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A Passion for Taste

In Costa Rica, Bill McAlpin Is Obsessed with Making Sure that La Minita Tarrazu Is the World's Greatest Coffee
Jim Daniels
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

A nervous young man clutching a coffee pot quickly crosses the tiled patio floor and stoops to fill a cup. Stepping back, he waits off to one side, impatiently smoking his cigarette in a rapid, staccato motion. A large man in his mid-40s sits back in a chair and, holding the full cup, pauses briefly. A warm breeze rustles bougainvillea blossoms. In the distance, hawks soar lazily over an emerald green valley. Yet there's tension in the air.

William McAlpin, el patrón of La Minita Tarrazu coffee, is having his morning cup. He is an imposing man with steel blue eyes, known both for his dedication to perfection and his intolerance of failure. He is a man in love with good taste--in the coffee he grows and in the cigars he smokes.

He raises the cup of dark liquid, notes the color, and takes a full swallow. His eyes close momentarily. Far below in the valley, a dog barks. McAlpin puts down his cup and smiles, ever so slightly. The young man exhales a deep cloud of smoke, and suddenly the tension is a memory, gone like mountain fog under a rising sun. From where McAlpin sits, high in Costa Rica's Central Mountains, there is reason to smile. His La Minita Tarrazu coffee is regarded by many coffee experts to be the best estate coffee in the world; and this year the harvest looks very good.

For McAlpin, or "Don Bill" as he's known by the workers, drinking his morning cup of coffee is a moment of truth. It's a time for sensual data processing, when the success or failure of the year's labor becomes evident in the cup. In one sip, McAlpin can assess the cultivation, harvest, fermentation and milling (not to mention this morning's roasting and brewing) of his operation. It's the time to taste the rich volcanic soil, the winter rains, the plump berries, the beans drying in the tropical sun--to finally savor the coffee he grows.

McAlpin's passion for taste extends to his cigars as well. He prefers Romeo y Julieta Churchills with a good Port after dinner, describing the enjoyment of a good cigar as "a complimentary taste," meant to be savored along with other experiences such as stimulating conversation or good wine. "The best Cuban cigars are untouchable," he says confidently, "just like my coffee."

Estate coffee plantations control all aspects of the production of their beans--seed selection, cultivation, harvest and milling--rather than subcontracting any process to an outside business. This is especially true in La Minita's case, because Don Bill personally oversees every step. In addition, rather than expose its products to chemicals, La Minita grows its coffee without pesticides. By contrast, the huge grocery store brands, such as those in the "Juan Valdez" category, use a process dictated by enormous volume, and much of its coffee is made from high-yield, low-quality beans. The plants these beans come from are heavily dependent on chemicals, which, experts and connoisseurs contend, not only compromise the taste of the coffee, but ultimately destroy the soil.

The harvest, know as "fiesta de cafe," is an exciting time at the plantation. During the dry season of Costa Rica's "summer" (November to April), more than 500 workers spread out over La Minita's 700 acres to pick beans from more than a million coffee trees. Entire families, including children as young as five years old, work together in the fields filling their canastos, or woven baskets, with the bright red coffee fruit, called "cherries." With these baskets attached to their waists, workers move from plant to plant, gathering the fruit quickly while trying to minimize stress to the trees.

La Minita trains its pickers to pick only the best fruit and to treat the trees gently as they move along the steep slopes, and for this the workers are paid 30 percent more than the national average wage for coffee pickers. The farm employees also enjoy medical coverage for themselves and their families, including their grandparents. La Minita contributes to the local school and the farm workers association pension fund. Last January it opened a $100,000 medical/dental clinic on the plantation.

The harvesting is hard and sometimes dangerous work, and all of it is done by hand. The terraces where coffee trees are planted are steep, in places tilting as much as 60 degrees. Footing can be difficult. Stepping from plant to plant laden with a basket heavy with fruit requires strength and balance. Usually, only extremely fit pickers gather coffee fruit on the sheerest slopes; these young men are paid an additional fee. When you drive around the plantation's steep, meandering dirt roads that zigzag up the mountainsides, you often find it impossible to see the workers picking the fruit among the tall, shiny coffee trees. Only when you turn off the engine and stop to listen to the lilting Spanish rising up from the valley is it possible to realize that workers are picking coffee below.

At the end of each day, pickers haul their sacks of fruit, some as heavy as 80 pounds, up the mountain to a central location where they will wait for the foremen, the encargados, to pay cash on the spot for the volume of fruit picked. While waiting, the pickers clean the fruit of leaves and twigs and remove the unripe cherries. This is the harvest's social time. Everyone relaxes as pickers see their neighbors for the first time that day, catching up on news or just joking around. The foremen measure out the coffee using a 20-liter metal box, called a cajuela, which is a government standard of measurement. Later, a truck will load up the day's harvest and carry the fruit to a receiving station at another location on the farm. Here, the fruit is again measured and held in a bin for immediate transfer to the mill. Throughout the night, heavy trucks make the two-hour drive over the mountains to the mill. Even at midnight, it's common to meet 18-wheelers barreling down the precipitous mountain roads. It is of great importance that the fresh coffee be processed as soon as possible after it is picked.


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