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San Jose Day Trip: The Fictional Fields of Cafe Britt

Destination: Heredia

I sat on the bus headed toward Barva, Heredia, and a mixture of excitement and nervousness sat like a knot in my throat. I had just moved to the outskirts of Heredia two weeks prior, and both the bus route and my stop's identifying landmark -- the Barva Castle -- were completely new to me.

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Luckily, my seat neighbor was familiar with Barva and, with her help, I hopped off the bus just north of the huge, medieval-looking castle (a private residence, I gathered). I hailed a taxi, but soon discovered that the quarter-mile journey would have been ideal for a relaxed stroll. The tour's welcome signs were just ahead, and I resolved to make my return on foot. I had arrived at Cafe Britt, a Costa Rican-based coffee roaster and gourmet candy maker. With an online store and locations around the world, the company is dedicated to sharing gourmet coffee and furthering knowledge of sustainable coffee roasting practices.

The taxi pulled up to Cafe Britt's well-manicured entrance almost an hour before the 11 a.m. tour began, and I headed straight for the coffee bar. The tour's literature boasts that its baristas cannot be stumped, so instead of challenging the on-duty coffee perfectionista, I asked her for a recommendation. As an answer, she crafted the Cafe Panna, a tantalizing mix of espresso and coffee-flavored, homemade whipped cream, which I was directed to consume with a spoon -- delicious!

I wiled the remaining minutes away in the on-site gift shop, which offered everything from coffee and latte mugs to Cafe Britt-branded canvas bags and Costa Rica-themed t-shirts. Soon, it was time to begin the Classic Coffee Tour, and I headed to the open field where activities would begin.

As Britt's most popular tour, it departs three times daily -- 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. -- and mixes professional theater actors, humor and hard facts to create an informative and enjoyable experience. The beautiful grounds are mostly decorative; Cafe Britt is not a coffee grower, but rather a roaster. The company purchases its coffee from more than 1000 small growers around Costa Rica. All of Cafe Britt's growers produce shade-grown coffee, and many are 100% organic.

We were welcomed by the fictional plantation's owner, Don Prospero, and began our tour by walking among shade-covered coffee plants. The bright red coffee fruit, called "cherries" when ripe, decorated each plant. Encouraged by our tour guides, we popped open the fruit and sucked on the sweet, soft bean. With a grin, our guide warned us that coffee beans are a natural laxative if enjoyed in excess. Duly noted, I thought, removing the bean from my mouth as gracefully as possible.

There are two types of coffee produced commercially -- Arabica and Robusta -- but Costa Rica only produces Arabica. In general, this bean is more refined and produces a sweeter, gourmet cup of joe. In addition, the Central Valley's high altitudes, mineral-rich volcanic soil and brisk temperatures provide ideal conditions for Arabica coffee -- the cool temperatures allow the plant to produce harder, more resistant beans, which in turn roast into smoother, richer coffee.

After this brief introduction, our guides began to explain the process of coffee production and roasting. Traditionally, coffee is picked by hand since not all beans ripen at the same time, and an unripe bean produces sour coffee. Over a course of six pickings, each plant produces enough beans to fill one cajuela (pronounced cah-whey-la), a special basket that holds approximately 25 pounds of fruit. After roasting, each basket will yield approximately 3.5 pounds of roasted coffee beans. Not to worry: though only 15 to 20 percent of each bean makes it into your cup, the remaining waste is used to create organic fertilizer for new coffee plant seedlings.

Roasting the coffee beans is a five-step process. To begin, the beans are dropped into water; all good beans sink to the bottom. Next, the beans are passed through a net which peels their red skin off, revealing the soft white flesh below. Beans then soak for 24 hours, which helps to remove the second layer of flesh. Afterwards, the beans sit out to dry in the sun, where they must be raked hourly for seven full days. At this point, the beans are only covered by a thin layer of natural parchment, and may be replanted or stored for up to one year. When ready to roast, the parchment is removed, and the bean is roasted -- 15 minutes produces a light roast, a dark roast forms after 18 minutes and 20 minutes creates a rich cup of espresso.

After our coffee field fun, we headed into a low-lit theater and learned about coffee tasting and the bean's history. Two tour participants climbed on stage to assist with bean quality evaluation, which included roughly slurping coffee to taste it in all regions of the mouth. In fact, professional coffee tasters evaluate over 120 cups daily in just this way. A brief stage show followed which, while dramatically overacted, was an amusing and informative way to end our tour.

Finally, my tour group moved into the on-site restaurant, where we enjoyed rich coffee, fresh fruit juice, salad, soup and several main courses. Lively conversation followed, and our friendly tour leaders and Cafe Britt staff stopped by our tables to answer questions about coffee production, Cafe Britt and any other topic we had in mind. We all left satisfied, full and highly caffeinated -- the perfect end to our Classic Coffee Tour.

San Jose Day Trip: The Fictional Fields of Cafe Britt in Pictures

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