The other day somebody asked me, “What’s your favorite memory from working in coffee?” Hmmm, I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ve been in coffee quite a while, I have a lot of great memories. Traveling to the SCAA’s annual event. Opening day at multiple cafes. Coffee competitions, many different ones. Gosh, there are so many great events I could point to, although some of my best memories are just getting together with friends and drinking coffee.
When I think of all those memories, there is one common element: celebration. Whether on a large stage or with a small group, my most valuable coffee memories are about getting together and celebrating coffee.
So, I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we get together and celebrate? We certainly have reason to. In fact, we have five reasons.
As Christine announced last week, we are now carrying five different coffees from Costa Rica’s famed Las Lajas, each one the result of a different method of processing. You may have tasted some of these coffees recently in our cafes, but if you want to taste them all, now you have the chance. This Thursday evening, at our Alberta Street café, we will be celebrating these amazing coffees by providing a tasting of all five, side by side. Not only that, but we will be dishing out coffee tonics--a social cocktail pairing gin with the stunning Perla Negra from Las Lajas. It promises be a celebration worth remembering. Won’t you come?
Top to bottom: Yellow Honey, Red Honey, Black Honey, and Perla Negra coffees from Las Lajas, Costa Rica.
I am so excited that this week marks the beginning of the Las Lajas Project at Case Study Coffee. We've featured one coffee from Las Lajas in the shops before; but it wasn't until I went to Costa Rica to meet Francisca and Oscar Chacon that I was able to bring their large line-up of coffees to the shops for a side-by-side comparison. You see, what makes these coffees so special, besides the Chacon family's meticulous organic practices, is the emphasis they are placing on how subtle differences in drying their milled coffee has a huge impact on the final characteristics of the coffee they produce.
Finca Las Lajas, Sabanilla de Alajuela, Costa Rica
The Chacon family's farm is certified organic, as is their mill. Beyond that, they use the unique weather patterns created by their location between two volcanos to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, in making decisions about how particular lots of coffee will be processed. On overcast days they will leave the pulp on the milled coffee cherries for their honey-processed lots, and on sunny days they will utilize a more "washed" technique, where the mucilage is mostly removed from the milled coffee before drying.
For the honey-processed lots featured at Case Study, three drying methods are implemented to achieve different results in the final product. All honeyed coffee is taken to the raised drying beds (pictured below) and covered overnight. After the covers are removed in the morning, the differences in treatment begin. The Yellow Honey coffee is turned first thing in the morning, and multiple times throughout the day. The Red Honey coffee is left undisturbed until the afternoon, at which point it is turned. The Black Honey coffee is achieved by leaving the honeyed coffee all day, and another entire night without turning.
In addition to honeyed lots, Las Lajas also produced two naturally processed coffees which are featured at Case Study: Perla Negra and Alma Negra. These coffees are not run through their wet mill, but are taken to the drying beds with the fruit left intact. Similar to the honeyed coffees, the differences between the naturally processed coffees has to do with how often they are turned on the drying beds; Perla Negra is turned more often, and the Alma Negra is only turned a few times a day.
The wet mill at Las Lajas where the coffee cherries are pulped
The differences between these processing methods in the final cup are remarkable. Most notably, the less the coffees are turned on the beds, the coffees gain a heavier body, and the fruit notes resemble more candied and/or cooked fruit. Obviously the addition of the fruit skin of the naturals also contributes to these flavors and heavier body. The more the coffee is turned, as in the Yellow Honey and the Perla Negra, the more transparent the flavors become, and the more pronounced the acidity.
We are proud to feature all five of these coffees from Las Lajas side-by-side in all our shops for six weeks. Besides our Deviation Blend and our decaf, these are the ONLY coffees available in the shops. The difference produced by the processing methods used are so pronounced that I am confident that everyone will be able to find a coffee in the line-up from Las Lajas that suits their particular tastes, be it a clean, typically Latin profile, or a more wild, fruity, natural cup. Regardless of the processing method employed, all these coffees are incredibly sweet and beautifully balanced.
We look forward to continuing our relationship with Francisca and Oscar Chacon in the years to come as they are continuing to push the boundaries of coffee growing and processing. They have many more projects coming down the pipeline, such as aerobic vs. anaerobic fermentation of their honey-processed coffees, coffee variety experiments, and another natural process, among others. We will be sure to carry these coffees when they are available.
For now, please enjoy these coffees in our shops and in your home. We are offering half-sized retail bags so you can try all five coffees while they are available for these next six weeks. Also, we will be having a Las Lajas event at our Alberta location on Thursday, March 10th, at 6pm which everyone is invited to! The event will encompass a tasting of all five coffees, a happy hour mixer/Q&A featuring cocktails using the coffees of Las Lajas, and a slideshow presentation from my trip to the farm and mill.
Christine with Oscar and Francisca Chacon of Las Lajas
Here is a video I took of Francisca explaining the differences in drying her honeyed coffees (featured is Luis Arocha of Cafe Imports):
This year I finally took the leap into barista competitions by taking part in the Regional Qualifying Event in Kansas City.
A lot of people have asked me what it was like. It’s hard to describe. If you’ve competed before, you know--making coffee on stage is different. When you know that a team of professionals is evaluating your every move and every word, things that you do every day suddenly become heavy and difficult. Stage nerves are real. It’s harder to talk, harder to smile, harder to remember what you were supposed to do and say. It’s an ocean of details, and you are trying to look graceful as you surf on massive waves of adrenaline. The whole experience is altered, disembodied, unreal. I remember being about a minute into my routine and thinking to myself, gosh, I’m glad that there are words coming out of my mouth right now because I have no idea what's happening.
What I can say definitively about my first time competing was that it made me better. It’s still making me better. There’s no way to replicate what competition teaches you. As others have pointed out, competition forces you to raise your game. But more than that, it’s humbling. Humbling because it keeps introducing you to your own limitations. Humbling because it reminds you just how big the world of coffee is. I chose to work with a coffee I know and care about—the Paguaga’s Pacamara from Los Congos, in Nicaragua. It’s a coffee that has pushed me to new heights as a barista every time I’ve worked with it. And I used the remarkable story of its producer, Don Rene Paguaga, as an illustration of the difficult business of making a living from coffee. And that simple task--putting together the story of one coffee and sharing it with an audience--proved to be very humbling.
You can watch my performance here, if you choose the ‘Day 2’ video and start at the 4:18:50 mark.
For a few days after I competed I didn’t want to watch it. I was ready for a break from the whole thing, for one. On top of that I was afraid of how I might look. Confronting fears like that—fears about how you might look and where you might place—is the most crucial work you do when you chose to compete. And I will say that while it’s a weird experience to watch myself work, I feel proud that despite everything I kept it together. I made plenty of rookie mistakes, did things that make me cringe when I watch it back, but I kept it together and delivered on my preparation. More than anything I wish I had smiled more during my performance. That’s one goal for next year.