Over the past year, I've toured a good number of coffee plantations and facilities, both big and small, in Costa Rica and Panama. Hopefully, this will both inform and encourage you to branch into other coffee varieties as well as take a tour yourselves. I'm definitely not an expert, for this is all information that I've gathered from people in the business, but I'd be happy to answer questions where I can. As hard as it is to believe, this is actually an abbreviated version of what I've come to know. I could go further into differentiating between each plantation/company as each one was completely unique. A Quick History of Coffee: It's widely accepted that coffee plants originated in Ethiopia. There are stories of how a farmer caught his goats eating coffee cherries and seeing their energy levels rise, decided to try the fruits for himself. What is left to legend is how exactly the beans came to be roasted. One story is that the farmer became sick of eating the fruit without any benefit and threw the seeds into the fire; upon smelling them roast, he decided to crush them into a tea. This is just one of a multitude of scenarios. Eventually, the coffee plants made their way to the Middle East. One belief is that it stayed there for many years because it was illegal to export the plants. People would sell the green beans for exportation but they would boil them first so that they could not be planted. Plants made their way through Europe, down through the Caribbean, and into Central and South America. There is another legend of a European smuggling the trees and planting them along the way. Maybe. Fast forward to present day and coffee has become the second biggest global commodity just under oil. Brazil is considered to be the top producer but countries like Vietnam have risen the ranks over the past ten or fifteen years, primarily thanks to a loan to help transform the country into a big producer. There is an international association of coffee growers that was established to organize global prices by giving each country a voice. More recently, however, the spirit of equality has shifted due to internal conflicting politics, such as those with the US and its relationship with other countries. Now, the biggest voices are countries like Brazil, Colombia, and India. Big Coffee Companies vs. The Little Guy: Major Panamanian coffee producer. Small Panamanian coffee producer. Each country and each company has its own specific way of doing business. A big company might not even need to produce its own coffee but rather rely on many independent plantations to provide their beans. In Colombia, you have Juan Valdez. The story that was told me to was that JV was just one conglomerate that all Colombian farmers sold to. In countries like Costa Rica and Panama, you find that at a reduced scale. For example, a small farmer might solely depend on selling his beans to a top national company like Costa Rica's Cafe Britt. Or, that same farmer might sell part of his crop to Britt and part to the local boutique market. For a larger company like Casa Ruiz in Panama, they have the ability to sell their own beans under their own brand at the national and international levels while also dedicating a portion of their crop to other bigger companies like Italy's Illy or Foldger's in the US. There are also plantations that do none of this and are so specialized in their production that they sell their green beans at the international level through an annual auction. As with any other industry, there are some disadvantages to being the Little Guy. For one, and probably the biggest, is that the big company you sell to essentially sets the prices and leaves you with little recourse. Among farmers in Panama, they joke that Starbucks universally raised their prices to reflect "inflation in the market" but they themselves never saw any of that added profit while prices have remained stable. Plants, Man: There are many, many different types of coffee plants. At a broader level, the distinction is made between arabica and robusta. This guide will only cover arabica. Arabica needs specific requirements of water and altitude to grow and produce. It is the most produced type of coffee and it is prized for its quality which is derived from its acidity and fruit notes. Within arabica beans, there many varieties with any number of individual characteristics. One plant, like the Geisha, is known for its floral and tea-like qualities while another, like the Pacamara, is known for being chocolatey. Robusta is a less finicky bean and therefore cheaper to produce. Robusta beans tend to have more caffeine and a stronger, chocolatey taste and are primarily used for espresso blends. However, that is not to say that when company XYZ offers an espresso blend that they are offering you robusta instead of arabica. If it's a company of quality then they will make an espresso roast using arabica beans, the same beans they use for other roasts. Some varieties might be harder or more uncommon to produce, resulting in a higher price per pound. The Geisha, for example, doesn't produce nearly as many cherries per year than the Typica. It also requires more space to grow which means fewer plants per hectare. It needs to grow within an altitude range of several hundred meters; too low and produces too few cherries, too high and it produces many cherries but at a decreased quality. It is said that the life of a coffee plant, in general, is 25-30 years and it takes about 5 or 6 years for the plant to grow from a seed to producing viable cherries. Most coffee plantations change out the old plants according to this schedule, but some plants continue to produce for decades past this range. It becomes the decision of each farmer to replant, trim, etc. Regions and Microclimates (Is this for real?): Shade-grown, volcanic soil, sunny climate, cloudy climate, etc. Do these factors make a difference? Absolutely. Some coffee plantations have to have a balance between shade and sun. Shade can mean protection from wind which can pull cherries off of plants, and it can also help against fungus. Plantations can be neighbors to each other with the same varieties but yield distinct results because of microclimates, soil content, sun exposure, etc. Kotowa coffee, for example, offers two of the same beans roasted the same way but with completely unique taste and aroma profiles. While one was grown organically and the other ecologically, the real difference in taste could be attributed to where each plant was grown. The organic variety grew at the same altitude but several kilometers across the valley where it rains on average 30" less than the ecological version. The difference was that the organic had stronger fruit notes and much less acidity than its ecological counterpart. As such, a coffee taster can use the information of a plantation's environment to form a sketch of what to expect on the palate. Does this sound like wine to anyone else? Traditional, Organic, and Ecological Growing Methods: Traditional growing involves the use of chemicals, such as pesticides, to guard against things like insects and fungus that could potentially destroy crops. The problem with this is that there's no standard in which chemicals are used or how. In fact, some farms continue to use some pesticides that have been banned in other countries. This is most common method of growing. Organic growing is just as it sounds and there are several reasons why it isn't more widespread. Organic plants tend to produce fewer beans overall, are more susceptible to the elements, etc. However, many of these points are debatable save for production and perhaps an increased need for monitoring the plants. Ecological growing is a relative balance of both extremes and it refers to using "green" methods to protect crops. Essentially, this is keeping the use of chemicals to a minimum, mostly to prevent mold growth on leaves which can ultimately kill cherries. A common fungus growing on leaves. Worker Conditions A worker house built by the plantation owner. Pickers are usually paid by the basket, which is around $3 USD or less. Some are paid by weight which brings the incentive to pick under ripe cherries just to be paid. It is not uncommon in Panama, for example, for kids to begin picking at the age of 13 or younger. Some plantations have put rules into place regarding children hires such as not allowing them to work during the school year, only with parents present, etc. Living quarters depend on the specific plantation. Some smaller plantations offer nothing but glorified dog houses. Other plantations like Casa Ruiz have built dorms and family apartments so that workers can live on-site during the picking season. Suffice to say that conditions for most workers globally are extremely rudimentary. In Panama, the natives are considered to be the lowest social class and are unfortunately treated as such. Picking Cherries: The picking season varies each year due to weather conditions but is typically from September through March. Cherries don't ripen uniformly so pickers make passes every two weeks until the cherry is perfectly ripe. Pick too early and the beans will not be mature enough. Too late and the flavor will be off or the cherry will fall to the ground. Plantations hire pickers with a history because an inexperienced picker could potentially damage the bud and prevent future cherries from growing. For that reason, a majority of pickers are natives with a long family history of working on plantations. Processing Cherries (Wet vs. dry method): Once the cherries are picked, they are loaded into machine with water which separates them by quality. The cherries that float are considered to be defective and are then set aside. They can still be used and sold to companies who specialize in instant and flavored coffees. The rest of the cherries can then be further classified by quality. Cherries are loaded into here and floated. They then are separated into different tanks. The good cherries are then sent through a machine which strips the fruit from the bean. The fruit can be reused into things jam or as compost for the plants. The smell is very, very strong. The beans can also be separated from the fruit through fermentation but it requires added vigilance so that the beans don't take on undesired flavors. The run-off from these processes can pollute nearby streams. In Costa Rica, processing facilities are required to purify waste water before either disposing it or reusing it to water coffee plants. Other countries are slowing catching on. One of several lagoons used to filter water. After the beans are separated, they need to be dried before roasting. The cherries can also processed using a dry method by which whole cherries are left to dry in the sun for several weeks before being stripped of their beans. This is known as "natural coffee" and it has the characteristic of added stronger fruit notes to the final product. This isn't as common of a method anymore. To give an example between wet and dry processing, if one type of wet plant gives off a light fruit aroma once brewed then the natural version smells almost like overripe fruit. With the Geisha, it turned a very jasmine-scented profile into one that could be described as strawberry yogurt. Again, each plant has distinct qualities and the natural method only exaggerates them. It's a very delicate process because it's very easy to overshoot the time frame and ruin the beans. Honey drying. Drying The Beans: It all comes down to natural (direct sunlight) or artificial drying methods. Some companies prefer the natural method of placing the beans (which are still in a light parchment) on concrete lots or screens. These beans are manually raked every few hours for a week or more so that they dry evenly. The disadvantages to this process are the time required to properly dry as well as the need to cover up the beans during the threat of rain. There are several different artificial methods but the most common involves drying them out with hot air. Why use one method over another? Some argue that the natural process better preserves the bean's original profile. Others don't really see a difference but use artificial means if the harvest is too big to handle by natural means alone. The end goal is to reduce the moisture of the bean down to around 10.5% where it is stable enough to be sorted. Hulling/Sorting: A worker evaluates sorting by weight. After drying, the beans need to have their parchment removed so that they can be more readily identified and sorted. Not all beans are the same size, weight, or color. In order to further classify their quality, beans are sorted either by machines or by hand. Smaller, lighter, unevenly-shaped beans are considered to be inferior quality and can be sold to aforementioned instant/flavored brands. However, there is a distinction made with peaberry coffee beans. These are smaller than typical beans but are highly prized (and more expensive) because they are considered to be more flavorful and more rare. A peaberry occurs when a single bean comes out of a fruit instead of two or three. The purpose of sorting isn't just to take out defective beans but also to batch them together so that they can be evenly roasted. If you mix bigger beans with smaller beans, the smaller beans will burn more quickly and leave you with an inconsistent roast. Roasting: Roasting green beans is a process of trial and error. Each roaster has their own recipes of time and temperature and each factor can be tweaked to change the flavor profile. Coffee traditionally comes in three different kinds of roasts: light (also known as "European"), medium ("Latin American"), and dark ("Italian/Espresso".) The same green beans can be used to make any kind of roast desired. Dark, medium, and light. Light roasts are bright, small-bodied, acidic, and fruity. They also boast the most caffeine as the additional time with other roasts sucks it out. When grading coffee, tasters prefer light roasts because the acidity and fruit are two big factors in determining a bean's profile and quality without being potentially masked by heat. Medium roasts are more balanced. Less acidic than light but still with lots of fruit and hints of chocolate. Dark roasts are full-bodied and tend to focus on chocolate and caramel notes. Some will say that the result is "bitter" but there is debate between tasters/classifiers if that is the correct term that should be used. Some would argue that good beans would never taste bitter as the taste would indicate that the beans have been poorly roasted and are burnt. Dark roasts work the best for espresso because this is when the bean is at its softest and most brittle making it far easier to obtain a more uniform and consistent ground which is extremely important in the extraction process. The difference in temperature can be marginal with the roasts, but the main key is timing. The difference in time can be a matter of a minute or two between light to medium, medium to dark. As such, timing is everything. While in the roaster, you can hear what is called the first "crack" where the beans make a sound like corn popping. This can be used to signal how far along is the roasting process. After the second "crack," the beans are at its dark roast and must be pulled soon so that they are not burned. During the roast, the last skin on the bean (assuming the beans haven't been pre-polished), known as the "silver skin" burns off and is vacuumed away from the beans. After the desired roast is achieved, the beans are then set to be cooled so that they do not continue to roast. It should be noted that beans shouldn't be overly oily or shiny after roasting. The oils are brought to the surface once they've been burned, so while the beans may look appealing any roaster would tell you that someone messed up along the way. Packaging: Oxygen is the killer of good coffee. Ideally, if roasted beans are packed into one-way valve bags then they should last many months. The valve on coffee bags, by the way, is so that gases can escape during transit without introducing oxygen. If the beans are ground at the facility, then the expiration date reduces dramatically. The best case scenario is that you buy whole beans and grind only what you need to make your espresso/cup of coffee (which is around 48 beans... yes, that exact.) The rest can be stored but needs to be consumed sooner than later. What you don't want to do is buy ground coffee and let it sit opened for several months. Evaluating Coffee (Cupping): Cupping is when freshly-ground coffee is mixed with hot water and then evaluated based on aroma and taste, all without filtering it. When judging coffee, it's best to sip while the coffee is warm and not hot. Hot coffee can burn your tongue and effectively mask the tasting. In "breaking a cup," a spoon carefully scoops out a portion of liquid and the taster then slurps it, the idea being that with a loud slurp the coffee hits your entire palate at the same time. A second evaluation can be made once the coffee is near room temperature. For some evaluators at coffee companies, this is the only way the coffee is tasted to be certain of consistency. Evaluators look for positive attributes like acidity and fruit and the absence of negative characteristics like earthiness, leather, spoiled fruit, etc. I found that there was no set standard in evaluating. While some tasters would label "fishy" or "rubbery" coffee as defective, others used those terms to describe a proper profile. I'm inclined to side with evaluators who find "rubber" tones to be off, but those same people would think a tobacco tone to also be off whereas I find it to be a positive attribute. Blends: Each coffee company and plantation has their own way of doing business. I really need to stress this point because when you buy a bag of "Finca Jose Feliciano Millennium Guatemalan Reserve Estate" at your local snobbery coffee shop, you really don't know what you're buying. You might know the country of origin, maybe even take a stab at the weather conditions or soil content, but you still won't know what kinds of plant varieties were used. There are a couple of good examples of this. I visited one small plantation that had seven different plant varieties. How did the consumer know what they were buying from bag to bag or year to year? They didn't. There was no consistency because whatever was picked was what was ultimately roasted. If the last harvest had more Pacamara plants, then maybe the final batch would taste more like chocolate than the last. Or maybe by chance your bag ended up with more Geisha beans than Typica or Panamaria, so much so that bag A would taste different than bag B. On the other side of the spectrum is a more scientific approach. Brands like Starbucks or Illy get coffee beans from all over the world and they combine percentages of each plant or region to produce a consistent taste from year to year. Cafe Britt in Costa Rica is somewhere in between both of these systems. Their main blends draw from plantations in different regions and microclimates which they formulate for consistency. However, they also sell each region separately to the consumer. Want a more acidity profile attributed to coffee grown to volcano or more chocolate notes attributed to shade-grown coffee? There you have them. This is the principle reason I would recommend trying coffee that is sourced from a single variety. It pulls you away from saying that you enjoy Colombian coffee in general and settles you into the aspects of coffee you enjoy the most. Fun Facts: The term "flavored coffee" is actually inaccurate. Scented, not flavored, oils are added to change a coffee's perceived taste. Your nose tricks your tongue into "tasting" the flavor. It's a bit like biting into a scented candle and expecting it to taste like vanilla and cinnamon. The difference in weight from the original cherry down to the roasted bean is approximately a loss of 70%. Typically, from the time the cherry is picked to when it is roasted is around 6-8 months. This mostly has to do with time in storage to further dry the beans.