Do you ever have those moments when there is no doubt in your mind that you are in the right industry? I had one of those moments this week, upon the arrival of an excellent new coffee from a small farm in Costa Rica. My excitement was akin to that of a kid on Christmas morning, ascending the stairs in rapid motion to piles of presents and cookies. I think the delivery driver was wondering why I was pacing back and forth in front of the door while he loaded up the bags.
The coffee is called Costa Rica Alma Negra (Black Soul) and it is grown and processed by Oscar and Francisca Chacon in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. I am excited about this coffee for many reasons; it is incredibly unique from seed to cup. The Chacons are known for being one of the first to produce high-quality organic and naturally processed coffee in Costa Rica. They inherited the farm from Oscar’s grandparents’ and it is steeped with family history. One of the main reasons that the Chacons decided to take the leap and only produce organic coffee is a tragic one. Oscar lost his father to a battle with cancer and it is suspected to have been due to his frequent encounters with pesticides. Other reasons included environmental and quality benefits.
Not only did the Chacons take an expensive chance at getting organic certification, they built their own mill, known as Las Lajas. This is exceptional for a variety of reasons. When a farmer sends their coffee off to a mill, they have no control over what happens next. The coffee could be blended with other coffees or processed in a way that may not benefit the flavor of the coffee in the best way. With owning their own mill, the Chacons take great care in using a wide range of processing methods to find optimum flavor profiles. In turn, this makes the coffee highly traceable, even down to the day it was harvested. The Chacons use mostly natural (dry) processes, using much less water than a standard farm.
After taking copious amounts of pictures of the beautiful bags, I opened one and the fresh, green coffee smells so much like chocolate, you would have thought it had been stored in a Hershey’s warehouse. No time was wasted in getting the coffee into the roaster. The flavors of the brewed coffee are complex, ranging from mandarin oranges to cocoa nibs. The acidity is exciting and lively and the mouthfeel is silky smooth. We will have this coffee for only a short amount of time and I invite everyone to come down to our café and try a cup. You may end up loving it as much as I do!
It is extremely easy to get caught up in the aesthetically pleasing appearance of cafes, especially ones that house beautiful roasters like the one we have here at Virtuoso. Espresso machines, grinders, pour over mechanisms all have such an appealing yet minimal look to them, and to the customer they seem antique, intricate and difficult to handle. The baristas also provide the everyday coffee enthusiast with ample stimulation. They grind, pull, and design your drink, right in front of your eyes.
The specialty coffee experience is beautiful, but there is one major contributor to a roaster’s success that is commonly overlooked. It takes place at workstations similar to the one captured below. This is production. We are the worker bee or the work force of any roaster. Our job title means many things and we are a key part of any roaster’s success. We label, stamp, and package hundreds of pounds of coffee in a day. We navigate pallets of green coffee and manually move around bags that weigh 150 pounds. We adorn ourselves in coveralls and have our heads stuck in the roaster for hours at a time, scrubbing and scraping away at what the previous week’s roasting left behind. We do not have an easy or a glamorous job, but we love it.
Before being given this position I was told that, “It wasn’t for everyone.” I was told that it was an extremely important position, and that my work has more of an impact with customers than you would think. The bag of beans that is so beautifully displayed in the store front is the only connection most customers will have with the company. Aunt Sue may have bought her nephew a bag of Guatemala before he set out to college, or Mr. Jerry probably shipped out a bag of our Cove blend to his client in New York as a nice gesture for their business. Because of these quaint encounters with these unique customers, our bags need to be beautiful and consistent. We do our best to not overwhelm our customers with brew instructions, excessive logos, and other things that might make it easier to produce a bag that hides imperfections and neglectful work. We keep it simple so that you know exactly what origin your about to brew, and where your quality roasted beans come from.
Production is not for the type-A personality. My loud and obnoxious self actually had to adjust accordingly. Attention to detail for hours at a time is an epic task to tackle, and it takes a lot out of you when you’re first getting accustomed to it. But what really matters is that you take ownership of your work and that you see yourself as a substantial part of your company. You need that drive to rip off and redo that off centered label, or do just the right math on that popular blend.
I hope we were able to give you a little insight on a fun yet overlooked part of running a successful cafe.
Before walking into Café Virtuoso for the first time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Yes, I had worked in coffee for years, but the term “specialty coffee” had never been in my vernacular. What I’ve slowly come to understand over the past year is how unbelievably meaningful specialty coffee is to me. This may sound extreme, but hear me out.
Last month, a few of us from Café Virtuoso took part in an amazing event up in Seattle. Hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the affair is so impressive; it is known solely as “The Event.” We took classes, attended lectures, and had lengthy conversations about the latest and greatest coffee innovations (trust me, there are many).
I learned a great deal of information about my profession and my industry and for that I am very thankful. However, what I took away the most was the incredible feeling of being at home, all the while being in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by strangers and foreign machinery. It is an incredible thing when you put coffee producers, exporters, importers and brokers, roasters, baristas, manufacturers, and so many others, under one roof. I met a woman who runs a facility that roasts 60,000 pounds of coffee A DAY! I met another fellow, a physical therapy professor, whose love for coffee has inspired him to set aside his career and start his own roasting business. I am certain that I started some lifelong friendships this weekend with people who have a similar understanding of just how comforting coffee can be.
It all makes me very thankful. To our customers: without whom we could not put our passion into practice. To my bosses: who realize the value of education and have created an environment that pushes you to grow as an individual and a team member. To the coffee community, especially SCAA: for producing a home for all of us coffee nerds.