When I was growing up back in the 1960’s the words “coffee shop” meant two things to me: there was the Greenwich Village counter-culture type spots that spawned folk musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez; and there was the more mundane Midwestern variety that was really more of a diner that served their percolated (bland) brew as something in which to dip your doughnut into as much as to drink and enjoy on its own. In either case, the thought of actually drinking the stuff had zero appeal to me. Then I got a job and started having to get up early.
Fast forwarding to the present, I would hook myself up by IV to a coffee dispenser if such an option were available. It was a subtle transition from a coffee cynic – to a coffee fiend – to a coffee critic, ultimately leading me to wonder how I got through college without it – I love the stuff. And it isn’t a caffeine addiction – I think it tastes great: The darker the better. No sugar, no milk, no cream.
So, when I got the chance to tour a coffee plantation on a recent trip to Costa Rica, I couldn’t pass it up. I was equally as excited to learn about the production of coffee as I was to get the anticipated free samples. Although the University of Minnesota has been successful in breeding a hardier grape for winemaking in our colder northern climate, to my knowledge that have no such success to grow a coffee bean here. Costa Rica is not the largest producer of coffee in the world, that distinction belonging to Brazil, but they will tell you that the coffee beans they grow are the best. They are the 10th largest producer of the Arabica bean, a variety considered by many to be the finest in the world.
The production of coffee prior to roasting is quite simple. In Costa Rica, the majority of coffee is hand-picked, mostly by migrant workers coming in from Nicaragua. Their most important task at that point is to only pick the ripe green coffee beans and not the red beans. That is why the process is still done by hand. After the coffee is picked and loaded in a basket it is then dumped into a truck which then transports the beans to a processing center. At the processing center the beans are dumped into a vat of water to clean, and also to perform an additional quality control step in separating the bad beans from the good. The pulp is also removed at this stage. After beans are sorted and cleaned, while still shelled, they are laid out in the sun to dry. A worker keeps raking them over and over to maintain even exposure to the sun. This step takes about 3 days.
The best beans are exported to other countries like the US. Costa Rica sells their lower quality beans to roasters within their own country. This isn’t because Costa Ricans can’t afford the better quality bean, it is because they load up their brewed coffee with so much milk and sugar that it doesn’t matter as much to them how good the coffee tastes. Contrary to popular belief, a dark roast coffee does not contain more caffeine that a medium or light roast. Actually, a dark roast contains slightly less caffeine but only at the decimal level. You can no longer blame that extra coffee buzz on a French roast since the roast removes some caffeine.
On the topic of caffeine, I was surprised to learn that the process of removing the caffeine is done overseas in Germany. I always assumed this step was done at the time of the roasting process. It is cheaper to ship it there rather than domestically because the company performing the decaffeination process pays for the freight. Their interest in doing this is for the caffeine extracted from the coffee. They use that pure pumped up caffeine to put into colas and high-energy drinks; kind of a symbiotic relationship.
Coffee has always had an important economic impact in Costa Rica. At one time it was taken by ox cart to a port on the Pacific and exported overseas. The ox cart is the Country’s national symbol. Since Europe was its main market at that time, it became essential to build a port on the Caribbean side of the country for easier access. Doing this required developing an economical means of transportation that would need to cross hundreds of miles of uncharted, malaria-laden jungle. It was discovered, and I hope humanely, that workers from the island of Jamaica had a natural resistance to the malaria virus. They built the railroad and ultimately settled in the port city of Limòn. The Costa Rican government contracted the services of an American entrepreneur, Minor Keith, to build a railway from the coffee plantations in the Central Valley to the coast.
When I travel I will make a priority to locate the closest Starbucks to my hotel. I get up early, order a Venti bold, and then catch up on my emails and news events of the day through their free Wi-Fi. Starbucks, as well as other chains and independent shops, is now the definition of a “coffee shop”. Almost no matter where you go now, you will find one close by, and with access to the rest of the world. While closely examining a nineteenth century Impressionist painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a visiting French student pointed out that there is a Starbucks in the train station that was the subject of the work of art. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez have been replaced by piped in music. The hot brown liquid they served in those old diner style coffee shops has been replaced by something dark, rich, and with a certain added mystique. That simple little green colored bean picked by hand by a person with limited knowledge of the concept of a coffee shop, has had a dramatic impact on our culture, and the economy of the entire world.