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Caffeinating a Culture

Jessa Reid Bolling
Kaylin Bowen
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Emma Bissell
Lane Stafford

The pair of oxen stepped forward. The wheel began to turn with an almighty groan. Father and son passed long strips of sugarcane through a press, squeezing out the juices to collect into a reservoir. The two men threw the spent cane into a pile to dry, and it would eventually be used to fertilize the field where it once grew. Coffee plants perched on the hillside, flourishing under the watchful eyes of the El Trapiche farmers. The coffee shrubs appeared comically small next to the towering forest of sugarcane, but the unassuming dark green leaves nestling the bright red berries are the lifeblood of this farm. 

Left: Juan de Dios Santamaría Hidalgo, owner of the plantation, puts sugarcane into the press to extract the sugar used to make his family’s coffee. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Right: Oxen Chocolate and Cappuccino provide the muscle to turn the sugarcane press. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter

Like many small Costa Rican farmers who have made the transition to a primarily tourist economy, coffee is not their only crop. Fields of sugarcane, plantains, arracache, oranges, macadamias and bananas stretch across the hillside just outside of Santa Elena, where guides lead visitors through the farm this family has cultivated for decades.

Juan de Dios Santamaría Hidalgo, the current owner of the El Trapiche farm, inherited the land from his grandfather, Higinio Santamaría, who moved to Monteverde from San Ramon in 1948, making the journey in ox-pulled carts. Hidalgo began to open the farm to tourists 10 years ago to support his son’s, Royner Santamaría, education. The coffee is grown, harvested, sorted, roasted, packaged and sold to the tour visitors as well as in select coffee shops in Costa Rica and abroad. Their beans are sold to individual stores, not large corporations. 

The move to Monteverde was carefully calculated for the promise of prime soil in the mountainous area. According to the National Coffee Association USA, the best conditions for growing coffee shrubs are along the Equatorial zone known as “The Bean Belt.” Costa Rica is located in this fertile area. While coffee can be grown in other areas, the strip of land between latitudes 25 degrees north latitude and 30 degrees south latitude results in the highest yield and quality. 

After completing his studies, Royner came back home to work on the farm. The farm employs both guides and field hands, and the skills Royner learned at the university majoring in business help him manage the farm.

While he enjoys showing visitors the methods they use in processing sugar cane and coffee, the highlight of his experience is being able to work alongside his family and continue traditions his grandfather started on the farm.

 “The part that I enjoy most is working with my father,” Royner said. “That’s
the best.”

Left: Coffee plants on the El Trapiche plantation are grown in pairs. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Center: Coffee plants on the El Trapiche plantation are replanted in larger areas after they are strong enough to survive. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
Right: Royner Santamaria, son of the owner, Hidalgo, works alongside his family on the farm. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
Left: Coffee berries are bright red when ripe and extremely tart in flavor. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Center Left: Coffee beans are dehydrated in a green house. The different colors indicate various methods of production that creates diversity of flavor. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
Center Right: Coffee beans are shelled and sorted by machine. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Right: Coffee beans are cooled after exiting the roaster before being bagged. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter

"We know our country is so small that we can’t compete per quantity... So, we are smart and we prefer to compete per quality."

-Keilyn Barrantes

During tours, Hidalgo prepares for the next group of tourists who come to visit his family’s coffee plantation, loading sugar cane into the sugar cane press, powered by two trusty oxen, appropriately named Chocolate and Cappuccino. In addition to powering the press, the oxen pull a traditionally decorated ox cart to give visitors a first-hand feel of the jarring, bumpy ride that brought the family’s ancestors to Monteverde.


For generations, this family has been selling their own home-grown coffee, using the sugar cane they grow as a sweetener. In addition to flavoring their product, farmers like Hidalgo use the fibers from spent sugarcane to generate electricity, brew rum and distill Costa Rican alcohol, called “guaro.”


Keilyn Barrantes, one of tour guides for El Trapiche, said that the tours are a valuable way to educate the public on how coffee was traditionally made before the use of fuel powered mills and how coffee has influenced the Costa Rican economy.


“This is to show you a little bit of our culture,” Barrantes said. “Coffee and sugar cane are not native to Costa Rica or American countries, but it’s something that’s very important to our economy.”

The two primary types of coffee beans are Arabica, which are cultivated on this farm, and Robusta. Arabica beans are valued for their quality and high acidity that gives them a sweet, milder taste. Robusta beans have more caffeine and a strong, harsh flavor. However, in some areas it is preferred for its production value because it is easier to grow, produces fruit more quickly and is less vulnerable to pests and weather-related illness.   


In 1989, the Costa Rican government declared the Robusta species coffee was no longer to be cultivated due to the poor quality. This made farmers focus their efforts on the Arabica species of coffee, for it’s richer aroma, flavor, lower caffeine and its ability to grow in the higher elevation and volcanic soil in the area.


“We know our country is so small that we can’t compete per quantity,” Barrantes said. “Do we want to compete with Brazil or Columbia? It’s impossible. So, we are smart and we prefer to compete per quality.”

To facilitate the growth of the often delicate Arabica bean, the family plants seedlings in pairs. This causes the plants to compete for resources and in the end creates two stronger plants than if they had been planted individually.

Left: Keilyn Barrantes, a tour guide for El Trapiche explains the growth of sugarcane production. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Right: Coffee production themed murals are all around the plantation. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter

At the end of the tour, Ima Rodriguez, Hidalgo’s wife, offers tourists a chance to taste the coffee grown and cultivated on the farm along with a classic Costa Rican snack of “gallo de arracache.” For those who do not enjoy coffee, there is fresh lemonade made with the brown sugar produced from the sugarcane press.


It is likely that a previous tour group saw the roasting of coffee beans which ended up in another tour group's cups. By monitoring the process from start to finish, the family ensures the best quality of bean and coffee possible. Rain, temperature, location, species and elevation all impact the flavor and quality of the coffee bean, but the way it is processed greatly influences the final product.


The way a bean is picked, sorted, dried, milled, roasted, ground and brewed can change the taste of a cup of coffee. Royner’s brother, Luis Diego Santamaría, demonstrated the sorting and roasting process in a warm, richly scented shed. Pictures on the walls depicted the process as it was carried out in the past. Now, the sorter is automatic, the roaster timed and the aeration automated. However, a mindful roaster like Diego is still necessary.


“Coffee is a fruit and it has sugar. It caramelizes. If we overcook the sugars of the coffee it burns and tastes bitter,” Diego said. “Here at the farm, we try to work with mediums so we don’t get that bitter taste.”


El Trapiche uses the same machines and roasting processes as major growers and roasters in Costa Rica and across the world, just on a smaller scale. For small farms like El Trapiche, the focus is on tour groups, but for larger plantations, capital gains are forefront.

While the total percentage of coffee exported from Costa Rica only comprises about 1 percent of the world’s supply of coffee annually, coffee is consistently one of the largest exports from Costa Rica, according to the United States Department of Agriculture annual gain report. In 2016, coffee was the sixth most exported product behind medical supplies, bananas and other tropical fruits. This number does not take into account the production of small farms like the Hidalgo family’s operation.


While small farms like El Trapiche roast their beans themselves, most of the world’s coffee is grown in one location and roasted in the destination country. In the 2016-2017 growing season, the coffee crop from Costa Rica reached more than 1.3 million 60 kilogram bags of green bean, the dried coffee bean before it is roasted. In this state it can be stored for longer periods of time without losing flavor or quality.


Farms like El Trapiche use the innovations of the larger corporations, the lure of the tourist economy and the depth of their cultural heritage to craft an experience that people come from around the world to see. As visitors pass through the rustling sugarcane leaves and into the warmth of a drying shed packed full of fragrant beans, for a moment, the past meets the present. Like the soothing, rich flavor of coffee, the merging of industry and culture energizes the future of farms like this one.

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