Cup of Excellence Diaries: Costa Rica 2013, Part III

San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo by Matt Swenson.

San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Matt Swenson, our Director of Coffee, recently headed down to Costa Rica for their annual Cup of Excellence competition. Here is his third postcard home.



Dance performance at Cafe de Altura. Photo by Matt Swenson.

The third day got underway and another day of fierce scoring was upon us. After a surprising day of scoring everything below 90 all day yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised in the early hours of the morning and scored three coffees above 90. As I walked down the 5 sets of grueling stairs back to the discussion panel room, I felt really strange, as if I had just cheated on a biology test and scored an artificially high A. After speaking to a Cup of Excellence veteran, I felt at ease and my early morning jitters were quickly put to rest. We had just cupped an insane table of coffees. So it turned out that my jitters-episode wasn’t about scoring doubts, but rather that I had broken through a personal barrier of mine. I had never before had the privilege of tasting and scoring so many amazing coffees on a single table.

As the morning pushed on and the cuppings began to blur together, we finally called it a day and loaded up on a bus to go see Cafe de Altura, which is a member-owned mill, very similar to a co-op. Upon first glance as we pulled up, the massive footprint of this facility was impossible to ignore. Just visiting a small single-family operation the day before, this was the godzilla version of a modest iguana. Everyone at Cafe de Altura was an amazing host. They even treated us to a performance of local culture. Soon, children of the community were surrounding us in a barn, in adorable white dresses and perfectly fitted white and blue suits. They began to treat us to a several song performance that stamped smiles on our faces for the rest of the evening. As if it couldn’t get any better, the daughter of one of the producers came out to discuss the meal that she had prepared for us. She had recently competed in a national cooking challenge and won, so she was weeks away from representing Costa Rica in an international cooking competition. I think I might have stopped eating when my head and palate almost exploded with all the deliciously confusing signals they were receiving. Chocolate on steak? Carmelized Banana on pork? Wait, all of that on a tortilla…WHILE IN A COFFEE MILL?! Woah. It was almost too much to handle for one night. (But I may have enjoyed three plates.)


Joe New York's Ed Kaufmann meets a secret Costa Rican Probat. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Joe New York’s Ed Kaufmann meets a secret Costa Rican Probat. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Our cupping on Thursday ended early and we were given the afternoon off to “catch up on emails”. Not content with sitting behind a computer in a foreign place, Ed Kaufmann of New York roaster Joe drew a map on the back of a napkin and headed for a local bus! Armed with the Spanish-speaking skills of a first grader, I sprinted after the first bus I saw and leapt on before realizing Ed was fiercely chasing behind. Both of us jumped on the bus as it was gaining speed to re-enter the fast paced highway. We were off to a safe start.

This was one of those bus trip you always say you want to go on. I think it went something like this: “Let’s just ride until we see something cool,” “Ok, Cool”, “Cool, man”. We ended up getting off in the heart of downtown San Jose and walked around to different shops. We found our way into the central market where we picked up a few souvenirs for our ladies and then stopped to eat like locals. On the way out, we stopped by a coffee shop and noticed an old Toper roaster. The guy behind the counter could not ignore Ed’s massive smile and natural curiosity. By the time it took me to grab my camera out of the bag, Ed was already behind the counter meeting all the employees and taking a closer look at the roaster. After getting a couple cappuccinos and slices of pie, the manager approached us and told us to follow him. Neither of us are fluent, so we both kind of had the gut feeling that we might be lead into a back alley where it could get ugly. We had big smiles and coffee blinders on though, what could go wrong? As he led us out the doors and down the street, we approached a small retail space where to our surprise he showed us an amazing little Probat Roaster. Almost identical to one of the ones we have at Dallis. Well, in spirit. This little roaster was beat up pretty bad and had a good 60 years of roasting on it. But the familiar sight was comforting and seeing the excitement in his eyes as he showed us was truly priceless. In that moment, we all had that brief sense that even though we didn’t speak the same language, we all shared the same excitement for coffee that bonded us.

Where we went wrong. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Where we went wrong. Photo by Matt Swenson.

We headed back to the hotel confidently, as if we had just conquered a territory and in some sense we kind of did…well until that whole “eat like a local” part caught up to us both almost simultaneously. In a matter of minutes, our stories of local adventures to fellow COEers turned into unadulterated sprints to el baño. We may have ignored the rules of Travelling 101, but it was worth it. At least for those first few hours.