I guess it's only fitting that my first journal post be about the first time I ever went to a coffee producing country. Epic!
It actually all started when I had returned from a trip to visit my grandmother, who was ill, in Israel. Before I left I had started the process of signing up for the big western barista competition in October of 2014. It would have been my first time competing, and I didn't realize that signing up for a competition slot was supposed to be one of the last things you do as a competitor. There are only a certain amount of people that can compete and its on a first come first serve basis. Due to a lack of communication with my employer at the time and my inexperience with competition I ended up on a waiting list to compete. Right when I returned, I got news that I had been given a place to compete with 3 weeks left to get ready for the big day. When I gave this news to my current employer they said that they couldn't give me the time off since I had just been in Israel for a month. Having to get ready for a very difficult competition in 3 weeks seemed to just get a lot harder and more dramatic. Long story short, I quit that job on good terms very shortly after. I just didn't understand how they wouldn't let me represent them on a national stage when I had told them before they hired me that competing was always a goal.
Enter Jeff Courson from Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders, who I had been building a relationship with for some time and already deeply trusted. I gave him a call and explained the situation, being that I needed a coffee to use for competition and I didn't have time to taste a bunch of different samples. He came back to me with the recommendation of a Costa Rican coffee that was cupping pretty well, scoring in the high 80s and low 90s, and that they had the most information about, as well as a contact to the producer. I decided right then and there on that phone call that I would buy a bag (150lb) of it. My friend in Tucson, Curtis of Presta Coffee Roasters, happened to be getting a palate of coffee shipped to him from Bodhi Leaf that same day and so we threw my bag on his palate for me to pick up in Tucson. I instantly fell in love with the coffee and its pronounced flavors of lemon, almond, honey, and cocao. I began to craft a routine around my connection to the coffee and the information I was getting from emailing back and forth with the family that produced it. By the time I had put the routine together the family in Costa Rica invited me to stay on their farm, but I was so wrapped up in the competition that I put it in the back of my mind. It wasn't until another trip to Tucson in November which Jeff and I took that the idea of going to Costa Rica became a real thought.
After our discussion on the way to Tucson and some more emailing with the Monteros, I purchased my ticket to Costa Rica for mid January which is the peak of harvest there. The main family member that I was coordinating with was Marianela, the eldest child of Carlos. I felt comfortable going down while she was there because she speaks great english and is familiar with American culture. We had both planned to get to Costa Rica on January 15th, but it turned out later that she would stay in Australia. I made sure that Carlos would pick me up from the airport and get me to the farm which I wasn't really sure of its location. Getting ready was exciting and scary at the same time. It was the topic of conversation with everyone I encountered for weeks before I left and yet there wasn't a whole lot about the trip that I was sure about. I figured I would pack light, only bringing a backpack with me, and be prepared to move around and live primitively. The day before I left I hosted a coffee tasting party with the coffee community in Phoenix to try some coffees we had all brought and to celebrate my going away. The next day I packed my little bag with my camera, laptop, 3 jeans, 5 shirts, a swim suit, 7 socks, 7 boxers, an aeropress, a scale, hand grinder, chargers, towel, toothbrush, and flip flops. I got on the plane and I was excited for my 6 hour layover in Denver where all my "coffee" friends were ready to pick me up for pizza and beer.
I landed at San Jose airport with my heart full. I was still wrapping my head around the support and love of my friends at home and all over the states that were excited for me. I changed about $160 into colones at the airport (which should have waited until I got to a bank) and walked out to the only curb at the little airport. It was 6am, the sun was rising, the air was windy and clean, and although I was feeling comfortable I wasn't sure what to expect, still. I had only seen one picture of Carlos and his instructions for me was to look for the guy in a sombrero. I was like,"well that narrows it down". About an hour later he pulled up in his mini-van, stepped out of the car, and after thinking every other car was him I knew for sure that this was it. I jumped in the van with no reservations and we headed into the city. Our first stop after getting to know each other briefly in the car was to Exclusive Coffees, a main exporter in Costa Rica. I was already blown away within the first two hours of getting there. I was seeing coffee getting dry milled, sorted, bagged, and put into containers. Their facility was gorgeous and they had a sweet cupping lab. Thrive Coffee Traders were taking a tour there at the same time and we got to talking about people we knew in common. The coffee we drank there was awesome and seeing bags of roasted coffee from all of my favorite roasters there was exciting. From there we drove through the small capitol city, stopped for lunch at a small cafe, and headed into the mountains for Carlos' farm. As we got closer and closer to our destination the landscape was astonishing to me and when Carlos and his son had pointed out some coffee trees growing on the side of the road I started to freak out!
When we got to Carlos' house we switched cars and went into San Marcos for gas and some groceries. From there we started up the unpaved, steep, narrow, windy, and cliff hanger road up the La Pastora Hill where Carlos' coffee fields are. Besides being scared on the way up I was pleased to see the camaraderie between all the farmers. We would stop and say hello to everyone we saw on the way whether they were just hanging out by their field, driving down with a truck full of cherries, or walking up to their homes. It seemed like Carlos knew everyone and he was so happy to show me off. I was thrilled to see coffee trees everywhere and ascend into the cloudy coffee heaven which is La Pastora. Finally, we made it to his highest field where the pickers were wrapping up their day and Carlos was getting ready to take the day's haul down to his micro-mill. It was during this time that I got some of my favorite pictures that I have ever taken. Not to mention it was the first time I got to go up to a coffee tree, feel it, pick a cherry off, bite into it, taste its sweetness, and spit out the wet and slimy seeds inside. That was a revolutionary moment in my life and career. After spending some time in the serene fields, getting to know Carlos' pickers, and getting some great shots, we headed back down the mountain with the day's haul. We passed Carlos' house again by a few meters and turned onto the most rickety and narrow bridge I have ever seen in order to cross a river that is behind his house. On the other side of the river is where his micro-mill is. Jacob, Carlos' middle child, was there waiting for us and we began to process the day's haul only a few hours after I had landed, saw the exporter, and fields.