"Wine is love, coffee is passion," Leo Vergnani's words, not mine. A chemistry student turned coffee guru, he is one of the guides at Finca Rosa Blanca, an inn and organic coffee plantation located on the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica. Twenty-four years in the coffee business make him a bona fide expert and Italian roots make the delivery of this expertise both animated and compelling. When Leo talks, people can't help but listen.
My words hint at a slightly different sentiment, "wine is nice, coffee is necessary." I was a coffee holdout until my early 30s and then along came my wife and her dirty habit. Now fully addicted, my mornings begin with a series of menial tasks to convert whole beans into freshly brewed coffee, always ending with the announcement, "coffee up." When I talk, at least one person and one dog listen.
We arrive at Finca Rosa Blanca in a drenching storm and although we're here for a few days, I'm desperate to lay eyes and boots on the plantation. It's my turn to subject my wife to a dirty habit, impatience. We sign up for the next tour and have a whole twenty minutes to settle in to our bungalow.
Donning complimentary walking stick and rain boots, we take first steps on the plantation. Leo explains that the entire organic process from seed to cup happens directly on the plantation. He summarizes Finca's commitment in both practical and philosophical terms, "we don't stress the coffee trees so they can produce for hundreds of years and we don't spoil the land so it's preserved for future generations." Five minutes in and I'm already inspired.
As we encounter our first ripe coffee berries, Leo grabs a few and suggests we "taste the fleshy fruit." Unfortunately, another dirty habit of mine has taken hold, fantasizing. While I'm imagining my future as an organic coffee farmer, all I hear is "eat the berry." Down go flesh and bean together. After that bite, I'm slapped by a bitter reality, raw coffee beans are unpleasant. I wonder aloud how coffee ever came to be. Of course, Leo has the answer. Apparently a clever individual in the Middle East or North Africa (an ongoing debate) figured out the transformative effect of brewing the bean. With one last stop in fantasyland, I decide that if the time machine is ever perfected, my first stop will be to give that trendsetter a big hug.
Our next stop is a banana tree. As we gnaw on its stalk which strangely tastes of cucumber, Leo explains the pest control strategy, "if you know certain pests like coffee berries, you just open a new diner across the street with better food." By sprinkling various fruit trees throughout the plantation, the pests are offered this better option and the coffee berries get to serve their higher purpose. How refreshing to see problems solved with natural solutions, not chemicals.
Our final stop is the processing area where the hand-picked berries (as is the case for all of the coffee produced in Costa Rica) have the skin and bean mechanically separated so the beans can be dried. Leo points out the extra effort involved in sticking to natural methods to dry the beans. Many commercial producers tumble dry (think laundry) but Finca uses human hands to spread the seeds in a single layer and relies on the sun. It takes a lot longer but as Leo points out, "the sun is right there, why not use it."
We walk back to the property for the cupping part of the tour. Seated at a table with a stunning view of San Jose below, we dig our noses into coffee grounds and shout whatever tastes come to mind. I smell dirt and manure but others are getting leather, tar and tobacco. Really? Leo reminds us that the aroma of coffee grounds has nothing to do with flavor, "don't judge a book by the smell of its cover." Next, we add hot water and do more smelling. Sipping is the final step but it's not just any old sip, its combined with a sharp burst of inhalation. Leo's suck-sip sounds of a shotgun, mine a pea shooter. The velocity of his suck-sip borders on violent, mine a gentle breeze. My focus shifts back and forth from the taste of the coffee to my lack of sound and fury, even as I finish the second cup.
In just a few hours, I've learned more about coffee than I can digest. The takeaway; organic coffee farming is more labor intensive and costly than commercial farming but ultimately, the human hands, creative solutions, and natural processes that play a part, make it gobs more romantic. And like any great romance, passion is the most necessary ingredient of all.