sergio, what the most important part of the entire process is for ensuring the highest quality coffee. Without hesitation, he said, “Picking.” Because once the skin is stripped off the coffee cherries, you can never be sure that the green coffee will get sorted out, even through the fifteen (repeat: fifteen) quality separations that take place in the mill. So, arguably (and according to one of the most talented coffee tasters in the world), the coffee pickers have the most important job in ensuring top quality. Because the distinction between this and that is dramatic.
The first time I went to La Minita, that entire world of coffee production opened up to me. Prior to my visit, I’d only read about it and looked at pictures. I spent a few days on the farm and then explored the broader Los Santos region on my mountain bike. And during that time I came to know coffee from an entirely different perspective. I came to know the labor. I came to know the meticulous nature of it all. And I came to know a lot of the people involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm. And I came away with an immense appreciation for the work those people do on coffee farms and mills.
I came home from that trip and roasted another batch of La Minita, this time with more pride. Roasting coffee precisely is a very difficult task. La Minita makes it a bit easier by creating a near-perfect coffee that roasts consistently from batch to batch. But for me, there’s no “dark roast,” “medium roast,” or “light roast.” There’s a specific roast profile for each coffee, and to my palate it’s either over-roasted, under-roasted, or it’s roasted correctly. The divide is as stark as the Tarrazú River – you’re either on the farm, at the mill, or you’re in it. I vividly remember weighing out a portion of freshly roasted La Minita to brew, opening the hopper of the grinder, and hesitating before pouring the beans in to be ground. I stopped to make sure everything was right: the grind size, the weight, the brewer was hot and ready to go. The faces of all my new friends at the farm flashed through my mind and I remembered the hard work required by so many people in order to get this coffee ready to brew.
But I was on the other side of a much larger chasm than Rio Grande Candelaria. I live in a country where convenience is key and quality is scarce. I live during a time when information is doled out in tiny bites and greed inspires dishonesty and misinformation crafted to hawk sub-par wares to the unwary. I was serving a clientele brought up on the worst coffee and educated in Burger King-esque customer service. I’d already put my foot down to quash many commonly accepted coffee shop misbehaviors, refusing to let the customer disrespect me or my staff, the commitment I’d made or the product I believed I’d crafted properly. But this was different. The coffee I’d been handed was already front-loaded with sacrifice and meticulous efforts, and now some of the people involved in that were my friends. And I’ll be damned if someone is going to disrespect the hard work and sacrifice of a friend.
On our latest tour of La Minita, Mark took his first trip to a coffee farm and I tried to see it all through the lens of the uninitiated. I watched as it all unfolded before him as it had for me in 2005, and as it began to sink in we talked about what happens to this coffee back home. He said it made him want to stand next to the bus tub and drink whatever coffee was leftover in people’s cups. “It’s insulting,” he remarked. And that’s when it hit me. He got it. He understood what I felt when I came home in 2005. When I stood behind the counter and watched customers pour milk and sugar into this perfect cup. Stood and listened to customers who didn’t care about the coffee, who asked me to pre-grind the coffee, and never seemed to notice the sweetness in the cup from the pickers who only harvested ripe cherries and millers who sorted out the floaters and the quakers and the empties and the insect-damaged. The room full of ladies hand-sorting out the discolored or misshapen. It enraged me because it wasn’t just my craft they were disrespecting, it was the labor and care of hard working people 2,800 miles away. And that’s when they started calling me “The Coffee Nazi.”
I started this business to share excellent coffee with people. With as many people as possible. And then they said I cared more about coffee than people. But that’s because they don’t know the people behind the coffee, like I do. And if you don’t care about those people, there are a lot of other places you can drink coffee in Tulsa. Places where they don’t know where their coffee comes from, and don’t care. Places where they pretend to know the farmers but copy and paste from their broker’s website.
When I first flew to Costa Rica, I came back a different person. And this year when I ran down to the confluence of those remarkable rivers, I ran back up into a different region. Into Los Santos, a change in demarcation that excludes La Minita from the Tarrazú region altogether. Excludes the entire Tarrazú valley, actually. Like excluding Olivet from Judah. It’s a bastardization in nomenclature, but what’s in a name? They called me a nazi. I’m not a nazi; that bastard León Cortés Castro was. I’m more like a santo.