A visit to Doka Coffee Estate in Costa Rica

learning about the difficult work of hand-harvesting coffee in Costa Rica

Shown above: Each cup of Costa Rican coffee begins with coffee “cherries” carefully hand-picked by the basketful in the foothills of the country.

In honor of National Coffee Day this Saturday, I thought it the perfect occasion to share our visit to Costa Rica’s oldest water-driven coffee mill. The family-owned Doka Coffee Estate is located in the foothills just outside of Alajuela and close to the Hotel Buena Vista, where we stayed at the beginning of our trip. While I tend to get very excited about coffee (and by coffee), I wasn’t so sure how my three young children (ages 2 – 7 at the time) would feel about this bit of Costa Rican sightseeing.

Happily, the one-hour tour was led by an enthusiastic guide, Diana, who quickly captured our attention by placing real coffee “cherries” in our hands and inviting us to crush the fruit and liberate the coffee beans inside. While most of us found two coffee beans inside, a few coffee cherries in the group yielded only one – the highly prized peabody coffee bean many afficionados adore.

Coffee beans squeezed out of a coffee "cherry" at Doka Coffee Estate

Shown above: Coffee beans squeezed out of a coffee “cherry” at Doka Coffee Estate.

Diana also shared with us the particulars of the hard work growing and hand-harvesting coffee can be, with most pickers filling ten laundry-size baskets a day for approximately $1 per basket (as shown above). While most of the pickers come to Costa Rica from neighboring Nicaragua, nearly all of the coffee beans are exported from Costa Rica to other countries, where they are custom roasted to the buyer’s specifications (Starbuck’s, etc.).

The enormous intake bin for freshly picked coffee "cherries."

Shown above: The enormous intake bin for freshly picked coffee “cherries.”

But in between the harvesting and shipping, is the surprisingly complex system of preparing the coffee beans. First, the coffee cherries are poured into vats, where they must ferment for 40 hours before running through a peeler to remove the slime coating. The beans are able to be filtered and sorted with the smaller peabodies carefully removed into their own batches–all of this done with generations’-old machinery powered by water.

SOme of the water-driven machinery at Doka Coffee Estate

Shown above: Some of the water-driven machinery still in use at Doka Coffee Estate.

Once the coffee beans move on to the next station, they are hand-raked every 30 minutes during the sun-drying process (cross your fingers for no rain!).

Dried coffee beans ready for export.

Above: Who says the tour is not kid-friendly? Not I They couldn’t get enough of playing in the dried coffee beans.

Finally, the coffee beans are ready to sack up and send off to buyers around the world. Each coffee buyer will have its beans roasted to its own specifications for its own coffee products. Only a very small portion of Doka’s beans are roasted here in the family’s 50-year-old coffee roasting machines and sold to visitors.

Roasted Costa Rican coffee beans

Above: Costa Rican coffee beans displayed by their varying levels of roast.

One surprising thing I learned before our tour ended is that, contrary to popular belief, the darker the roast, the lower the aciditiy of the coffee. So that dark “French Roast” I adore or “Italian Roast” (officially the darkest of roasts) is actually much more gentle on my stomach than a lighter roast coffee (“European” being the lightest).

So how did the kids do? The older two seemed to follow along very well, though the 2-year-old did get a bit antsy now and then. It was easy for one of us to take a turn walking with him around the perimter of whichever area we were at, as he hunted butterflies, examined equipment, or checked out a beautifully painted ox cart. In the end the three agreed they enjoyed the tour a lot – though it could have been the chocolate coffee beans talking (complimentary with coffee samples at the end of the tour).

For more information about Doka Coffee Estate in Costa Rica, click here to visit their website.

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Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, Author of the award-winning Travels with Baby and Take-Along Travels with Baby  www.travelswithbaby.com   facebook   twitter   about the author   

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