Have you ever wondered how people roast and brew their coffee beans in other parts of the world? Today I will teach you how we in Costa Rica prepare our coffee beans for our own consumption, the traditional process that is.
You will be amazed on how different coffee roasting and brewing processes are because of culture differences, lack of resources or the simplicity factor in roasting and brewing.
In my case, I learned this tradition from my mom, and she learned it from her Dad and Grandparents back in the days when the family lived in the hills of San Guillermo, just outside the mountain town of San Marcos Costa Rica, in the 1930’s. It is worth highlighting that we don’t use any type of technology or fancy, advanced machines in the process.
The following is a step by step description on how my Great Grandparents used to prepare coffee:
The very first, and most important step in the process is to pick the best coffee cherries to roast. In our case, we just go to our backyard in harvest time and pick some nice red coffee cherries from our Arabiga and Caturra coffee trees. Harvesting is by hand since the terrain is very steep and rugged which doesn’t allow mechanization of the process. We use unique baskets which are perfect to go around the coffee tree and select the best red coffee cherries.
Next, we bring the coffee cherries that we have hand-picked to the drying station. We pour the cherries in the sun-drying beds which are specifically built to dry the coffee cherries under the hot tropical sun. The coffee leaves are separated from the red cherries. This drying process takes a few days depending on how dry the weather is. In Tarrazu, the sun is very strong during the dry season and it takes a few days to complete the drying cycle.
Once the coffee cherries are dried under the hot tropical sun, they turn dark brown and the moisture inside the cherry is gone. At this point, we transfer the cherries to our warehouse and start the process of eliminating of the coffee husk. This is a mechanical process using a very old method of a wooden tool called Pilon. With a stick, the dry coffee cherries are crushed against the bottom of the “pilon” and little by little, the green coffee beans start to appear. From time to time, we have to take the cherries out to air them out to get rid of the husk. This process has to be repeated a few times until the green coffee is clean and ready to be washed. Sorting the coffee beans husk out is mostly done by using “bateas” or large wooden pans.
Once the husk is removed using the Pilon, the green coffee seeds or coffee beans are ready for the roasting process. Before roasting, we wash the beans thoroughly with mountain spring water and hand-select the coffee beans to make sure there are no objects or husk leftovers. This is very crucial since any leftover husk or impurities will get burned and produce lots of smoke, which is detrimental to the quality of the coffee.
Learning how to roast coffee beans correctly in a mud oven is critical. The green coffee should be placed inside the oven just like if you were cooking pizza. Coffee should be placed in a flat iron pan so the coffee beans are not on top of each other. The flames should never touch the coffee beans and the smoke should never get near them. Monitoring the color of the coffee beans is also highly important. The coffee should be taken out of the oven when they turn yellow or a little brown and the outer skin is removed from the bean. You must air them out to get rid of the coffee skin. If you don’t do this, the skin will burn and lots of smoke will fill your kitchen!
After the oven, the final touch in the roasting process can be achieved by using either a “comal” or flat iron pan or a “perola”, which has higher edges. After airing them out and the skin or husk leftover are removed, put the coffee beans in the “Comal” and place it in a wood stove. It is said the wood stove give a special flavor to the coffee beans roasted this way. Here there will be lots of smoke if you didn’t clean the beans properly. Costa Ricans usually use medium roast for the Coffee beans since highland coffees taste better at medium roast. Another obvious reason is that Dark or french roast takes longer time to be ready in the wood stove and generates lots of smoke so people tend to avoid the extra time and smoke by roasting the coffee beans medium. A rule of thumb is to stop roasting once the coffee beans start shining with the coffee oils.
Now that you have your shiny coffee beans, the next thing to do is to grind the coffee, using a smaller version of a “Pilon”. This wooden tool has deeper walls and it is smaller. Pour the coffee beans and start smashing them against the bottom of the pilon until you get the ground coffee you want to use for brewing. Make sure you just grind enough coffee beans for your daily consumption. Keeping whole bean coffee is the best since once you grind the coffee beans the oxidization process start to accelerate at a faster rate.
Once you have your ground coffee the brewing process can start. In Costa Rica, we simply boil Mountain spring water and use the “chorreador”. The chorreador is a cloth filter placed in a wooden ring just above the coffee jar or coffee cup. Simply pour ground coffee, then boiling water in the chorreador, put your cup of coffee underneath and you will have your coffee in a few seconds.
Most people in rural Costa Rica also harvest sugar cane to make Natural sugar. After a long process, the natural sugar is converted to “Tapas de dulce” which in turn are boiled with a little water to make natural sugar. It certainly look like molasses but it is not. My grand parents used to put a teaspoon of liquid natural sugar in each coffee cup.
Costa Ricans, back in the 1930’s used to drink coffee in the mornings and afternoons, before and after long hours of hard work in the coffee fields. Coffee was usually poured in tin or ceramic coffee cups like the one pictured above.
Back in the days, rural Costa Ricans were very good bakers, mostly using corn as the main raw material due to the scarcity of wheat and because corn has always been the king staple of Central Americans.
These corn-derived delicacies used to be consumed in the mornings and afternoons together with the delicious coffee they harvested. The most popular back then, and still popular in rural Costa Rica is the Bizcocho ( pictured above )
The above steps are a very good roadmap for a great Costa Rican-style cup of coffee. To summarize, these are the easy steps to follow to enjoy a great cup of gourmet coffee in the mornings or afternoons, the Costa Rican way:
Step 1. Pick red coffee cherries
Step 2. Sun Dry the coffee cherries
Step 3. Peal the dry coffee cherries in a “Pilon.”
Step 4. Wash the green beans
Step 5. Oven
Step 6. Roast in “Comal” or “Perola”
Step 7. Grind with rustic manual coffee grinder or Pilon
Step 8. Brew with Costa Rican “Chorreador”
Step 9. Add Natural sugar from sugar cane
Step 10. Serve in “Jarro de Loza”
Step 11. Drink your morning coffee with “Bizcocho”
Do you know other ways people from other countries process and brew their coffees? I am sure there is a wealth of information regarding coffee and the culture around it in far away places like Indonesia and Vietnam. If you do, please go ahead and share your experiences in our blog.
When visiting Costa Rica, make sure to visit a real coffee farm. Chances are you will be able to experience this unique Costa Rican coffee tradition.
Do Costa Ricans take too seriously the coffee brewing experience? What do you think?