Thursday, April 21, 2016

Costa Rica Part 6: The Doka Estate Coffee Tour

Coffee cherries growing on the same plant ripen at different rates. The cherries first turn from green to yellow and then are picked when they become bright red. Dora Estate, owned by the Vargas family, was another stop on our tour of Costa Rica. This coffee plantation is located in Sabinilla Canton of Alajuela Province, a couple of hours drive northwest of San José. Doka Estate produces one of Costa Rica's finest coffees and its quality has resulted in numerous awards.

Photo of the Vargas family in 1940. A yunta (a yoked pair of oxen) stands next to a traditional carreta (see Part 4 of this series)Three generations of the Vargas family surround it. Many of the younger family members clutch the baskets used when picking the beans. Coffee workers get paid by how many full baskets they can deliver by the end of the day. The baskets are suspended in front by a cord around the waist so that both of the worker's hands will be free.

The headquarters of Doka Estate are surrounded by almost 4000 acres of coffee plants. The Vargas family story starts in 1929, when Don Clarindo Vargas, the patriarch, was operating a store in San Isidro, a town in Sabanilla Canton. In 1929, he foresaw the approaching economic disaster known as the Great Depression. Deciding to change occupations before he lost everything, Don Clarindo closed his store and put his money into a small dairy farm. After all, people will always need to eat. After about 20 years as a dairy farmer, he decided to switch to coffee, despite his lack of knowledge of the business. The plucky Costa Rican started small, planting only about 7 acres at first.

Our guide during the coffee tour reveals ripening coffee cherries beneath the leaves. Since the cherries don't all ripen at the same time, a picker will return to the same plant several times over the course of the season. Our guide was very knowledgable about the planting and processing of coffee, as well as fluent in English. Don Clarindo and his growing family labored steadily on his coffee farm for a number of years. The payoff came in 1959 when his son founded Beneficiadora Santa Eduviges, a multi-faceted business that includes the Doka Estate. Santa Eduviges is named after the patron saint of homeless families. Doka Estate's coffee plants now cover 3954 acres. The Estate is only one of a number of plantations owned by Santa Eduviges.

Banana trees are used to provide shade to coffee plants in some fields. Bananas were introduced to Costa Rica by Minor Keith. He was a US businessman who built the first railroad from the Central Valley to the Caribbean port of Limón, greatly increasing coffee exports. Today 90% of Costa Rica's crop is exported and only 10% of its coffee is consumed locally. In the early years, planting and harvesting coffee was the Vargas family's sole focus. Over time, they became involved in processing  and drying the beans. Still later, they began to directly export their crop. Although much of the processing machinery used at Doka Estate originated in the 19th century, Santa Eduviges also has a website and uses the internet to support its international sales.

There are several layers inside the red skin of the coffee cherry. Each layer requires a separate stage of processing. During the 1980s and 90s, the company began to offer its product for sale to its own employees who, by then, amounted to 200 full-time and 3000 seasonal workers. In 1997, Santa Eduviges launched Café Tres Generaciones (Three Generations Coffee), a chain of four coffee houses located in various parts of Costa Rica. Patrons of these shops consume 20% of the coffee that Doka Estate produces. In addition, internet purchases are a growing part of the sales total.

Old-fashioned belt-driven machinery processes the beans. The coffee cherries move down from level to level in an ingenious method that employs gravity to assist.  As the cherries move through each process, the various layers covering the coffee bean are removed. At the last stage, the beans are spread out on a large concrete platform to dry before being collected in large sacks. This is the oldest coffee factory in Costa Rica and has been declared part of the country's Historic and Architectural Heritage.

A water wheel slowly turns next to the coffee plantation's restaurant. The water flows from the pipe above the wheel. The weight of the water dropping into each of the vanes along the rim of the wheel causes it to revolve. Waterpower was one of the earliest non-animal forms of energy harnessed by humans for industrial purposes. The earliest description of a vertical water wheel, like that shown above, is by Vitruvius (31 BC - 14 AD). He was a Roman who wrote a treatise on all aspects of engineering. This one differs from the Roman version only in that the Costa Rican wheel is made of metal. Otherwise, the design and function are virtually identical. You may recall seeing a similar red water wheel at the ox cart factory in Sarchi (Part 4 of this series).

And, speaking of ox carts, this is one of several kept in a shed at the Doka Estate. It may well be the same one you saw in the family photo. Coffee first arrived in Central America in 1740. It came first to El Salvador, but didn't reach Costa Rica until 1796. The first export destination for Costa Rican coffee was Chile. Ironically, Costa Rica's coffee was bought by European merchants who re-exported it and sold it under the label "Chilean Coffee from Valparaiso."

An obstacle course stands in the middle of Doka Estate's coffee fields. Some of the services offered by the coffee plantation include tours, a Bed and Breakfast, a restaurant, and a facility for "team building". This obstacle course is part of a program offered to businesses so that employee groups can build trust and become better teams. Quite an odd thing to find sprouting among lush green coffee plants.

This completes my posting on the Doka Estate. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email them directly to me. However, if you do leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Saw the Hacienda article in the Guad Reporter and thought you might like this even if almost nothing of the "house" is left. Back when they grew cotton on the coast of Jalisco.

    Two Blog posts on Hacienda Jaluco .... AKA Pamplona


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim