Figure 1 – Santa Maria de Dota, retrieved from http://image.anywherecostarica.com/destination/santa-maria-de-dota-costa-rica/wide-1000-1-dsc0019.JPG
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).
Figure 3 – Billboard by the Coopedota facility, photograph by Jackie Thelen
Additional information about Santa Maria de Dota can be found here:
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 http://www.snapshotjourneys.com/costa-rica-hotel-adventure-inn.html
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:
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 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.
Figure 7 – Composition of a coffee bean (left), and Maricruz turning drying coffee beans (right), photographs 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.
Figure 9 – The rotating coffee bean oven (left) and Maricruz sneaking into another action pic of the dried bean storage bags (right).
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.
In tasting the different coffees it was made evident that quality depends on personal taste.
Figure 12 – Gaby demonstrates the proper technique for ‘breaking the cup’ and inhaling the fragrance a second time, photograph by Jackie Thelen.
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.
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.
Figure 15 – Coffee farm (left) and group action climbing shot (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen.
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.
Figure 17 – A couple pictures of the scenery from atop the mountain, photographs 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).
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.
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.
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.
Overall it was an incredible and extremely informative day, and I had a blast being day leader (hopefully everyone else enjoyed themselves as well)!
Juan Pablo Rojas: lead UCR student
Alberto Miranda and Carlos Benavides: UCR
Adventure Inn, San Jose, Costa Rica Website: http://www.adventure–inn.com
Adventure Inn Listed Phone Number: +506 2239 2633
Coopedota R.L. Company Website: http://www.coopedota.com/
Coopedota R.L. Listed Phone Number: +(506) 2541-2828
Figure 23– Coopedota logo collection, retrieved from http://coopedota.com/
Coopedota Coffee Cooperative (2013). CostaRica.com.
Coopedota R.L. (2014). Coopedota.com.
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). CostaRica.com.
Voinea, Anca (2012). Coopedota leading the way to carbon neutral coffee. Co-operative News.