Ecological Engineering in the Tropics

Costa Rica – MSU / UCR – December 27, 2014 – January 10, 2015

Jan. 7 – Santa María de Dota – Jackie

Figure 1 – Santa Maria de Dota, retrieved from


Figure 2 – The elusive quetzal, retrieved from

Santa Maria de Dota:

This small, authentic Costa Rican village sits on the edge of the Talamanca Mountain Range within a beautiful valley.  There are close to 200 species of birds, including quetzals, hummingbirds, and tanagers (not teenagers).  The nearby Los Quetzales National Park and Naranjo Waterfalls offer awesome opportunities to view wildlife and beautiful natural environments.  If you want to take on the mountains, Cerro Calera southeast of Santa Maria de Dota is the closest of a few peaks (Santa Maria de Dota– South Central Region of Costa Rica).  The average temperatures are between 65 and 75°F (Santa Maria de Dota, 2012).

While we didn’t have time to visit these locations, our tour of the Coopedota in the heart of Santa Maria was an adventure in and of itself!  The Coopedota coffee processing facility is the economic backbone of the town.  Santa Maria is best known for the shade-grown Tarrazu coffee produced there.  If you have any doubts about the quality of their product, the manager of the cafe there has previously won third place in a national barista competition, and is famous for her signature drinks (Santa Maria de Dota, 2012).

Coopedota billboard

Figure 3 – Billboard by the Coopedota facility, photograph by Jackie Thelen

Additional information about Santa Maria de Dota can be found here:

Schedule:Adventure Inn Front

Breakfast at Adventure Inn

8am – departure for Coopedota

Morning – Tour the coffee processing facilities

Afternoon – Tour the coffee farm and operating facilities

Figure  4 – Adventure Inn front entrance, retrieved from


The Cooperativa  de Caficultores de Dota R.L, or Coopedota, is a cooperative with 769 producers that collaborate with the development of all activities related to coffee production including cultivation, wet processing, industrialization, and marketing of coffee for export or national consumption (Coopedota R.L., 2014). The main goal of the cooperative is to offer its members the best liquidation prices for their coffee. Coopedota accomplishes this by developing coffee production processes, obtaining better services and benefits for its members, promoting trade and consumption, producing and purchasing necessary raw materials, collaborating with other institutions, and seeking to improve the economic and social development of the surrounding area.

Their mission statement, from the company website, is as follows:

Coopedota R.L. is a company committed to the social economy of coffee producers in the area of Los Santos, dedicated to production and marketing of green and roasted high quality coffee for national and international markets, developed with an environmentally clean process, supporting their associates with the required services and training, motivating its employees and contributing to regional development.

Coopedota was also recognized as the world’s first carbon neutral coffee producer in 2011 (Coopedota Coffee Cooperative, 2013).  To learn more about Coopedota’s sustainable production, see these news articles:

Coopedota Banner

Figure 5 – Coopedota banner, photograph by Jackie Thelen

The Tour

Joined by professors of The University of Costa Rica, Alberto and Carlos, we set out to experience everything the Coopedota had to offer.  When we arrived, our tour guide Gaby greeted us warmly with coffee, cookies, and a smile.  We watched a short video about the Coopedota and its activities to assist farmers and promote sustainability within the coffee industry.  After that, we headed outside for the next phase of the tour.

First we looked at the micro-mill, a smaller-scale version of the large coffee mill used at the beginning and end of the harvest season when yields are lower.  Using this smaller mill instead of its larger counterpart saves a great deal of energy.

Gaby and the cajuela

Figure 6 – Gaby showing  the cajuela, photograph by Jackie Thelen

Gaby also showed our group the standard measuring unit for coffee cherries, a box called a cajuela, which is volume-based not mass-based.  Experienced coffee cherry pickers can pick about 15 cajuelas per day, and expert pickers are said to pick closer to 35 per day.

Next, Gaby described the composition of the coffee cherry.  The outer shell, the pulp, and the mucilage underneath are removed and the remaining seed is dried in the sun, greenhouses, or a rotating oven.  We looked at the sun drying batches first, which have to be turned every hour.  Maricruz and John gave the boy on duty a small break by turning a couple rows.

Coffee CompositionMaricruz raking coffee beans

 Figure 7 – Composition of a coffee bean (left), and Maricruz turning drying coffee beans (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen

Central coffee mill

Figure 8 – Large coffee mill, photograph by Jackie Thelen

Next we visited the large mill and looked at all the machinery involved in collecting the cherries farmers bring and sorting them into different qualities by weight.  Since this process stresses the beans, they are stored for about two months to regain the original properties that give them their unique taste.  Gaby then took us to see the natural and mechanical washing systems.  After the pulp is removed, the honey remaining on the seed is either fermented and washed off in the natural wash or mechanically removed, with no difference in flavor between processes.

The rotating ovens were next on our tour, then the main storage area filled with large metal silos and bags of dried beans.

Rotating ovenSeed pouches

Figure 9 – The rotating coffee bean oven (left) and Maricruz sneaking into another action pic of the dried bean storage bags (right).

Coffee quality table

Figure 10 – The coffee quality testing table, photograph by Jackie Thelen

For one of the most interactive portions of the tour, we went into the quality control room to experience a standard coffee testing technique called cupping.  The first step of the cupping process is testing the fragrance of the ground coffee, so everyone took turns lightly hitting each test cup and taking a big whiff.  Second, hot water was added to each cup, and Gaby showed us how to ‘break the cup'(dipping a spoon into it and stirring) and take in the scent again.

Finally, everyone tasted each cup of coffee using a specific technique:  the coffee had to be slurped forcefully, swished around the mouth for a bit, then spit into a cup.  After everyone had a chance, our very own coffee genius, professor Alberto, took us to school with his masterful slurping technique.

Coffee aroma testing

Figure 11 – Coffee aroma testing, photograph by Jackie Thelen

In tasting the different coffees it was made evident that quality depends on personal taste.


Coffee breaking the cup 1Coffee breaking the cup 2

Figure 12 – Gaby demonstrates the proper technique for ‘breaking the cup’ and inhaling the fragrance a second time, photograph by Jackie Thelen.

Coffee tastingProfessor Alberto's technique

Figure 13 – Our tasting technique (left) versus that of professor Alberto (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen.

At about noon, we took a break for lunch at the plant manager’s house.  We dined on delicious food beneath a lattice of  beautiful hanging flowers.

Lunch plateLunch group picture

Figure 14 – Delicious food (left) and fun group pics (right), photograph by Jackie Thelen.

Not wasting any time (…well, maybe a little time), we headed to the coffee farms.  After checking out the composting coffee pulp piles and the worms that lie therein, we hiked up the coffee-studded slopes to harvest some coffee cherries with the other workers.

Farm slopeGroup climbing slope

Figure 15 – Coffee farm (left) and group action climbing shot (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen.

Jugo harvestingMob harvesting

Figure 16 – Different methods of harvesting coffee cherries, photograph by Jackie Thelen.

Our strenuous hike up the mountain was rewarded with a spectacular view of the valley and Santa Maria.  Many selfies and panoramas were taken, to say the least.

Santa Maria SceneSanta Maria Valley Scene

Figure 17 – A couple pictures of the scenery from atop the mountain, photographs by Jackie Thelen.

John in a tree

Figure 18 – Also, John found a tree, photograph by Jackie Thelen.

Walking through the coffee farm, it was really interesting to see the many concepts we had been discussing at work in this system.  Seeing the slopes, I thought erosion, runoff, and soil management.  With the surround trees I imagined the agronomy, shading, bacterial and fungal response, and the nutrient cycles.  The plants themselves required compost or fertilizer, chemical pesticides, fungicides, and/or herbicides and all of these had to be taken into consideration for the output product.  This final product then required analysis of organic labeling, sustainability, biodiversity, economics, supply and demand, cultural norms, fads, global markets, laws, and everything else that goes into making a successful product.  It reminded me of the concepts we had learned in class and the coffee articles I had read that looked at these concepts separately.  However, we ecological engineers must consider all these factors and more in order to design solutions to the world problems.

Back to the tour!  We left the farm and returned to the plant to see the coffee roasting and packaging area.  About 10% of Coopedota’s harvest is roasted in their facility and sold locally, and the rest is shipped as ‘green’ (unroasted) coffee to the export countries.  Coopedota packages its own brands, but also those of other companies (same coffee).

Coffee roasterCoopedota brands

Figure 19 – Coffee roaster (left) and Coopedota’s local brands (right), photograph by Jackie Thelen.

We returned to the processing plant as farmers were backing their trucks laden with coffee cherries from a long day’s picking.  The cherry sorting and processing was in full swing, so we got to see the machines in action.

Basin filled with cherriesProcessing plant in operation

Figure 20 – The main basin filling with coffee cherries as farmers bring in their harvests (left) and machines sorting the coffee cherries by size (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen.


Juan Pablo Guest Speaker
Figure 21 – Surprise guest speaker, Juan Pablo, photograph by Jackie Thelen

We ended our tour back at the video room, where a surprise guest speaker gave a presentation about pilot scale bio-digesters fueled by Coopedota’s pulp, mucilage, and water waste (for the non-participates, I’m being facetious, the speaker was Juan Pablo who has been with us the entire time).  After Juan Pablo’s presentation, professor Alberto explained an assignment focused on the energy and mass balances around the coffee process with the digester.  After a moment of shock and confusion, our group broke into teams and tackled the problem head-on, all reaching the same solution (some rounding error) within a few minutes.  It was an excellent example of the types of problems ecological engineers will have to consider in this specific context.  Taking experimental data and fundamental concepts and using them to make meaningful calculations and estimates typifies the ‘engineering’ side of this field, and interpreting the numbers we come up with requires an extensive understanding of the mechanical and ecological processes within the system.

After the tour, we went to the Café Privilegio to buy some coffee and sample the signature coffee drinks and desserts.  After eating, thanking the patrons, and winning a free portable coffee filter (in the case of Maricruz), it was time to head home.  DJ Jota Peh (Juan Pablo) kept a stream of hip tunes for the bus-goers inclined to karaoke on the bus ride back.

Cafe group pictureFigure 22 – Group picture at the cafe, photograph by Jackie Thelen

Overall it was an incredible and extremely informative day, and I had a blast being day leader (hopefully everyone else enjoyed themselves as well)!


Reinhold/Reese: MSU

Juan Pablo Rojas: lead UCR student

Alberto Miranda and Carlos Benavides: UCR

Adventure Inn, San Jose, Costa Rica Website:  http://www.adventure–

Adventure Inn Listed Phone Number: +506 2239 2633

Coopedota R.L. Company Website:

Coopedota R.L. Listed Phone Number: +(506) 2541-2828

Coffee display

Figure 23– Coopedota logo collection, retrieved from


Coopedota Coffee Cooperative (2013).

Coopedota R.L. (2014).

Introducing Santa María & Valle de Dota. Lonely Planet.

Santa Maria de Dota – South Central Region of Costa Rica. Anywhere Costa Rica.

Santa Maria de Dota (2012).

Voinea, Anca (2012). Coopedota leading the way to carbon neutral coffee. Co-operative News.


13 thoughts on “Jan. 7 – Santa María de Dota – Jackie

  1. Sounds like an excellent opportunity. Be sure to discuss with April, as she LOVES coffee! Hope you enjoy your experience and looking forward to following you on the blog. ML

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Drink extra coffee for the coffee lovers up here! 😉

    …or at least try it lol

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I learned from the tour guide that the coffee fields are very close to Los Santos Forest reserve which is a national park. I wonder if they have had issues in the past of pesticides or fertilizers impacting the ecosystem of the reserve. I also think that being in close proximity to a forest reserve might increase the motivation to increase sustainable practices in growing and producing coffee.


  4. I really enjoyed this trip, because it really shows the economic and social importance of this crop. But to understand why this crop is so relevant to the country it’s also neccesary to look at the history.

    After trying various crops and activities to incorporate in the global economy of that time, Costa Rica finally hits on the rightspot with coffee. The processed product was sold to Europe and the United States, and that brought a very important income of money. But, the great thing about the activity was that almost all of the central valley population got beneficiated from it. First, the hight class started to buy land in San Jose for raising the crop and to construct the infraestructure for procesing the coffee, also called “beneficios”;some of then also became lenders. On the other hand, medium class and people with land nearby the capital, Alajuela and Heredia, started to produce in smaller lots and to sell the coffee beans to the beneficios.
    The ones with less resources could also thrive from coffee, some of them worked picking coffee, or rented their oxen carts to carry the product to the docks.

    Even daily live and politics changed around it. Vacations started at the same time as the picking season, so children could help on the task of picking the berry. Also, a tax was used on exported coffee, and the national theater. Even we had it in aour 5 colones bill.
    So, for us costarricans coffee is not just a crop, is part of our process of developing a nation and a idiosyncracy. We call it the golden bean, and it is represented in our national shield.
    As worldwide citizens and engineers, understanding all the edges and the background of an economic activity, can help us getting a better perspective of the problems and also the solution we should develop.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great post! As you said, coffee has had profound effects on the economic, social, and cultural growth of Costa Rica. However, it seems that coffee production has been decreasing recently by a reasonable margin, especially when compared to other coffee-growing countries. Some have said that this is due to the age of coffee plants in Costa Rica, that many of the trees are past their prime and farmers don’t want to lose too much capital in replacing them.

      Why do you think coffee growing has diminished recently? How will this affect the communities that depend so heavily on coffee, like those in the Central Valley? Why would this be relevant to an ecological engineer?


  5. One of the most important things or the best aproach for me in the coffee industry is try to understand what are the emergy aproximattions in the coffe production (coffe plantantion and coffe millin) as you can see, to get the best quality coffee it is necessary to have altitude close to 2000 meters. Normally in an elevation of 2000 meters there are big slopes and the erosion factor is high and the land changes its soil managment. Anouther contradiction is the quantity of energy is necessary to propare and dry the coffee because normally the good coffee needs lower temperatures in the dry coffee air. For me if you want to have quality coffee you will not be a very enviornmental friendly coffee producer.

    Overall I enjoyed the day at Cooperative and I hope all the students had a good time. Also I appreciate everyone telling me what a good job I did on my presentation. It made me feel very good.


    Liked by 1 person

    • There always seems to be a trade-off between cost and environmental health, but it’s interesting that with coffee there is also a similar relationship with quality and environmental health. Is it possible to provide incentive to decrease ecological impacts when quality is sacrificed? How can Costa Rica keep up its reputation for high quality coffee and environmental sustainability at the same time?


  6. I really enjoyed the coffee tour. Talking with tour guide, I learned there was Los Santos Forest Reserve very close to the coffee fields. I’m sure this has been a motivator for them in taking actions for being environmentally friendly. I liked that they have a carbon neutral coffee, which is internationally recognized as Carbon Neutral. I am curious to learn more about the qualifications to make something carbon neutral.

    I also thought it was impressive that 90% of the economy in that area was dependent on coffee. It showed that small farmers have the opportunity to make a living off of their farm and the whole community benefits. It makes you feel good to support a company that helps their community! I know I’m going back with lots of coffee!


    • I agree! The fact that Coopedota is investing in sustainability and supporting the national initiative to go carbon neutral is a great sign! Do you think there are dangers associated with having such a large portion of the economy dependent on one industry, especially in light of the cocoa catastrophe two years ago? Should they try to change this dependence, and if so, how?


  7. Awesome ! Looks like fun !


    • It was super cool! So much goes into the production of our coffee that we don’t know anything about. I wonder what effect it would have if everyone knew about the origins of their food. Would they change their consumption habits, or would it just be an interesting conversation-starter at Starbucks?


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