Costa Rican coffee (and Central American coffees in general) often represent a lot of the things we dislike about the coffee supply chain… A lot of farms in Central America are owned by wealthy westerners who have access to capital and marketing that allows them to sell their coffees at prices that indigenous people could never achieve. This coffee is different, and it represents the sort of de-colonisation of the coffee supply chain that we’re seeking to support. It also is a Obata varietal… A very rare tree that is often called the Gesha of Brazil. The beans are elongated just like a geisha would be, and exhibit many of the same floral characteristics. In this case, this naturally processed coffee is an absolute crowd pleaser with notes of Hazelnut, Papaya, and Brown Sugar. It tastes all the sweeter when you read the stunning and heartwarming story below.
Aquiares, one of Costa Rica’s largest and most historic coffee farms, sits high on the fertile slopes of Turrialba Volcano. Producing coffee continuously for over a century, the farm has developed an enduring model for growing high-quality Arabica coffee, protecting a stunning natural setting, and supporting a thriving local community of 1,800 people. Established by British farmers in 1890, Aquiares was one of the first estates to produce and export Costa Rican coffee. In 1971, the farm was purchased by its current owners -three families who have worked together with the farm´s staff and community to implement a modern model of sustainable agriculture. Don Alfonso took over farm management in 1992, and at the time he was new(ish) to coffee. However, one thread throughout his life has been a commitment to social justice. From the beginning, Don Alfonso made the social welfare of farm workers and the wider community one of his main priorities. His dedication has transformed the farm and the region.
The community of Aquiares - originally built to house workers on the estate - sits in the midst of the farm. Originally, the farm owned the houses where employees lived, creating home-insecurity amongst working families. In 1992, under Don Alfonso’s management, the farm started a project to enable people to own their own houses. Each worker was given a bonus for his or her years of service, lots were priced at a fraction of the local rate, and assistance was given to apply for the government house fund. At the beginning, workers thought it was too good to be true, but as the first families obtained their own homes, everyone followed suit. In a matter of three years, the town was brought to life. It was enriched with a deep feeling of security and achievement. Today, only around 15% of Aquiares residents work on the farm (many have gone on to become schoolteachers, doctors, etc) and 96% of these own their own home, giving them the option to take a path for their future that they, themselves, choose.
All Aquiares coffee is picked by hand to ensure consistent high quality. Microlots, such as this one, are picked by a special team of skilled harvesters who are paid well above the daily rate for their exceptional skill in picking the ripest cherries at each pass. Each tree is visited up to seven times during the harvest to ensure that only fully red ripe cherries are picked. The skilled hands of the pickers represent the farm’s most valuable asset. Pickers hail from the community of Aquiares, nearby towns, and even from the neighbouring country of Nicaragua. The farm ensures that all workers have a safe work environment and a comfortable place to live. Workers coming from further away can live in on-site housing and use a children’s day-care. The farm sponsors doctors’ visits for pickers and their families twice a week where nutritional health advice is also given. To take better care of its field workers, Aquiares has established firstof-its-kind physical therapy sessions and also a daily warm-up routine of exercise before work. Many pickers return each year, confirming success in providing a secure home in Aquiares.
Aquiares is strongly committed to, and has become an international leader in, environmental sustainability. The farm has long seen the connection between agricultural, environmental, and social health. By planting more than 50,000 shade trees, creating natural buffers around streams and water springs, preserving the river valleys as forest, planting along the contour, implementing integrated pest management systems and many other steps, Aquiares has demonstrated how to make ecological ideals a reality. For example, given that soil health is the most important factor for a successful farm, Aquiares takes many steps to naturally improve the farm’s volcanic soil. The organic matter from pruning and the leaf litter from the coffee and shade trees are left to feed soil microbes and provide organic nutrients.
The diversified shade trees (over 40 species) also cool the ground, slowing the ripening of the coffee, which allows for sugars from the mucilage to be fully absorbed by the bean, thus improving cup quality. The farm’s agricultural objective is to find synergies like these, where environmental health translates into coffee plant health, which ultimately contributes to a long-term stability in the production of high-quality coffee. The farm’s terrain varies from gently sloping to steep hills. Valleys between hills create microclimates that are ideal for growing mainly Caturra and grafted Arabica-Nemaya varieties. Although Aquiares is considered large under Central American standards, the farm’s belief is that it is crucial to tend to every individual coffee plant’s needs. Therefore, Aquiares utilizes a system of pruning each plant independently, instead of pruning by row or lot.
Through an intensive re-habilitation program, Aquiares has re-planted more than 400,000 coffee trees in small patches of existing fields. This rejuvenated the crop of trees and increased the land’s utilization. It also played a crucial role in the 2012 rust attack, as young plants resisted the disease better, slowing its spread. Its stringent environmental stewardship enabled the farm to achieve Rainforest Alliance Certification in 2003. In 2012, Aquiares became the first farm in Costa Rica to fulfil the requirements of the Rainforest Alliance Climate Module. This requires adhering to careful standards of greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, which are carefully tracked through each harvest season. This certification demonstrates that the farm’s low emissions do not meaningfully contribute to climate change.