A Passion for Taste

In Costa Rica, Bill McAlpin Is Obsessed with Making Sure that La Minita Tarrazu Is the World's Greatest Coffee
By Jim Daniels | From Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
A Passion for Taste

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.

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.

Yet coffee is unique in one very important aspect: It is probably the only product in the world for which the grower, the distributor and the consumer all play an important role in the successful delivery of the product's taste. As McAlpin puts it, "It really doesn't matter how careful I am in my process, or even how good the roaster is in his; the consumer can still ruin it."

Coffee education is therefore extremely important from a business perspective for both the producer and the distributor. Visitors are constantly arriving at Hacienda La Minita to witness the coffee harvest firsthand. Many are employees of some of the best-known specialty coffee companies in the United States, whose employers see the value of educating the people who sell their coffee. Most of the owners themselves have journeyed up the steep mountain roads to Bustamonte, the small Costa Rican town where La Minita grows its coffee. They regard McAlpin's operation not only as a supplier of exemplary coffee beans, but also as something of a classroom.

McAlpin first discovered his discriminating palate in Switzerland, where he attended high school. It was there, in fact, where he first learned about fine cigars, smoking Cuban Partagas. "They came in glass tubes with little humidifiers on top," he recalls.

But it was in Latin America, growing up on coffee plantations, where McAlpin learned the coffee business. As a boy, he worked the coffee fields, picking the red fruit alongside the other workers, some of whom continue today to work the harvests of La Minita.

McAlpin's success is simple in theory and complicated in execution: To create the best coffee, he controls the entire process. This degree of perfection does not come easy. "I know there's a risk of burnout when you're working at this level," he says as he lights a Romeo y Julieta. "But the rewards are enormous."

Jim Daniels is a Maine-based writer/photographer who reports frequently from Latin America.