Coffee is grown under every regime from democracy to dictatorship. The coffee industry originated under European colonialism and spawned a centuries long battle to create ethical business practices in favor of those who grow this precious commodity that fuels modern society far beyond its latitude.
Where do we stand as consumers? And who do we think of when we think of specialty coffee?
Java Love sent our roaster John Cozzarelli and myself to Hacienda La Minita in Costa Rica to find that out for ourselves.
Between the bushes of yellow and purple flowers, San Jose, pooled at the basin of fuzzy green mountains, shrank as we left the close quarters of the city behind in favor of the small towns of brightly painted houses gated and roofed with corrugated metal overlooking the wide valley under rolling clouds. As our ascent continued, more often did every car that passed our van honk and wave, and smiling, our driver waved back.
It was only later did I realize the significance of this: Everyone we were passing knew the farm and knew our driver, the coffee farm being at the heart of this mountain community.
La Minita was at the forefront of the paradigm shift from the community serving the resource to the resource serving the community, paying all of their workers fair wages, with 80 employees on staff full-time and up to 400 seasonal employees during peak coffee picking season. Full-time employees are eligible for health benefits, retirement plans, as well as maternity leave for mothers.
All of this explained to me in the village of small yellow houses with blue trim accompanied by a matching blue and yellow jungle gym set amongst the purple leafed foliage, bushes of tiny red peppers and fiery birds of paradise. La Minita provides on-site housing for those who need it, as well as an on-site medical and dental clinic. At the clinic’s completion in 1994, La Minita founder, William McAlphin, said in his speech,
“This year, with the addition of the new clinic, one of the final stones of my visions foundations has been laid. I must explain that I see the farm a single living organism. A dynamic ‘body economic’ that depends internally upon the constant healthy interaction of earth water, air , people, plants, animals, and even insects and microbes. The organism we call La Minita must be as self relaint as possible.”
The countries that consume the most coffee cannot grow it, so companies like La Minita can responsibly use this demand of wealthier European coffee drinkers to improve the quality of life in the bean belt, harnessing the coffee plant as a resource in benefit of the community it is grown in.
So where do we stand as American coffee drinkers?
I wondered this as I was surfing on the back of a flatbed truck rumbling down the terraced slopes of the mountain, coffee pickers moving out of their way, pulling back their trove of red and yellow coffee cherries laid out on blankets, gem-like in the sun.
We came to a stop and got out of the truck. The pickers having dropped their bags of cherries from their shoulders were taking a break, sitting in the shade next to their motor bikes that leaned against the orange trees. They work from six o’clock in the morning until three, so by the time dawn colors the summit of the mountain, the day’s work is well underway. But they can work however long they want, because they are paid depending on what they pick, in cash, on the spot. A lot of families pick together, and from up the dirt road walked a little girl in a purple dress with a matching purple basket, a puppy ambling behind her.
I don’t speak Spanish so I smiled and waved awkwardly to the pickers. Some people in my group were taking pictures of them.
Drinking coffee, for all of its utility, became a sensation across the world for its social nature. In many European countries that pioneered transatlantic trade, the Café was a place to meet and spend time with other people, while in America the coffee mug is a symbol of the working class. Coffee is one of the only commodities that is an integral part of a nation’s culture that is not sourced from those countries.
In Costa Rica, all the premium coffee is exported, leaving only the subpar coffee for domestic consumption, but coffee means something different for them than to us. In America, coffee means counter tops and steam wands, but to them it’s a tree.
I bet most Americans don’t know what a coffee tree looks like.
It grows straight up, its branches with waxy tear shaped leaves fanning out radially around the trunk, its red cherries growing in dense clusters at the nodes of the branches. I became well acquainted with these trees when I got to pick in the fields. Carefully, I would only pick the ripe cherries, and it was slow going at first, until I developed the strategy of stripping a whole tree, one branch at a time, working my way from the trunk to the tip with squirreling fingers, the cherries dropping into the basket tied to my waist.
I turned in my cherries at the tractor, who’s bed was sticky with their sugary juices. The man filled a cajula, a square bucket used to measure the cherries and then dumped them on the bed, then handed me to coins and I hoped off the truck to join the others who were hanging out with the coffee pickers who had just finished their day.
The light was yellow and pleasant and made shapes on the path. Everyone was talking as the cherries were being dumped and the money handed out. On the tractor that pulled the load, sat a little boy as if upon a throne, his little black rubber boots dangling off the sides. The adults started teasing him and he didn’t seem to notice. John, our roaster, walked up to him and waved, and the little boy pointed and said, “Loca nana.”
“What does that mean?” John said.
The social nature of coffee is not just happening across the table of a café, but across oceans and complex economic relationships that need to be conducted in a way that protects those who are stewards of this resource the world has fallen in love with. For these reasons, Java Love, an American coffee producer, roaster, and consumer, supports the community that is La Minita.