By Stephanie Ratanas
Direct Trade is a term that we have only just begun to use at Dogwood. While our goals from the beginning were, and still are, to develop relationships with everyone involved with the coffee we select and roast, only now do we feel that we can call our relationships "direct trade." The first coffees we offered that we felt we could assign this term to were from Costa Rica. I visited in the first few months of Dogwood's existence, and in a whirlwind of visits to many farms and mills, I was overwhelmed with information and excitement about one part of the producing side of our industry. Back at home, we cupped samples from several of the mills I had visited, made some decisions and bought great coffees. While I had visited the farms and homes of these producers, shook hands and took photos--that wasn't nearly enough for me to feel like it was OK to define these coffees as "direct trade." Was I to expect that the people I had met would remember me, and that we had a relationship?
Over the course of offering the coffees from Helsar de Zarcero, La Lia and Don Sergio in the US, I heard feedback both directly from the producers and through Exclusive Coffees (the amazing exporter we work with in Costa Rica) that they appreciated the blog I had written about my first experience in Costa Rica, and that they did in fact remember meeting me. My recent visit back to the West Valley and Tarrazu regions reaffirmed that these relationships were real, and that we could continue to grow together and learn from each other about this industry we share.
The trip was short, just over a weekend-- but fulfilling and productive. We flew in to San Jose from Guatemala city Saturday morning. My friend Yiannis Taloumis of Taf Coffee in Athens, Greece accompanied me for the first day we were in Costa Rica. For the short flight in, I sat in business class and he sat in coach, which we both found amusing. I had spent the night before in the hotel bar and casino trying to play slot machines with Jared of Ladro, Ryan of Madcap and Anna of Coffee Hound and was running on less than two hours of sleep. All worth it of course. Francisco picked us up and we headed to Exclusive to jump into cupping.
The new boutique dry mill at Exclusive Coffees was up and running, so I held my breath (recently confirmed green coffee allergy) and we watched it in action for a bit before heading upstairs. We cupped two full tables to taste what the harvest had produced so far. I ate at least ten cheese filled crackers during the cupping to keep my brain in line.
After cupping and pulling some shots on the new Linea + latte art smackdown and a stop for a guacamole burger at Wendy's (for real), we headed out to farms. Our first stop was a VERY small, new micromill in Tarrazu owned by Marvin Robles. He will likely do 20 bags or less this year, and he owns a super small depulper, and ferments naturally in a 20 gallon barrel in his backyard where he's also built his own raised beds. His storage room for pergamino is a spare bedroom. Fun!
After visiting a few other mills in various micro regions of Tarrazu, we got to La Lia. We've been using coffee from one of their farms, Santa Rosa, as a main component in our espresso-- it has a remarkable sweetness that pushes through with various roast profiles, which makes it awesome to work with as espresso. We spent some time with owner Luis Alberto Monge and his family, walked around on the patios and checked out the nursery. The plants that were there the year before were now out in the farm, growing up, and there was a new set-- more bourbon, geisha and caturra. I'm excited that we'll be partnering with La Lia again this harvest for our espresso. Yum!
The last stop on our journey was Don Mayo. I think we must have gotten lost last year, because I remember the drive there being really rocky and long.
"Can we really make it there in time?" I asked.
"Don Mayo, ten minutes! There's a shortcut." Francisco flipped on his brights and we tore through the dark on rocky roads at an alarming speed. I laughed while poor Yiannis held on for dear life. We pulled up to the mill in less than ten--things weren't running at the moment and there was a mound of deep red cherry waiting to be processed. The sight of that always makes my mouth water, like sniffing dry grounds during cupping always makes my stomach growl.
That night we met up with the owners of Beneficio Los Angeles and Takito, Exclusive's new intern from Wataru in Japan, at a nativity gathering where we ate delicious food and sipped on some sort of moonshine. I slept so hard that night.
Day two, we got up and paid quick visits to Aguileras Brothers, Herbazu, Sin Limites and a newer mill, Jardin de Aromas (named for all the beautiful flowers around the mill.) In addition to the wet mill, they have a very small dry mill as well. Jardin de Aromas is owned by Rolando Zbinden, and is run by his daughter Carol. In addition to the farm (Finca Quizera) and mill being beautiful-- they also had this amazing storage area for the finished coffee, which used to be an old horse barn. We cupped a sample from Rolando and Carol the day before, which sparked an interest in visiting them, and I'm excited to try more from them in a month or so.
Yiannis left us at lunch time and Francisco and I stayed and met Ricard Perez and his wife Cristina of Helsar de Zarcero for lunch, then we drove up to Nereo Ramirez's farm, who produced our lot from Helsar this year. Nereo and his wife are awesome, and it was great to be able to personally give them a bag of their coffee. We walked through their plants, and Nereo explained that he and is wife, Elida, do all of their own picking! They don't hire out any help, which is pretty impressive. The farm is high up, at 1725 meters, Nereo has done some replanting and pruning so the crop this year may be rather small, 15-20 bags. We're pretty excited to cup the Ramirez's coffee this year, we loved this past crop so much!
After our visit with Nereo and Elida, we went to check out the new updates at Helsar-- including a new storage warehouse for finished coffee. Helsar has started roasting some coffee and selling it locally (mostly the second pickings, but still pretty solid) and Ricardo's wife Cristina roasts all the coffee. Hooray for more women roasting!
After some coffee, treats, relaxing and petting the dogs (Helsar has the best dogs!) we all headed over to Don Sergio. Francisco and I sat in the back of Ricardo's classic, well maintained jeep-- the kind where the seats in the back face inward. Francisco talked on his phone, rapidly and directly and I stared out the back window at the colorful houses and amazing flowers and plants that lined the roads. I love the houses in West Valley, everything appears so simple and colorful and wonderful.
We pulled up to the outside gates at the Corrales house and Sergio came to the gate to let us inside, his smile was so radiant as he unlocked the gate and then welcomed me with the most intense, warm hug. This was one of those moments where I truly did feel like Dogwood was engaging in relationship coffee.
Sergio had made many improvements to his micro mill operation since the last time I had visited, early on in the previous harvest, which was also his first year of selling his coffee as his own, named lots. Among the built improvements were a huge covering for the patio area, some raised beds, and the beginnings of a small warehouse of sorts. The to-be warehouse right now was without walls, and more or less served as an awesome entertainment area with a little kitchenette built in. This patio area looked down over the coffee trees, and sat level with the tops of many of the shade trees scattered throughout the farm. The Corrales' moved the roaster that they have yet to use down in to this space as well, it's not running yet, but hopefully next year it will be so we can play with some roasts! We spent the afternoon eating delicious food, drinking whiskey and lemonade and playing with the dogs (and pet birds!) I also spent some quality time with the kids jumping on the trampoline.
After a great visit, we had to get in the car and get back to San Jose before traffic got ridiculous. My flight left early the next morning and the stay was too short. Our relationships are strengthening in Costa Rica and I'm excited for Dogwood to bring in more and more amazing coffee from there for many, many years.
More pictures can be found in our Costa Rica album on our Facebook page.