The way from San Jose zigzags southward out of the city through the pass of the Cerros de Escazú toward the Tarrazu valley. Through the window of the shuttle I watched as we meandered the narrow streets, hardly realizing that the road would only grow more precarious.
Next to a car wash that looked nothing like the carnival rides of our own launderers stood a sleek new McDonald’s, stark amid all the garages and fruit stands, bars and impromptu futbol pitches. Everything—roosters, fenced yards, unattended kids—felt casually close to the curbless roadway.
Jim, our driver and host, had driven this road over the mountain Lord knows how many times. A versatile guy, Jim, he told a tale of how there ended up being so many Italians in Vera Cruz, the one in Mexico, while managing to avoid several packs of cyclists tackling the switchbacks of the Escazú foothills. The wind cooled as we climbed slowly into the clouds.
On the opposite hillside I saw uniform, green plants growing in plots the way I’d seen grapes grow on certain slopes in France and Spain. “Is that coffee?”
“Si,” Jim said.
“What are those other trees?”
Between the coffee trees every several feet were large fronds that appeared to sprout not from a trunk but somewhere invisible.
A Brittanica entry says that plantains account for about 85 percent of all banana cultivation worldwide. The next morning, the good cooks at the house would saute them for our breakfast.
The rainy season in Costa Rica begins in April and runs through November. Hence our arrival in late January. The thermometer would make 80 Fahrenheit before the sun dipped over the mountain. By then, the sheets would be turned back on our beds in the cabana behind the main house. I closed my eyes and saw birds of paradise, orange and purple like high-school basketball uniforms.
It was my first trip beyond the lip of the cup.
Hanging next to a dart board was a framed coffee sack: Hacienda La Minita … Cafe de Costa Rica. The sacks are woven from the fibers of the sisal plant, a kind of agave. In addition to the plantains, we ate ripe melon, papaya and pineapple, piña in Spanish but ananas in French—bananas minus the b.
The only good coffee I drank in Costa Rica was the Nicaraguan java and the caturra we’re selling as El Chele, both products of Nueva Segovia from one of Brian’s recent excursions. The man takes his coffee with him, like Johnny and his bag of apples. Brian is no stranger to La Minita, but strange is its grip on him. I saw him sitting on the porch steps, staring off into the volcanic abyss. He looked up.
“Every time I get around coffee trees I get emotional. Like home. You know?”
Vultures of some sort flew sorties over the steep valley. The banana trees gave me flashbacks of Vietnam War movies. A tall pine, planted a few years before Jim’s arrival, arched its back, bent by years of wind.
“If you get lost, look for that tree,” Jim said. “It’s our beacon. Try not to get lost.”
As with the lobsters of Scotland, all the good Costa Rican goes to higher-paying markets far from their native place. Even the house coffee reminded me nothing of the La Minita of far and recent memory.
My first taste of this famous Costa Rican dates to the late-Eighties, I can’t recall where. Brian says that Mecca—then in Brookside, now across from the Whole Foods—carried La Minita. I read somewhere that Bill McAlpin, who started the farm, drove his van up and down the east coast looking for a niche in the nascent single-origin market. Until then, it was all Bourbon Santos and mock-Kona, and dark beans spritzed with nut oils.
It’s easily the first single origin I knew by name. And now here I was, at origin, as they say.
“Try it,” Jim said. “It tastes sweet.”
In spite of the oranges growing all around, we drank orange juice from a jug. Still, I couldn’t resist yanking them from the tree. Every bite: sour! One scraped the enamel off my teeth and kicked me in the stomach. But Jim was not talking about sour oranges.
As with almonds, it’s the seed we’re interested in with coffee, not the fruit. That said, the cherry-red husk and pulp encasing the coffee seed tastes not at all unpleasant. I mean, don’t go eating a bowl of them.
Beneath the skin is the pulp. Squeeze a ripe one and out pop the cleaved twins (out of a particularly large cherry, I found four) of a seed. Surrounding the seed is the mucilage, parchment and silver skin, in that order from the outside in. The seed is the only thing to go into the roaster.
But first it has to be washed and dried, sorted and selected, bagged and tagged. In all, eight weeks from picking to packing. Picking on the side of a mountain is hard work, I can now attest, after spilling the beans.
“For years I couldn’t convince them to put their coffee in GrainPro,” Brian said, wiping parchment off his sleeve. GrainPro bags offer another protective layer. Skin, pulp, mucilage, parchment, silver skin, GrainPro, seed.
The mill at La Minita sits on the banks of the Tarrazu and uses its water in production, a continuous loop through which coffee, in all its incarnations, tumbles, spins and soaks. Eight weeks. Like Germans on vacation.
They were in the middle of the summer, a time of sun and fresh fruit and mostly empty coffee trees. In a couple of months, the tides would shift and bring rain that will soak the place until November. Then, bring on the zipliners.
We all piled back into the tall-sided truck and headed back up the hill. Dogs woke up from their naps to snap at beer-weary baristas from Bend and Portland and Lubbock. Along the way we passed real coffee pickers sorting their fruit by the side of the road. Actually, kind of in the road. They spread their cherries on wide cloths to sort them, green from red from deep purple.
“Somebody’s color blind,” Jim said, studying the fruit in my own basket. “It’s not your fault.”
Only women sort the final product, shoving the seeds into keepers and duds by size, shape and mostly color, because women tend to see color better than men. It’s tedious work, to this guy anyway.
Consider this: When you drink a cup of La Minita, you drink better coffee than the people at Hacienda La Minita drink. The beauty is in the balance: As with ballerinas, so with La Minita. Remember that next time you pull a bag from the merch wall or place a half-full cup in the bus tub. Easy to take for granted, as Huxley said in the latest episode of DoubleShot Folk.
Costa Rica, “rich coast,” is one of the few nations to exist without a standing army. That’s one way to measure rich.
- Mark Brown