A Fair Cuppa Joe in Costa Rica


Me and a beautiful coffee plant, bursting with berries ready to be picked.

Fair Trade Red Bank throws some great events in town (if we do say so ourselves), but beyond this, we are also privileged to be part of a larger umbrella organization that raises Fair Trade awareness through their own dynamic events, online organizing, and meetings.  This February, I was lucky enough to visit the first Fair Trade town in a developing country: Pérez Zeledón, Costa Rica.  There, a group of 16 of us from Fair Trade Towns all over the country were given the opportunity to experience the effects of Fair Trade firsthand on a Reality Tour with Global Exchange. We visited coffee co-ops, sugar nurseries, met with co-op leaders, and got to see how the indigenous Boruca population use their traditional handicrafts to support their community.  While there are so many things that I would love to share about this trip, I realize this is a blog and not a novel, so I will just share my favorite part of the trip.

A cup of Fair Trade coffee and sugar at CoopeAgri

First, a little background. CoopeAgri is a co-op founded in 1965 in order to increase the quality of life for farmers in Pérez Zeledón, and has grown from 391 members to over 17,000 over the past 46 years.  What began with coffee production has now grown in to supermarkets, gas stations, credit unions, and a health clinic.  We visited the offices of CoopeAgri to learn how Fair Trade has not only helped ensure their members are paid fairly, but has also continued to better their community.

CoopeAgri uses Fair Trade practices for all of their coffee, even though some of their coffee is not sold as Fair Trade. Lesson here is that the more FT coffee we buy, the more CoopeAgri will be able to invest back in to their community and expand their Fair Trade program.

After meeting with some of the CoopeAgri leaders and visiting a coffee farm, we were given a rare opportunity to participate in a coffee cupping.  What exactly is a coffee cupping, you ask? It is a process where each batch of coffee beans is tested for quality through smell, texture, and taste.  It was a privilege to be included in such an exclusive event with one of Costa Rica’s largest coffee producers.  Gilbreth, our tasting expert, explained all of the different taste-centers (made-up word I’m sure) of the tongue:  where the acids, salts, sweets, and bitter tastes are processed when you taste each cup.

Gilbreth, giving us a lesson on the perfect cupping.

Pablo, another tasting aficionado, ground four different types of beans and placed them around the tasting table.  Each numbered one through four, we were advised to smell each type and keep tabs on the different floral and chocolate notes.

Pablo filling each cup to the brim for us to taste.

Boiling water is then filled to the brim of each cup, and when I say brim, I mean the tippy top.  The smells instantly hit my nostrils as the water engaged a whole new set of olfactory nerves and I hadn’t even tasted the coffee yet.  This was where the real fun began.  At this stage we were instructed on how to “break the grounds,” which just sounds like an important step if you ask me.  What you have to do is sort of move the grounds around while smelling the unique aromas each cup has to offer.

Some pre-cupped coffee waiting to be tasted.

The key is to push the grounds to the side and create this pretty foam at the top, kind of like those fun tricks that baristas do at fancy coffee places.  Only my cup didn’t quite turn out like the pretty ferns and hearts you get at the No Joe’s of the world. (Thanks Paul!).

At this stage the only thing left to do is taste, and that takes real finesse.  You have to suck up the coffee so quick, it sounds like a zip line.  The only one of us, who really got it down, was Billy, Fair Trade Town’s National Coordinator.

Billy and Pablo...tasting masters at work.

I guess it’s kind of his job to be the best at these types of things.  So I stepped around to each cup with my little spoon, dipped it in a cup, and sucked it down like it was the last sip I was ever going to take.  Beyond the actual taste of coffee, with its chocolaty floral goodness, you really can feel it hit each taste-center like a ball in a pinball machine. You can actual feel the acids, and the sweetness rolling down your throat.

A handy chart, just in case you need help figuring out which taste buds are for what.

We were given the task of picking our favorite blend, and as expected mine was the best quality.  When asked why I chose this blend, I stumbled like Charlie Sheen in an interview, and said, “Winning flavors here…duh.” Well not exactly in those words, but something just as embarrassing I’m sure.

So, why was this one of the best things I have done in this little Fair Trade world of ours?  Not only was I given access to such an exclusive event, but I got to experience firsthand how to love your job, help the world, and become an expert in that thing you love so you can share it with the world.  No longer can I say, “I am not a coffee connoisseur,” when a customer comes in to Ten Thousand Villages and asks for coffee recommendations.  I will now say, “Well do you like a smooth flavor or more acidic. And do you prefer vanilla notes, or floral.”  And hopefully, after I tell them a twenty-minute story about my Costa Rican coffee cupping experience, they will take my recommendation to heart.

Pablo, me, Will, Mary Jo of Fair Trade USA, and Gilbreth. We all love our jobs for a reason!

By Samantha Eittreim

2 responses to “A Fair Cuppa Joe in Costa Rica

  1. Pingback: Coffee lovers –read Liz’ post while drinking your favorite cuppa joe. | nobluehair

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Sam!

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