Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Story by William Duckwall
There are many interesting spots to explore within a short drive of San José. Today I am writing about one that my wife and I visited recently – a coffee farm. I suppose every expat and every tourist in Costa Rica has already visited a coffee farm. Whenever friends and family visit, it’s a mandatory excursion. This one – the Starbucks Hacienda Alsacia Coffee Farm – is a little different. An expat resident friend recommended it to us. I confess that my first reaction was tepid – “hmm, another coffee tour.” I’ve taken this tour twice now, and am looking for an excuse to go again.
Coffee – personally, I hardly touched coffee until I went to college, and needed to stay up all night to finish term papers, entirely due to my own procrastination. My mother was old school, and believed that coffee was for not for children or adolescents. She voiced some vague concern about stunting one’s growth. In hindsight, I think she just didn’t want her two sons to be more rambunctious than we already were. Ticos on the other hand – my local friends generally can’t remember when they started to drink coffee, as they started so very young.
There are two main varieties of coffee, arabica and robusta. Arabica is the variety preferred by most Westerners today, though robusta does have a following. Back when I started, in the 60’s and 70’s, the main supermarket brands were generally blends of the two varieties together. I wasn’t very discerning at the time – coffee that had spent all morning in a percolator was still acceptable, as I was mostly after the caffeine boost. I think a lot of the country shared that thinking. Any cup of joe was better than nothing, and deficiencies could be masked with enough Cremora and sugar.
My outlook has changed. California has a coffee shop on every block, all serving 100% arabica coffee. In Costa Rica, every restaurant serves good local coffee, and it’s all 100% arabica; it isn’t even legal to grow the robusta variety in Costa Rica! (The growers were in general agreement to shun robusta, in favor of producing only the higher-priced arabica. It became a law in the 1980’s.) In the 1950’s of my youth, coffee was more of a commodity – like potatoes or flour. Now the coffee market is more like the wine market, with attention to seasonal weather, variations from farm to farm, and the particulars of aging and roasting,
Arabica grows at higher elevations, generally from 2000 to 6000 feet elevation. Robusta can grow in the tropical lowlands, where Costa Rica typically grows bananas. Robusta is a hardier plant, more disease resistant than arabica, and gives a higher yield per acre, with a higher caffeine content, nearly twice the caffeine of arabica. But, robusta is more earthy and bitter – described as a more “acquired” flavor, whereas arabica is milder and more aromatic. The big coffee chains in the US, even including McDonalds, serve 100% arabica coffee.
Robusta is popular in Vietnam, which grows mostly that variety. Coffee there is often served with condensed milk. Robusta’s lingering bad reputation comes from its use in instant coffee. But robusta has its devotees, who relish the high caffeine levels, and seek out 100% robusta beans, which often tout their stimulant levels with names like Biohazard and Cannonball. I’ll just note in passing that Cardiac Arrythmia hasn’t been trademarked yet.
I shouldn’t be dismissive of robusta. Espresso blends often include a sizeable percentage of robusta (for improved crema – the foamy top layer). Also, a quick browse of the internet reveals many scholarly articles about cross breeding the two varieties, with the goal of producing plants with arabica flavor and robusta hardiness. Arabica is coffea arabica; robusta is coffea canephora. The two are different species, but both in the genus coffea; both originated in Africa (arabica in Ethiopia, robusta in central Africa – the Congo). It is quite possible that we will all be drinking coffee from one of these hybrids in the coming years.
Coffee has played a central role in Costa Rica’s history. The first arabica plants were brought in from Cuba before 1800. Exports started at about the time of independence in 1821, and overtook other agricultural exports – tobacco, sugar, cacao – by the end of the decade. The iconic ox carts of Costa Rica were primarily used to transport coffee from the central valley to the port at Puntarenas, a lengthy journey of ten days or more. The profits from the grano de oro, or “golden bean” brought prosperity, lifted rural farmers out of poverty, and created the wealth that led in the 1890’s to the construction of the railroad to the Atlantic, and the National Theater in San José.
Over the two centuries of coffee cultivation in Costa Rica, gradual improvements in cultivation have steadily improved the crop yield per acre, and the overall production of coffee in the country. The mission of Starbuck’s Hacienda Alsacia is to continue and accelerate this evolution: create best practices to make growing coffee more profitable for small-scale farms; develop the next generation of disease-resistant, high-quality coffee; and to share information and resources freely with farmers around the world. Think of Alsacia as more of a research and development center, not as a farm focused directly on coffee production.
Coffee is very different from most agricultural products; more than 95% of the world’s specialty coffee farmers (Starbucks’ suppliers) are small operators, with less than 12 hectares (30 acres) in cultivation. Many are eking out minimal profits. Hacienda Alsacia is focused on these farmers, trying to keep them in business. (Costa Rica lost about 25% of its roughly 40,000 small coffee farms during the pandemic.) The best approaches to planting, fertilizing, and soil testing are developed and documented here. Additionally, new varieties of coffee are being developed by selective breeding, introducing resistance to disease, while improving flavor and yield. Fourteen hectares, out of 240 hectares total, is devoted to the selective breeding program. Starbucks operates another ten or twelve research centers, scattered around the coffee-growing regions of the world, as well as support centers to disseminate this information, and to distribute seeds for its new varieties, all free to the farmers. To date, fourteen new hybrids have been developed by Starbucks agronomists in Costa Rica.
And that’s what is different about this coffee tour. Instead of just a walk in the coffee fields and around the processing equipment, you’ll get a deeper look at the details of cultivation and the development of new varieties. The tour goes pretty rapidly, but the guides have a depth of knowledge, and they are happy to go into more detail if questioned.
First things first – Finca Alsacia is at 5,000 feet, a little cooler than San José. You may want a light jacket or sweater. Also, like most coffee fincas, Alsacia is in a volcanic, mountainous area (a little south of Poas), and the final half hour of your drive will be on little twisty roads. Total driving time is about an hour from San José. Tours last 1.5 hours, and start as early as 8 AM, and as late as 3:30 PM. Price per person ranges from $15 to $30, depending on age and residency/citizenship status. Tours are offered in English, and in Spanish. It’s best to book online; that will ensure that you arrive when a tour in your preferred language is available. Go to https://www.starbuckscoffeefarm.com
The land has been a coffee farm since 1970. It was not exactly thriving when Starbucks purchased it in 2013. They revamped the operation, with careful attention to soil testing, fertilizing as needed, replanting – all with the ultimate goal of sustainably producing coffee, in a way that could be replicated by small farms worldwide.
Is organic production possible? The problem is pathogens, the most serious being a fungus called coffee rust. I asked our guide Mario about rust, and a few minutes later he pulled off a leaf from a plant up the slope that was infected. Parts of the leaf were covered with a rusty colored dust – the spores of the fungus. Untreated, I was told, the fungus can wipe out an entire farm in less than a year. It would be difficult to control without fungicides.
The coffee tour starts with a look at the life cycle of a coffee plant. A seed sprouts in two months. After eighteen months, the plant will be about two feet tall. In three to four years, the plant begins producing “beans”. The beans are really a fruit, referred to in the industry as “cherries”, as they are red and roughly cherry-sized when ready to pick. A coffee plant will produce for about twenty-five years.
When researchers cross two varieties to produce a new improved strain exhibiting the best traits of both parents, it takes about twelve years of growing – testing – propagating to actually have enough seeds to begin distribution to growers. Starbucks agronomists started this process in Costa Rica in 2004, and have developed 13 new varieties which they now supply to farmers.
Another quick internet search reveals that researchers elsewhere are in the early stages of using CRISPR gene editing to produce better coffee plants. However you may feel about genetically modified organisms – GMOs – if you could grow Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee in your garden, you might become a fan. Gene editing could cut some time from the twelve-year development cycle – but much of the work of raising a few generations of plants and actually tasting the coffee would still remain. CRISPR was not mentioned on the tour. It would be interesting to know if Starbucks is exploring this option.
The plants produce a profusion of white jasmine-scented flowers, followed nine months later by the ripe cherries. At Hacienda Alsacia, the harvest runs from late October through March. The peak harvest is December – February. Here in Costa Rica, there is one harvest per year. There are a few places in the world, notably Colombia, that can produce two harvests.
Most of the workers needed to pick the coffee (by hand) are from Nicaragua. Starbucks pays two to three dollars per basket picked; workers typically pick ten to twenty baskets per day. Their benefits at Alsacia include housing, daycare, medical care, and lately (post pandemic) bus transportation from Nicaragua to the farm, and then back at the end of the season.
Initial processing – stripping off the flesh of the fruit – is all mechanical and rapid. Then the seeds are dried in the sun, taking four to seven days. The dry seeds are bagged, and allowed to age at least 60 days, and up to 10 months. Finally, the papery husk is removed from the seed, and the beans are sorted on the basis of color and general appearance. Some small operations do this by hand; Alsacia has automatic machinery for the task. The rejects are used to produce caffeine, as an ingredient for other drinks.
The husked seeds go on to be roasted, either locally, or at a coffee roaster anywhere in the world. Seven pounds of raw beans reduces to five pounds when roasted.
I did raise one other question. Years ago, on a coffee tour somewhere, I learned that generally a coffee cherry contains two seeds. Occasionally, a cherry only contains one, and in that case the seed is rounder, like a pea, as opposed to the double beans, which have a flat side where they grow squished together. Supposedly these peaberries have a richer, deeper flavor. When I asked an Alsacia guide about this, he looked at me like I was crazy. In his opinion, it is a marketing ploy, and not even a professional taster could tell the difference in a blind tasting. It isn’t the first time I’ve fallen for clever marketing.
The tour covers everything from the seed to the field, and all the processing steps, then on to a small demonstration roaster, and finally a tasting. To my wife’s chagrin, our guide encouraged us to slurp the coffee, as a way of spraying the coffee over all the taste receptors of one’s tongue simultaneously. I did my part with gusto.
Much of the tour is in or near the visitor center, which Starbucks added in 2017. It includes a terrace café, with tables looking out to a valley planted in coffee, and a lovely waterfall on one side. The coffee served here is from this farm, available at no other Starbucks in the world, and it is top quality. You will kick yourself if you don’t allow enough time to relax for an hour on the terrace, sipping a coffee, enjoying the view, and perhaps having a bite to eat. Don’t be misled into thinking this is just another Starbucks; this is their showpiece, a far more refined, sublime coffee experience than the standard Starbucks café. A coffee here is a good way to unwind after the drive up, or to fortify yourself before your return home. I had a café con leche before our tour, made with almond milk – something of a change for me. That particular cup stands out in my mind, both for the location, and the brew itself. The flimsiest pretext will bring me back for another visit.
Incidentally, if you’ve made it to Hacienda Alsacia, you’re less than a half hour away from another notable spot – the Ark Botanical Garden, Nursery, Restaurant, and Meadery (El Arca). I’ll write more about this spot in the future. For now, I’ll just say that you can have an excellent six course lunch featuring produce grown on the farm, while overlooking the Central Valley. The nursery offers many hard-to-find plants, both culinary and medicinal. The Ark is lower than Hacienda Alsacia, so it is more or less on the way back from Starbucks. Whet your appetite here https://theark.green