Coffee. It’s one of the few vices I still cling to unashamedly. And so I was thrilled to find that my recent trip to Costa Rica would include a night at Finca Rosa Blanca—a stunning ecolodge nestled into an organic, shade-grown coffee plantation just outside San Jose. This was a mere one-night stopover en route to my final destination on the Osa Peninsula, but what a great way to kickstart the trip.
After spending a night soothed by the sounds of tropical rain, I woke up to meet the inn’s resident coffee expert, Italian transplant Leonardo Vergnani, for a whirlwind tour of the coffee fields followed by a proper cupping session on the veranda to taste test infusions from their finest beans.
What quickly became clear was that—as much as I love coffee and consider myself an aficionado—I don’t know the half of what goes into producing a truly great cup. As we took a short hike through the coffee plants laden with still-green beans, Leo spoke passionately and at length about the myriad iterations and designations that coffee receives. What it really comes down to, he says, is the species of plant—Arabica is always better (and more expensive) than Robusto. And the growing location/conditions are key—the very best beans are allowed to grow slowly, in the shade, at altitude, and only beans grown above 4,500 feet get the highest premium rating of SHB, or “Strictly Hard Bean”.
My head was soon spinning from Leo’s lessons, not only on coffee growing, but also on responsible roasting practices, which many people flaunt, he says, by blending a small amount of high-grade beans with a bulk of lower-grades, not mention additives like sugar to speed the roasting process.
Luckily it was soon time to get my fix—to get a little taste of the uncut product. But rather than brewing up a regular pot of coffee, we did this the way commercial buyers would, analytically, by cupping. The process is not dissimilar to a wine tasting: a lot of sniffing, slurping, spitting and noting of underlying flavors. Though, while wine may boast hints of fruits and berries, coffee’s tasting notes are things like tobacco, leather and chocolate that are imparted by the roasting process.
Leo poured me a pair of cups to taste, each from a different point on the roasting spectrum. After some thoughtful sniffing, we took fast slurps of the strong brew, attempting to hit all the tongue’s taste buds simultaneously and maximize the flavor. Switching between the the lighter and darker roast, it’s easy to pick out some immediate differences like smoky, burnt flavors. But clearly it takes some time and practice to really pick out the subtle tones.
All said and done, I got a first hand look—and taste—of some of the highest quality coffee in the world. I’ll take a cup of that any day.