home away from home
February 25, 2010
Life as an Intelligentsia educator (my modestly appropriate job title) is anything but slow now and days. Between working on a new grandiose training program to working at events out of state to raising my shops next generation of baristas I hardly have time sit down and drink a cup of coffee. The funny thing is that no matter how busy I am, it only takes a whispering about going to Origin for me to clear out some room in my schedule. Just a few weeks or so ago some of that very whispering made it’s way into my ears.
Most any one reading this probably has already been inducted into the indulgently studious and fanatic world of specialty coffee, but in case there is a chance some of you have not heard of barista competitions, Let me explain… Crafting specialty coffee is a difficult task that takes a long chain of actions to be completed successfully. The last and most visible link in this chain is often times the barista who prepares the coffee for you. Specialty coffee has constructed a competition to both advance the knowledge of this last step and also to select a champion of the barista community to serve as an ambassador of sorts to the world at large. A great many countries have their own competitions to find their champion to represent them in the grand daddy of them all, the World barista competition. The trip to origin that was offered to me was based around training baristas there in the fine art of competitive coffee making. Despite just finishing up with the Chicago in house barista competition, leaving for 9 days to go to a little event called TED as well preparing for the great lakes in early March I had to sign up for it.
The training was to happen in Costa Rica. We have been working for a long time now with Coopedota, an outstanding cooperative based in Santa Maria in the Dota Valley. Some of you have had our Fletcha Roja offering in the past, that’s these guys. This has always been a stellar coffee and this week I was lucky enough to get a glimpse as to why it is a coffee we buy year after year in increasing quantities.
So first off, the point of the trip was to train 5 of Coopedota’s baristas in order to ready them for the Costa Rican national competition. This is a bit involved. While they all had a definite skill base we had to go from basic run throughs, to selecting coffees to developing signature drinks and final polishing all over the course of 3 days. Throw in tours of the mills, farms and several wonderful meals and the trip was full indeed.
The first day was settling in, finding my room and meeting my esteemed host Roberto Mata, the manager of Coopedota. A quick run down on Roberto is impressive indeed. Riding through town with him in the car and you get the feeling he is the captain of the football team, the mayor and everyone’s personal best friend, all rolled into one humble package. In the 16 years he has been at the helm Roberto has brought Coopedota into the magical world of micro lots, insane levels of transparency and lot separation, roasting, sponsoring local educational programs and running two cafes. We all have a lot to learn from this man.
Day 2 is when it all got rolling. I met with the baristas by 7:30 in the training space bellow Coppedota’s café. We introduce ourselves, talk a bit about competition and then jump right into tasting some coffees. I requested before coming that they roast and age whatever selection they were interested in using so we could get a good look at things. This left us with 5 coffees processed four different ways to play with. One by one the baristas did a basic from scratch routine serving espressos and cappuccinos while talking about their coffee. This gave us a good base to see where everyone was at and also to taste a different coffee with each run through. Everyone had something they did well giving the session some good legs to stand on. The coffees also showed great promise.
After the run throughs it was onto skill building. Core barista techniques of adjusting the grind and dose to find the perfect extraction consistently and without waste are what makes or breaks a barista in competitions and in their shops. Focus on this and milk technique ate up the rest of the day as we hammered toward precision. This was a serious crew with last years Barista champion from Costa Rica among them. Being so close to the coffee for so much of their lives, these baristas have a coffee authority that you just cannot gain living in North America or Europe.
As a barista I consider the advantages a company like Intelligentsia has to be… well… considerable. The options I found at Coopedota are in some ways mind blowing in comparison. The green coffee options we had far exceeded our ability to taste it all and the sample roaster was mere feet away from the espresso machine. The baristas themselves each had convincing stories as well. Almost all of them are related to a producer, two of them graduates of coopedota’s 2 year coffee education program, another is the young up and coming roaster… All of them invested in a serious manner.
Later that evening Roberto showed me the milling operation of Coopedota. The level of thought and invention incorporated into facility still has me scratching my head in wonder. Costa Rica is a very well run country comparatively for central America and its citizens reap those rewards. The people of Dota are blessed with all the modern conveniences from cell phones to cable to college degrees. They have a good life and thusly tend towards good wages. This means labor is not cheap and the processes at the coopedota show respect for that. It is highly mechanized in ways that reduce work load and environmental stress while pushing the quantity and quality of processing farther than I have ever imagined. They have a very large high volume mill and a much smaller mill used for small lot separation. Both keep a quality standard and provide options that are hard to match. Inspirational material to sleep on.
The third day was spent looking a bit more at the processing and patios along with touring a few of the 790 farms that are members of Coopedota. There is a prevalent sense of intense care that pervades all throughout the valley. Careful selection of shade trees and the height to which they are pruned, intensive reuse of organic fertilizer made from the milling process byproducts and a farm owned by the Coop itself used to perform experiments to help further their knowledge of how to better grow their crop. It was difficult to not spend the whole time smiling from ear to ear. Roberto also pointed out how Coopedota is working with buyers to do specific experiments such as this Full natural processing of strictly Yellow cherry.
After the tour Roberto drove me into San Jose where we would cup 40 or so lots that were in contention to be part of this coming years Fletcha Roja project. You could see the trademark effects of slightly over ripe cherries that are common in Coopedotas crop offering a very wine like quality to the acidity. These were over all rather juicy coffees with excellent sweetness, one of the qualities we look for first in any coffee.
Day four was all about the full run through. During the day I had spent touring fincas and cupping, the baristas all gathered together elements for a signature drink, used our day 2 notes to flesh out some talking points and then dove head first into putting it all together. For those that have never done it, the simple act of serving the three rounds of drinks to a panel of your peers who are tasked with evaluating you is rather daunting. Sounding verbally articulate while executing complex physical tasks is enough to rattle most anyone. Each barista had their own take with no ones signature drink seeming old hat. The feedback they gave each other was probably the most valuable learning that happened the whole weekend. After having gone through all of them we went back to touch up on technical stuff and talking about different ways to tighten it all up.
At this point I have a few rounds of competitions under my belt to pull experience from but don’t think that means there was nothing for me to learn here. The simple perspective difference of a barista at origin who has known coffee for as long as they have known how to walk is not one to under estimate. That last night all of the baristas, Roberto and WIlliam got together to make a variety of traditional foods that they had been talking up to me the whole week. We gathered at ones house and proceeded to eat and drink the night away, them telling stories and me interjecting with my broken Spanish whenever I heard a word I understood. The entire week was one long continuous example of kindness. Roberto and all of the baristas shared any and everything I could possibly needed. Sitting there in their home, eating food they cooked sharing in their lives after having only meet them a few days prior felt marvelous.
The next day I left early for the airport in the capable hands of William Solis. The drive from Santa Maria to San Jose is about two hours worth of priceless. Its one long cruise up from the Valley and through the mountains on winding roads with scenery that your eyes ache to see going by constantly. It was a great moment for reflection of where I was. I wasn’t simply at origin in Costa Rica, I wasn’t just touring a coop in the Dota valley of Tarrazu, I was somewhere far more elusive and special. I was in the very heart of Coopdote if for but a brief time, celebrating its traditions of kindness, family and coffee. As William said on the drive, I was home… and it would always be open to me.