Coffee Dreams at Doka Estate
I woke up early today, excited about my morning tour of Doka Estate, one of the oldest and largest working coffee plantations in the country. A longtime fan of their Tres Generaciones coffee, I was eager to learn more about the source of this caffeinated gold. Coffee has been an integral part of the Costa Rican economy and culture since the early 19th century when it was first planted in the rich volcanic soils of the Central Valley. Having grown up in a strict Maxwell House (with the occasional Folgers), I now appreciate the bold flavors of real coffee, and Costa Rican coffee is arguably some of the best in the world.
My coffee adventure began with a 40-minute bus ride from Alajuela to La Sabanilla, located near the slopes of Poas Volcano. Our bus traveled via the narrow Fraijanes Road, winding gently up the mountainside. As we climbed to 4500 feet, past coffee farms and spectacular valley vistas, the plants seemed greener and the air fresher and cooler. The bus dropped me off at the coffee plantation entrance where I boarded the Doka Estate transfer for the remaining one-kilometer journey. The minibus was packed with bags of fresh roasted coffee, bound for souvenir shops across Costa Rica. The smell was so heavenly that words escaped me. I breathed in the heady aroma, ready to begin the day.
While waiting for the next tour to begin, I sampled some Italian espresso (Doka's darkest and richest blend) for an extra caffeine kick. Overlooking acres of coffee plants, the coffee station was set up in a rancho-style restaurant where guests can have an authentic Costa Rican meal either before or after their coffee tour.
After our group of eight assembled, tour guide Ricardo introduced himself and gave us a bit of Doka history. A working coffee farm since 1908, the estate has changed hands several times and is now run by the Vargas family which has been growing coffee in Costa Rica for 90 years. The estate uses a century-old water mill, imported from England, to power their processing plant; a rustic building that was recently designated a historical and architectural heritage site by the Costa Rican government.
We began our tour with the baby coffee plants, dubbed "little soldiers" by staff, their eight-week old stems standing straight and tall. Only Arabica beans are planted at Doka Estate. These plants produce a smooth, high-quality coffee but, unfortunately, yield low quantities over time.
To compensate, Doka plants two seedlings together, so they eventually yield twice the amount of coffee using a single plot of land. Ricardo explained that Doka is working on becoming a fully sustainable coffee plantation, meaning they re-use, recycle and are environmentally friendly. Banana, lime and lemon trees are planted among the coffee plants to increase nitrogen in the soil, create shade and to attract wildlife to the area. The discarded coffee cherry skins are recycled as a natural fertilizer and water used in the fermentation process is cleaned naturally in lagoons before returning to the watershed. Workers use pheromone traps to kill off coffee plant pests and avoid any direct insecticide.
For this ecological practice, Doka Estate is paid five percent more by Starbucks, one of their biggest buyers (60 percent of their exports). Other major importers of Doka coffee are Peet's and Seattle's Best.
Our group kept Ricardo on his toes with thoughtful questions throughout the tour. They were clearly serious about their coffee and knew a lot about gardening. We learned that the Arabica plant has a lifespan of 25 years, of which only 18 to 20 are coffee-producing. In ideal weather conditions, a coffee plant will produce a mere 20 pounds of coffee in its lifetime. I suddenly felt guilty about my daily two cups.
As harvesting season runs from November through February, most of the coffee plants had either new white blossoms or green cherries. Someone in our group spotted a cluster of ripe red cherries, which started a discussion on global warming and early ripening, a problem when you don't have enough labor to pick the cherries. Hoping to combat this, Doka has hired engineers to research fertilizers to slow down the ripening process.
As our tour progressed to the water mill and processing plant, we learned how the cherries were separated, peeled, fermented and dried. I noticed that my group was laughing a lot, mostly at Ricardo's dry wit and funny remarks. Having been on a lot of tours, I was pleased at how fresh and fun this one was, lacking that rehearsed feel.
We moved on to my favorite area, the roasting room. Here, small batches of coffee beans are roasted anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, to achieve desired levels of rich, toasty flavor. As we took turns smelling the seven varieties of coffee, Ricardo showed off their bestseller, the Peaberry bean. A mutant variety of Arabica that is spherical in shape, the Peaberry grows singly in the cherry unlike the usual two beans. My group dubbed this mutant the Frankenberry and wondered how it differed in taste. (After sampling some, we concluded it had fruitier flavor than the rest).
As our tour ended, we were invited to shop in the souvenir store, where nearly all of us purchased a few pounds of coffee. I chatted with Ricardo a bit longer before tucking into a hearty lunch of salad, rice, beans and chicken served on a banana leaf-covered platter. Not completely caffeinated, I had another shot of coffee, this time the milder house blend. If I had one complaint it would be the lack of milk on hand; powdered creamer really takes away from the true coffee flavor, a small detail important to coffee purists.
Doka Estate is not a marketing giant, in fact, many have never heard of their brand. Their coffee is not yet available in Tico supermarkets, only souvenir shops, Doka's online store and a few cafes scattered around the Central Valley. The coffee tour lasted a little more than an hour and, although fun, was more educational than touristy. At roughly $5 a pound, Doka coffee is not cheap by Tico standards. Picked by hand and dried in the sun, it is well worth the extra cost; the flavor is phenomenal!
Getting There: Many guests drive themselves to the coffee tour, or arrange private transportation with Doka for an additional cost. I found the public bus to be a cheap (less than $2 roundtrip) and relatively easy way to get there, if you don't mind crowded buses. Note that a taxi or transfer is necessary for the last leg of the trip. Buses run between Alajuela and La Sabanilla every hour.