by Emma Chevalier
As spring unfolds here in the States, and the northern half of the earth leans toward the sun, fresh crop coffees from Central America return to make their annual debut on our menu. Peak harvest for most (with a few exceptions) of Central America’s higher altitude coffees occurs between January and March, beginning to make their way to you by May and June.
While we enjoy our coffees from the Southern Hemisphere until next fall (Gatare, Kalico, La Huaca), I’d like to introduce you to a few of the people who grow, mill, and export some of our upcoming offerings from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Sometimes we lean on the expertise of our import partners who have built strong networks of quality-driven producers. Sometimes we work more closely with the producers and millers themselves. The three portraits in this journal series are of the latter.
Certainly, similarities exist between the three – Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras share a number of industry parallels and cultural familiarities; but I’ve chosen instead to highlight some degree of variance. Each of our coffee offerings represents a different relationship. However convenient, a one-size-fits-all coffee origin narrative simply isn’t real.
Part One: Coopedota, A Model Coperative, takes place in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica, where we meet the co-op's leadership team and review its internal structure, profit model, membership requirements, and quality standards. In Part Two, we meet Fincas Mierisch, proprietors of 11 family estates mostly scattered throughout Nicaragua. Part Three finishes in Honduras on the Santa Bárbara mountain. There, we visit a private mill, Beneficio San Vicente, and a couple of independent, small scale producers.
Santa Maria de Dota
Coopedota, A Model Cooperative
Santa Maria de Dota is a quiet, salt of the earth town. Things wind down shortly after sunset, seeing as most people are up again with the sun, as most people here either work at the co-op or are very closely related to someone who does. Dota, as a region at large, lies in the steep slopes of the Sierra de Talamanca, just west of the Continental Divide. Surrounded by peaks, it sits directly adjacent to the eastern edge of its more famous counterpart, the Tarrazú Valley. The Talamanca stretch down into Panama, and are populated with montane rain forests along the way.
Coopedota was founded by 96 farmers in 1960. Over the past 58 years, the co-op has grown tremendously. It is considered one of the most organized farmer cooperatives in Costa Rica, and has gained global recognition for its success. I visited Coopedota at the beginning of February. Peak harvest was wrapping up. The coffees were fresh. I spent a few days cupping with the team, learning about the mill and Coopedota’s structure and internal quality initiatives. Another couple of days more were devoted to visiting farms throughout the region. The slopes are lush and illuminated.
Rows of coffee
The present membership consists of approximately 900 farmers, whose farms range from about 1 to 5 hectares each, and are scattered between about 1550 - 1950 masl. Caturra, red, and yellow catuaí are the most commonly cultivated varieties. To become a member of the cooperative, farmers must possess deeds in their own names. For the first year of membership, farms undergo a number of inspections and farmers pay additional fees with each cherry delivery. New members must cultivate 100% arabica varieties (no timor hybrids), and their farms must sit above 1500 masl. A significant portion of the pickers farmers hire are migrant farm workers from the country’s shared border with Panama.
Women from Costa Rica / Panama border
As of this year, Coopedota has a new General Manager, Luis Madrigal. Luis is preceded by the renowned Roberto Mata, who managed Coopedota for over twenty years. Roberto’s legacy as Coopedota’s manager helped to create its global reputation. Luis now manages a diversified leadership team, and he himself oversees green coffee sales for export. Monserrat Hernández, Coopedota’s Commercial Director, manages the co-op’s roasted coffee operation for the internal market and oversees the co-op’s cafe in town. She also contributes to Coopedota’s new marketing and brand platforms, and is one of our main contacts. Edgar Zúñiga, Director of Production, oversees mill and export operations. Carlos Rodríguez manages quality control in the lab. He cups every lot at multiple stages after harvest. Carlos and I spent a few days together at the cupping table. Luis, Monserrat, and Edgar spent some time cupping with us as well. In doing so, we were able to get on the same page in regards to quality preference and needs. Daniel Urenia, the co-op’s Lead Agronomist, manages grower-member relationships. Daniel, who is a farmer himself, offers farm-level consultation, a benefit to members of the cooperative.
Daniel tells me about the region
Daniel spends most of his time in the field. Driving through the farms with Daniel is a small lesson in agronomy. He drives slowly, eyes grazing the fields of coffee trees. He stops every few minutes to point out healthy trees, or branches heavy with red cherry. He takes notes of potential crop threats, like pest or disease issues. He stops to talk with farmers about success, potential, improvements, or obstacles. He tells me that this past year, Dota received too much unusual rain during the hurricane season (Harvey, Nate, Maria), which coincides with Central America’s coffee cherry maturation cycle. He points out bloated and split cherries on the branches and some that litter the ground. Farmers still succeed in producing ample quality cherry, but they now face new, and unexpected, environmental challenges.
Daniel in the field
Coopedota adheres to a strict internal grading system. Revelator purchases the top grade, “AAA.” To qualify as AAA coffee, cherry must be 100% ripe, the farmer must certify that no catimor is included, and it must cup well in the lab. Producers receive a base payment of 80% of standard price rate upon delivery, and receive the remainder throughout the year. Final price is determined later by quality. The cooperative’s overhead costs equal about 9% of revenue earned from coffee production, but the farmers see almost 100% return of sales, due to the additional dividends received throughout the year from the profit generated by the cafe, roasted sales, and tourism.
Moonrise over Dota
Come to the wet mill late in the afternoon, and you’ll see a long line of trucks waiting to deliver cherry well into the evening. Each lot remains separate to ensure full traceability. Cherry is delivered and weighed. Although Coopedota has begun to process some pulped natural and natural lots, most lots undergo traditional washing methods. The AAA lots are either dried on patios, raised beds in solar dryers (covered, greenhouse like structures), or on the rueda (picture a raised bed ferris wheel). Other grades are dried on patios, or in guardiolas (mechanical dryers).
Cherry delivery at dusk
The wet mill in the evening
Patios, Invernadero, Rueda
Shovels and parchment on patio
Under the guardiola
In March 2011, Coopedota attained carbon-neutral certification for the entire wet mill. It was the first coffee mill in the world to do so. Coopedota processes thousands of pounds of cherry per day during harvest, which requires high amounts of energy and water inputs in order to run the pulpers and tanks. As part of the certification process, greenhouse gas emissions associated with the life cycle of the coffee (production, transport, and sale) were reduced and offset to result in zero net emissions. Many carbon neutrality certifications focus on point-source, as opposed to life-cycle emissions. Certifications can be myopic, and although sustainability is a ship of many flags, the effort and leadership necessary to offset the co-op’s footprint is testament to the membership’s dedication and priorities. Dota as a region has also conserved more primary and secondary forest than neighboring zones.
Rainbow over the forest
We’ll be offering coffees sourced through Coopedota this spring, both as producer-focused, single origin offerings, and as a component in our upcoming seasonal blend, Tea Cake. These coffees are fruit-forward and easy to drink crowd-pleasers, with notes of fruit punch, vanilla, and milk chocolate. Stand by for these fresh arrivals coming soon, and keep an eye out for Part Two: Fincas Mierisch, 11 Family Estates.
Santa Maria de Dota by night