After focussing on Ethiopia and Moplaco last month, we are proud to continue our focus on relationships in coffee sourcing. Our relationship with Heleanna and Moplaco is fairly new, but this month, the spotlight is on our original direct connection, from our first trip to origin in March 2014. This coffee is very special to the team here at La Cabra, we always await its arrival with baited breath, eager to taste the fruits of this year’s harvest. The hard work and dedication shown by Mauricio Vindas at every stage of coffee production is obvious in the cup, and has rendered his farm name almost iconic within La Cabra - Altos.
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Our first meeting
We first met Mauricio by chance. In March 2014 we were in Tarrazu, travelling around farms as guests of Exclusive Coffees, an exporter based in the region. After the last farm visit, our driver had to make a quick errand to see a friend, whose child had broken his hip and couldn’t leave home. The driver dropped off a gift for the boy, while we made some conversation with his father. He was also a coffee farmer, he told us stories of his farm and of how his son wanted to become a barista. We shook hands and left, not thinking much more about the encounter. That was until the next day, when one of the cleanest naturals we had ever tasted jumped off the cupping table back at Exclusive’s lab. It turns out that the coffee we tasted had come from the farmer we had met the day before, Mauricio Vindas, who was not only a warm and welcoming man, but a highly skilled producer of coffee. We visited Altos again the next day, and bought our first couple of bags. The coffee was so well received back in Denmark that we returned to Costa Rica the next year to visit Mauricio and buy more coffee. And so the relationship has continued, visiting and cupping with Mauricio, watching his son continue to be inspired by his father’s work, tasting as the quality rises, and increasing the volume we purchase.
The Micro-Mill Revolution
Over the last 20 or so years, the coffee market in Costa Rica has been in a state of upheaval, in a process dubbed the Micro-Mill Revolution. A lot has been written recently about the very low C-market price for coffee, the base commodity price for green coffee, decided in New York based on speculation, supply and demand. The price is currently less than $1 per pound, below the cost of production for many producers, causing them to rethink their business models, and in some cases consider their involvement in the coffee industry at all. This is a very tough time for coffee producers, and although we and many other specialty roasters pay far above the market price for all of our coffees, and don’t rely on the market price when agreeing what to pay a producer, even as a whole are a very small part of the industry. A market price this low creates a completely unsustainable industry, and finding a way through this crisis is a present and serious concern for everyone in coffee. The last time the price was this low was in the late 90’s, which triggered the changing market in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica the cost of production is somewhat higher than in most surrounding countries, the tree stock is mainly of high quality but low yielding varietals, which need lots of external inputs to grow well. Costa Rica is also a slightly more developed country than some others in Central America, so the coffee pickers and farm workers here also demand a higher wage. All of this meant that the coffee producers of Costa Rica needed to dramatically lower their cost of production, which some did, or find a way to break free of the grip of the commodity market price. By processing and milling coffees themselves, the farmers were able to keep much more of the value of their green coffee than by delivering cherry to huge mega-mills, which were blending coffees together, taking a cut, and selling at the very low commodity price. Many farmers began banding together and exporting coffees themselves, dealing directly with coffee roasters to maximise the value they could receive for their work. Excitingly for us, this also gives much more traceability of exactly where lots come from, and how they are grown and processed. The farmers are able to have total control over important stages of the coffee production process, including fermentation and drying, allowing for more experimentation, producing small boutique lots which are kept separated for the waiting specialty coffee sector. The micro-mill revolution was also in part spurred on by environmental pressures, water and electricity are a scarce commodities in the coffee growing lands of Costa Rica. The new smaller mills were much more efficient and used new methods such as honey processing, which creates less of a drain on the precious natural resources of these beautiful and remote regions. Some of the older and larger mills used to power down at dinner time to allow the surrounding villages enough electricity to prepare food, such was the scarcity of resources in the 90’s.
Now, the micro-mill revolution has fully taken hold in Costa Rica. Small farmers wet mill coffees on their farms, and share knowledge on fermentation and drying methods, new varietals and fertilisers. Dry mills are built to keep separation, and maintain traceability of micro-lots from tree to roaster. This leads back to our relationship with Mauricio. He ferments and dries all of his own coffee, allowing him complete control over this important stage of the coffee process. For years he has produced some of the best naturals we have ever tasted, but this year he started to experiment with tweaks to the process. A few of these we have even given advice on during our visit to the farm this year, and we are excited to taste the first production roasts of these soon. Mauricio has also experimented with separating and processing different varietals on the farm, which we have purchased very limited amounts of. In total we have 5 different processes and 3 different varietals, all grown at Altos. We are excited that the trust built between Mauricio and ourselves over the last 4 years has led to this point, where we are able to participate in his experimentation, and showcase a wide view of his work to so many of those who truly appreciate it. Look out for more from Mauricio in the coming weeks.
Both coffees in your pack this month are grown at Altos, from Mauricio’s stock of the Catuai varietal. Altos del Abejonal sits at 1800 metres above sea level in the Tarrazu region, only 70 kilometres south of the Costa Rican capital San Jose. The Talamanca Sierra runs through the region, with peaks of above 3000 masl. The farm is also close to the regional capital of San Marcos, which sits at 1350 masl and is home to 9000 people, providing the hub to an area famous for its high quality coffee production. The volcanic soil and afternoon cloud cover in the region provides the perfect conditions for Mauricio to produce excellent coffees at Altos. The difference between your two coffees this month is in the fermentation. We have included the natural processed Catuai, the coffee that first led to our relationship with Altos, which is showcasing it’s classic distinct blueberry jam flavour. This coffee is picked ripe and dried in cherry on raised beds for 21 days, before dry milling. The second coffee this month is a white honey processed lot. Honey processing is popular in Costa Rica as an alternative to washed processing, providing a cleaner cup with more acidic notes than a natural coffee, but with a much lower water usage than traditional washed processing. At Altos, the ripe cherries are first run through Mauricio’s Penagos Eco-Pulper, which even further reduces water and electricity usage at his micro-mill. The amount of mucilage left on the cherry will control the amount of influence the fruit has on the coffee as it dries. More mucilage means a flavour profile closer to a natural coffee, ripe, sweet and heavy, less mucilage means closer to a washed coffee, higher acidity, more tea-like coffees. The colour of the honey normally describes the amount of mucilage left on the seed, white, yellow, red, black, in order of increasing mucilage. Mauricio accomplishes his white honey process by setting the jaws of the pulper to their tightest setting, removing almost all of the mucilage from the seeds before they are laid out on drying beds to dry slowly for around 14 days. This coffee shows a different side of the Altos terroir, still noticeably sweet, but with a higher acidity reminiscent of lemon, and some clean roasted hazelnut notes.
We hope you can join us in appreciating Mauricio’s work this month, and that the wait until next year’s harvest isn’t too long.
Stay bright and curious