Know your Source – COFFEE

Coffee is one of those beverages that you either love or hate.  My first coffee experience was when I was 18 and floating around the Atlantic Ocean in the Navy.  I couldn’t stand it!  But grew quite fond of it as 4:30 AM comes mighty quick and coffee was the one thing that I looked forward to.  Regardless of where or when you had your first “cup of joe”, coffee has become an important part of our culture’s morning ritual.

The importance of coffee brought us to the realization that we need to be aware of where and how our coffee is grown.  We were facing questions from our guests referencing our lack of sourcing Fair Trade Coffee and we had no educational answer to give them as to why, until now!  Coffee quickly became the inaugural topic for “Know your Source”.  This is what we’ve learned:

Coffee Growing Regions

Our coffee comes from the very well established coffee growing regions of Costa Rica and Guatemala.  The company we source our beans from has been in business since 1967 and their standards in regards to planting, growing, harvesting and employee well-being are clearly defined.  In February 2010 I had the pleasure of visiting one of their plantations called Hacienda La Minita.  My primary focus on this trip was to become more knowledgeable about where our coffee is sourced.

La Minita is located in the coffee producing area called “Los Santos,” about 1½ hours drive south of San Jose.  The farm is located within the region from which fruit coffee is received by the Tarrazu coffee mills.   The coffee grown in the regions is considered a Tarrazu coffee, but they believe the geography and micro-climate of this farm produces a coffee that is much more balanced and flavorful than other Tarrazu coffees.

The plantation consists of a total of 1,200 acres of land of which 680 acres are currently in production.  Of the remaining 520 acres, there are 200 acres of natural forest preserve located on the south side of the farm that will never be brought into coffee production.

Although there is a section of the farm that approaches 6,000ft in altitude, the central block lies between 3,750ft and 5,000ft, the ideal altitude for growing coffee.  The farm faces the west, which allows for gradual warming in the morning and slow cooling in the evening.

Planting
Approximately 2,500 trees are planted per acre on the 680 acres of land currently in production.  The exact number  depends on the geography of the area being planted and the variety of trees used.  This results in a total of about 1,700,000 trees on the farm.

Nursery of Coffee Plants at La Minita Coffee Plantation

There is a five-year rotational pruning system in place.  Every fifth year, the coffee tree is cut down to approximately 20 inches in height, retaining the lower branches.  This will encourage the tree to begin new growth.  One year after this cutting, two primary shoots are selected for the next four years of production.  All of this work is performed by hand.  Each year roughly 350,000 trees are pruned.

After three cycles of pruning, fifteen years, the trees become exhausted and are replaced with trees from the La Minita nursery.  This nursery is located on a small, protected area of the farm.  The nursery trees are nurtured on the farm for one year prior to being transplanted to the main farm.  In a typical year, they transplant about 150,000 trees.

Growing
One crop of coffee is grown each year.  The cycle begins with the first rains of the year, which normally occur sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May.  The timing of the first rain is essential, for it is the rain that signals the trees to begin flowering.

Jamie Moore, Director of Sourcing and Sustainability

Approximately ten days after the initial rains, small honeysuckle-like flowers form on the trees.  The flowering is of critical importance to the coffee crop.  The node where each flower forms will produce a single coffee cherry.  Within this cherry are the coffee seeds which will become the coffee bean.  If the flowering is adversely affected by the weather pollination will not occur, no cherry will form, and there will be no coffee.

From the onset of the initial rains, they enter into seven month of rainy season.  During the rainy season, there will typically be four to six hours of rainfall every day.  These rains nurture the trees while encouraging the growth and development of the green coffee cherries.

The rains also encourage the growth of weeds among the coffee trees.  Since they don’t use herbicides to control weeds at La Minita, they hire contract labor who use machetes to clear the weeds by hand.  Each year, every acre of the farm is weeded three times.

With the end of the rainy season comes the ripening of the coffee cherries.  The large green cherries begin to turn either red or yellow and fill with the sweet miel (honey) that surrounds the seeds.  Only the ripe fruit is picked, leaving the still unripe fruit for subsequent pickings.  Most trees are picked up to five times to harvest the fruit.

People
La Minita has a core of 80 full time employees.  This includes; managers, farm workers, clerical staff, drivers and maintenance personnel.  All of these full time employees are provided housing on the farm for themselves and their families.   These core employees are augmented by approximately 150 contracted laborers to perform weed control and over 600 pickers during the harvest.

The plantation also assists their workers by actively supporting them in their lives outside of working hours.  They contribute matching funds to the workers’ association savings plans and each year the association organizes a bus trip to Golfito in Southern Costa Rica where large tax free purchases can be made.

In addition, a medical clinic is located on the farm near the administration building.  A doctor staffs the clinic two days a week to administer to the needs of the workers and their families.  Three days a week a dentist visits the farm to attend to the dental needs of the farm community.  The goal of this clinic is to provide preventative care.  Detailed records of the medical histories of every person on the farm are kept for future reference.

Know your Source
Our coffee isn’t labeled Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance.  After seeing this plantation first hand, it has convinced me that a label is not as important as knowing the source and having the knowledge of the practices that this prestigious plantation has instituted.  Fair Trade coffee is a wonderful program.  It has lofty goals and has certainly drawn attention to the plight of many poor and underprivileged workers.

We continually focus on finding the highest quality products while working directly with the growers and producers to ensure they are following high social and environmental standards.  We do that by asking many questions and visiting farms and production plants to see for ourselves how our products are produced.

We are firm believers of knowing the source of where our products are grown and raised.  I hope that you understand and appreciate the additional steps we take in selecting the products we use at  Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.  Look for more informative “know your source” documents in the future.

Until next time,
Jamie

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