As a follow-up to our Field-Notes: Kenya, here’s another entry in our journal of what it’s like to visit Farmlevel from the points of view of two key members of our Streetlevel team; Kara Jeffery and Naida Lindberg. These two stellar Santa Cruz retail managers had the opportunity to ride-along with our Director of Coffee, Amanda Juris, on our buying trip in Costa Rica this Spring. Here’s how their first trip to origin unfolded...
Photos by Amanda Juris & Naida Lindberg
DAY 0 | MANIFESTING A DREAM
Kara | I’m going to Costa Rica! I’m going to origin! I could not stop telling myself it was real, that it was actually coming true!! Ever since I became a barista and started working with specialty coffee, I’ve dreamed of going to see coffee farms. To see, touch, smell, and taste the actual coffee plants myself. I have become so used to being on the customer facing side of life, that the prospect has always seemed like a distant dream. Until now. We boarded the airplane, and when everything was written and spoken in Spanish first, then English second, is when I started to feel like the dream was manifesting. The plane was a red-eye overnight flight that flew almost 7 hours. We had a layover in Panama, then flew another hour or so and arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica at 9:30 am. The time difference is only an hour ahead of PST, but I felt awful. I had failed to successfully catch any semblance of Z’s. But I had no time to catch up on any sleep, for it was time to start our first day in Costa Rica!
"...I started to feel like the dream was manifesting."
DAY 1 | READY. SET. GO!
Kara | Once we landed in Costa Rica were picked up by an old friend of Verve’s; Francisco Jose, who took us to the headquarters of Exclusive Coffees S.A. in San Jose. We were warmly greeted by the staff and I tasted my first coffee in Costa Rica, a sweet, chocolatey cup that was brewed in a french press and it did wonders for my energy levels and taste buds. Francisco Jose enchanted us with the tale of Exclusive Coffee’s direct trade program while also giving us a tour of HQ including the cupping lab and dry mill. He explained how and why they do what they do. They are proud of their role in helping farmers get their coffees to a micro mill to be processed and linking them to a buyer and helping cultivate a relationship between producers and buyers. It sounds simple enough, but without this relationship, they would get paid much less for growing such amazing, high-quality coffees year after year. Not only does Exclusive Coffees promote direct trade relationships, they also foster trainings and cupping with producers to ensure excellence. After that, we set up 2 cupping tables.
We cupped several coffees from a few different farms from the West Valley and Tarrazu regions. After breaking for a lunch of fried chicken (Costa Ricans LOVE their chicken) we resumed cupping even more coffees! We cupped 2 more tables, and I started feeling dizzy and dry-mouthed from tasting so much coffee (not to worry, it wasn’t all swallowed) and running on no sleep! Just as I felt I couldn’t taste another cup, we called it a day around 5 pm. We were driven to our hotel and checked in. Naida and I couldn’t have been more excited to set up our room for our 5-day stay! We made ourselves at home and after eating dinner, we were in bed and fast asleep by 9 pm.
Naida | The moment our plane's wheels hit the tarmac it was 'go-time'! Francisco was there to pick us up and we then headed to Exclusive Coffees. I quickly learned that Francisco was a name that many people shared. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, we met Francisco Mena who introduced us to a few others who were in town to buy coffee which included Madcap, Demitasse, and Feris Coffee. After what seemed like a lot of mingling, we all remembered that coffee was what brought us there so we jumped into a tour of Exclusive and we cupped several coffees that would be on offer for purchase later in the week with three local producers. I’ve never had a moment where I looked over and the very coffee I was looking to possibly purchase was cultivated by the person across from me.
"The moment our plane's wheels hit the tarmac it was 'go-time'!"
In that moment I was elated and somewhat overwhelmed with the supply chain and the various hands that play a part. Trying hard not to feel small, I dove in and scribbled everything I could taste as fast as I could and listen to Amanda carry the conversation because my two years of Spanish gave me not a damn thing to show for myself. I took about two rolls today of which I hope captured some of the many sights we saw and memorable interactions we had. As I snuggle into the inviting mattress that looks like a pillow of clouds compared to the rolled up jacket and airport window I was previously accustomed to I think of the mission and point that drives Francisco Mena and Exclusives coffees: “If I can help just one person, change one life, all of this work is worth it.”
DAY 2 | OUR FIRST COFFEE FARM VISIT!
Kara | We woke up bright and early, ready to experience our first coffee farm! Today was the day we got to drive to the West Valley region to visit the Sumava-Lourdes coffee farm. Sumava was our Costa Rican single origin espresso coffee in the cafes for a few months this past year and it was blowing my mind to be able to see where it was grown! Entering the gates to the farm felt so surreal! We were greeted by Francisco Mena, who is both the farm-owner of Sumava, and founding partner of Exclusive Coffees. He is by far the most charming, charismatic fellow we met during our visit to Costa Rica. He showed us his micro mill, and we were amazed by how the processing was so intricate, yet simple. The raised beds where the coffee gets dried was the first direct farm product we got to touch.
Naida and I couldn’t stop touching the coffee beans and letting them run and fall through our fingers! It was such a pleasant, soothing feeling. We were shown his young Gesha coffee trees. It was incredible to experience the way Francisco so wholeheartedly loves his trees. He literally kissed the leaves before our very eyes, to express his dedication to his product. He kisses at least one plant on his farm every day! I can now confidently say that love is one of the main ingredients to why Sumava coffee tastes so delicious. We also got to taste our first coffee cherry!
"We also got to taste our first coffee cherry! No one ever told me how good the fruit actually tastes! It was so sweet and juicy, almost like a rainier cherry."
No one ever told me how good the fruit actually tastes! It was so sweet and juicy, almost like a rainier cherry. Plus, it was super cool to see the beans that were inside the cherry. After we pet all his faithful farm dogs (there were literally at least 6 dogs that we met that lived on the farm), we got back in the car to drive all the way to the Tarrazu region where we would be sleeping overnight! Our chauffeur for the trip was Exclusive Coffee’s very own Wayner Jiminez, a quality control cupper and roaster who also showed us most of the sights and also showed us Costa Rica’s hottest music tracks. We soon were singing along to some songs, but none so much as the song “Despacito” a catchy club banger that had everyone attempting to sing in Spanish and dance in the car. That track will forever hold a place in my heart! We began the 3 hour long trip to Tarrazu, where we would stay at the mill at Montes de Oro. We sat in dead traffic for a long duration of our trip, and I’ll never forget how my bladder felt like it was going to explode, and finally when I ran into a Burger King and the cashier giggled at my broken attempt at Spanish, “Donde esta tu bano?!” and pointed down the hallway. It really is an interesting experience visiting a county where the first language is not English. We finally arrived at Montes de Oro, and found ourselves walking up to a small rustic wooden cabin that was so cozy inside. It consisted of 2 rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen/living area. Laura and Emilio "Milo" Gamboa made us feel right at home by cooking us a meal of chicken, rice, and beans. After some good conversation and getting to know Milo and Laura a bit better, we called it a night.
Naida | I started the day with continental breakfast which included eggs and some jugo (after falling asleep in all my clothes anything sounded good). Our ride arrived at the hotel lobby and we loaded up into the van with Waynar and headed to Sumava. This is home to one of my favorite coffees of last year so I was so excited to see how Francisco plans for harvest/post-harvest and how the operation goes on a day to day basis. We watched as he demonstrated his love for his coffee, by kissing each and every shrub. “Ladies, these are living things, and as living things, their survival depends on love. Love makes growth so I remind them of this every time I kiss them.”
"...these are living things, and as living things, their survival depends on love."
We had arrived after harvest so there weren’t many cherries left but the one's Kara and I could find, we picked and popped them into our mouths. I can safely say I like coffee at every stage. I put a few in my pocket for later and headed further up to the farm. After touring for a little, we headed to grab some of West Valley's own "queso palmito" that Amanda swore was life changing; she was so right. A block of cheese in, and not being able to wake a damn sloth up so I could finally see one in person, we headed to Montes De Oro where we would be sleeping for the night.
With the bridge under construction, it took hours but we finally arrived at the home of Milo and Laura who cooked us dinner and told us the story of how they started farming. Tomorrow will be a full day of going to farms and meeting with producers and jotting all these thoughts on the corner of a bunk bed is proving to be disastrous.
DAY 3 | WAKING UP AT A COFFEE FARM
Kara | We woke up and got out of our bunk beds to see the most beautiful view from our bedroom window. Coffee stretched over the hillsides for miles and miles. Amanda prepared us an Aeropress of coffee and Laura made us breakfast, then we walked outside the cabin to check out the micro mill that was just steps away. We were followed around the whole time by the friendliest, cutest, fattest cat; Lorenzo. He kept loudly meowing greetings at us, welcoming us to his farm home. We toured the mill and got an awesome close-up view of the depulper in action as well as the coffee getting raked in the raised drying beds. It was rad to see how everyone played such an important role in the process. We then all got in the car with Wayner and proceeded to the five other farms that Milo and Laura owned. I saw countless coffee plants that day. At last we got to the farm called Yasal - at the highest elevation yet - that Verve purchases from exclusively.
"Coffee stretched over the hillsides for miles and miles."
Here we were able to taste all the coffee cherries we wanted; They hadn’t begun harvesting yet and the trees were full of ripe cherries and, in cases, flowers. It was the most beautiful farm I had ever seen! Yasal was dramatic and full of character. It had the best views, being so high up. It also shared the space with avocados, or in Spanish; "aguacates", which was every Californian’s dream. The fog was starting to creep in while we explored, and it gave the place a misty, magical feel.
The last farm we traveled to was called La Bandera, and it was crazy getting there! The road was extremely narrow and steep, but we were rewarded with glimpses of waterfalls and gorgeous views. Diego, the producer at La Bandera was super friendly and showed us around his digs. His mill reminded me of giant Legos, because of the bright primary colors that it was painted with. Finally, we went home to shower off all the dust from our excursion and get ready for our big cupping day tomorrow!
Naida | Our stay at Montes Del Oro was so beautiful. When you wake up in such a place you can’t help but feel ready for the day and even more in love with what you do. That morning Laura and Milo told us more about their various farms from elevation to variety—to coffees grown exclusively for Verve. I’m quite fascinated with the growth process—so I picked Laura's brain for more info on how they successfully grew coffee. She told me that 75% of the plant's success lies in its roots. Each plant needs something different so as you can imagine, it’s important to know each variety you grow well. After seeing 5 of Milos farms, which included eating more cherries, making the car stop more times than I can count so I could take photos and walk down the side of a mountain in Santa Rosa where coffee was growing, we stopped at Diego Hidalgo’s farm, La Bandera. He had a tree house like building, that allowed us to look out across the mountain. We will see the effect his greenhouse drying and raised beds affect his coffee tomorrow when we select our final offerings.
DAY 4 | CUP TILL YOU DROP
Kara | We arrived at Exclusive Coffees HQ and were ready to taste as many coffees as we needed to, to ensure we selected the best lots possible to showcase on Verve’s upcoming Costa Rican menu. We tasted so many coffees from so many different farms that day; between 200 and 300 cups. We narrowed it down after quite a few tables, and after a considerable amount of time and tasting coffees, we arrived at our final table. This table was the hardest one for me because all the options were so delicious and had something to offer my palate. But we could only leave with a certain amount that we could buy. So we tasted and talked about all of them, and finally Amanda shook hands with Francisco Mena. We had made our decisions.
"We tasted so many coffees from so many different farms that day, between 200 and 300 cups."
At the end of the work day, Francisco gave Amanda, Naida, and I each a beautiful hardcover book about Costa Rican coffee. The photographs in it were incredible. We felt very special, and to top it off, he took us out to his favorite sports bar where we joined all the other people visiting Exclusive to buy coffee. We hung out with people from all over the world including our new friends from Madcap in Michigan, and people visiting from Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Berlin. We were even joined by more buyers from Colombia and Japan. It felt like such a rare and special gathering to all be joined together because of our passion for coffee. We were serenaded by a live violin and DJ set and I devoured the biggest burger I’ve ever seen. It was a really fun ending to our trip, and I felt myself feeling nostalgic and wondering when I would be able to return to this vibrant, beautiful country that is Costa Rica.
Naida | Our last official work day was a marathon for sure. We cupped around 200 cups, and tasted such delicious coffees each one with a story. I think this was the day where it all came full circle for me seed to cup. All and all, there were some I loved, some I didn’t but none not worth mentioning. I filled my notebook full of notes, scores and initial impressions. By the time, we reached the last table, Kara and I were just looking to Amanda to see what we would be taking home.
"This monumentally illuminated Farmlevel to Streetlevel for me."
I’m grateful to each person at Exclusive from the guys who roasted our coffee all day, to Waynar for driving a group of crazy Americans, to Adela - the sweet woman who cleaned in between each cupping faster than I could blink, and to those fried chicken drumsticks that got me through the day. This monumentally illuminated Farmlevel to Streetlevel for me. After the day was done we headed out to catch a drink and burger at a nearby pub. Little did we know, it was DJ and soccer night so the evening was indeed Costa Rica’s kiss to send us off.
We believe the coffee experience is our responsibility from seed to cup. Coffee is our craft, our ritual, our passion. It drives us and inspires us. With this simple truth and responsibility we are bridging the gap from farmlevel to streetlevel. We are verve. Made in santa cruz.