Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Taming Our Wild Costa Rican Coffee

About two-thirds of our finca is secondary forest. The one or two acres in the southeast corner had gone unexplored until a few weeks ago when I decided to clear the brush along the lower boundary. As I chopped saplings and vines with the "cuchillo" (machete) between the forest on our side and the living fence of caña on the other, I noticed several healthy looking coffee plants in the gloom, some as tall as four feet.

cutting saplings in coffee field
Tamara and Lily clearing saplings
Looking more closely, I could discern terraced rows of plants running across the slope of the hill. These dark green bushes looked robust. Some even had ripening coffee cherries in their branches.

These plants were probably sown at least 20 years ago when most of the finca was producing coffee, but their growth had been stunted in the last decade due to the thick overgrowth blocking out the sun. Fallow and fed by nitrogen-rich leaves of the large Poró trees, which have grown to heights of 30 or 40 feet, it's quietly and happily survived on the forest floor.

A week or so after my discovery, Tamara and I went in with machetes and pruners to start clearing the overgrowth with the hope that we can get these plants producing again. Coffee plants can live several decades, so they might revive with more light and  additional fertilizer at the start of the next rainy season.


Coffee in the forest
"Wild" coffee receiving much needed extra sunlight
As we felled the saplings and brush, we lay the trunks, branches, and leaves parallel to the terraces where they will break down and provide some nutrition to the plants during the next several months.

We haven't counted the number of plants yet, but a rough guess is at least 200, probably more. There are twice that many seedlings sprouting on the forest floor around the bushes, which we can use to fill in gaps in the rows or add to our recently planted coffee outside the forest.

When the farmers here terrace their coffee fields they typically put the plants on the flat part of the terrace. This forest coffee, however, is planted on the slope between the flat parts. I find this latter method makes it easier to navigate through the plants and it should make picking easier as well. If we plant any new coffee, we'll adopt this alternate method.


This initial clearing is hard work, but when all three of us tackle it together, it goes quickly. So far, we're putting in just a few hours a week on the project, which means we'll should have it cleaned up in a month or so, depending on how far up the slope the coffee goes.

We're very curious to know what variety of Arabica these plants are. The original owner is still around, living in the village below us, so we'll stop sometime and ask him about that.  Meanwhile, we've harvested a couple of large handfuls of cherries already, which we're processing by hand. In about a week we'll be able to roast it and brew a couple of cups of "wild" coffee to see what it tastes like. It's not likely we can get seven bucks a cup, but I'm sure the first taste will be precious just the same.

5 comments:

  1. Interesting to say the least. You may just be our next coffee guru!

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence Nell. I'm still on the steep part of the learning curve with this project.

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  2. Wow, how exciting! What a nice surprise for you.

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  3. You guys are amazing with all the projects (i.e., hard work!) that you take on. But good for ya... probably nothing like your own homegrown cafe!

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    Replies
    1. I think the first very small batch of beans is ready for home roasting now, so we shall see...

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Thanks so much for your comment! - Casey

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