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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

(continued from page 1)

During the rainy season, the workers at La Minita are busy with activities such as fertilization and shaping of all of the trees, as well as maintaining a vital nursery for seedling transplantation. In order to maximize production, each tree must be expertly pruned to make sure all of the plant's energies go into yielding the biggest and best fruit. Because the plantation does not use herbicides, all weeding is done with machetes, which adds greatly to production costs. McAlpin says that La Minita's decision to avoid using herbicides is based not only on their adverse effect on human health, but also on the plants themselves. Over time, herbicides greatly compromise the nutritional value of the soil.

High regard for La Minita Coffee is extremely widespread throughout the specialty coffee industry. George Howell, a Boston-based coffee executive, is generally referred to as one of the true aficionados in the coffee business; a "mentor," as one coffee distributor put it. Howell, who recently sold his majority share in the successful Coffee Connection, Inc., to coffee giant Starbucks, makes his living judging grades of coffee. He knows more about what's out there than most in the industry. He buys coffee from around the world and has an intimate knowledge of most of the operations from which he purchases beans, from Latin America to Africa. It is consistency of quality that most impresses him.

Howell has watched La Minita develop from its conception. "Bill McAlpin is the most reliable source there is," says Howell. "La Minita is the only coffee in the world that I could conceive of buying blind."

Howell adds that when someone approaches him with a new coffee to sell, there is often a lot of hype associated with the sale: a discussion of the plantation, the process, etc. But when McAlpin first contacted Howell, he simply offered him some brewed La Minita coffee and kept his mouth shut. Says Howell: "He let the coffee do the talking."

Kevin Knox, senior vice president of coffee operations at the Allegro Coffee Company in Boulder, Colorado, says that La Minita started as "a lunatic experiment in quality--to see how good you could make it if money were not an object." Knox thinks that La Minita's high production costs are justified by the taste of the finished product, and he adds that there are a number of more expensive trademarks that lack the polish of La Minita, which he calls "stunning in the cup."

While the plantation produces other varieties of coffee, it is the premier trademark brand, La Minita Tarrazu, for which it is renowned. The arduous process that McAlpin has created for weeding out inferior products in favor of first-quality selection is evident in all aspects of production--from seed selection, cultivation and picking to depulping, fermentation, drying and sorting, after which the coffee is sold to distributors who roast it. It's extremely time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive. The first-quality selection process is rigorous; of the more than one million pounds of processed coffee from the plantation, only about 250,000 pounds, or 1,650 bags, will become La Minita.

Once at the mill, the fruit is depulped, separated according to size and transferred to fermentation tanks, where natural enzymes slowly strip away the mucilage covering the beans (each fruit contains two coffee beans). Proper timing during this process is critical in order to prevent ruining the bean. Next, the beans go through a series of washings that remove more layers of mucilage, while again separating out the largest and best product for "first quality" classification. From there, the beans are laid out on a concrete patio and left for a few days to slowly dry in the tropical sun; they are then put into mechanical dryers. During these steps, the internal humidity of the bean is closely monitored. If the bean is overdried it will crystallize, and if left too moist it will quickly go stale.

For 60 days, the coffee is in the reposo, or rest, stage, where it lies dormant under tarps, allowing the beans to stabilize. At this point, workers take samples of the beans to the lab to be reclassified according to size. The samples are then roasted and tasted. The tasting procedure, known as "cupping" in the trade, is conducted by an expert who can appraise the overall character and strength of the coffee through the systematic sampling of brewed beans. Although at this point the coffee has few imperfections, McAlpin's almost manic devotion to quality requires another step. Prior to bagging, scores of women inspect the entire product by hand, bean by bean.

Sitting in front of waist-high wooden trays filled with green coffee, workers examine every bean, removing all discolored, misshapen, inferior beans. The concentration needed for this work is so intense that the women work only six hours a day, with 15-minute breaks every hour and a half. This process alone annually accounts for about 30,000 man-hours of labor.

The comparisons between the production of great wine, great cigars and great coffee are quite telling. Grapes, tobacco and coffee beans are each grown in specific regions chosen for particular environments of soil, rain and temperature. Each crop employs complicated and critical processes of farming, harvesting and fermenting. Adverse weather conditions can devastate any of these crops, and any error in one of the many strict steps in processing can have a disastrous effect on taste, be it in a glass, a cigar or a cup. Those who create a superb Burgundy or a hand-rolled cigar are driven by no less dedication to perfection than those who grow a world-class Costa Rican arabica.

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