By Sofía González
“What happens in Costa Rica is that coffee companies buy the coffee in bulk, which is a coffee that you don't know where it comes from. Right now, we are the only company at a retail level that offers traceability, which means that you can know which farm it comes from, you know who the producer of this coffee is.”
Marcela Porras, the co-owner of Roble Sabana Coffee, spoke with great propriety and at great speed. She was not in a rush, no. She spoke with great expertise, clearly aware of every single aspect of her company.
“We treat coffee like we treat wine”. She went on, “The rest of the brands say that it comes from Tarrazú or Guácimo, but you are not able to say from where, from which farm. Why? Because they buy their coffee in bulk. On the other hand, we want to know what are the characteristics of the cup, how we treat coffee and with what food can you pair it with.”
To offer the best coffee, you require the best coffee beans. But the best coffee beans are not simple to find. It’s a delicate chain of factors that, if tuned correctly, will produce a cup that is delectable, traceable and ethical.
Marcela explained, in a very short conversation, how does Roble Sabana do it.
The Porras sisters, Marcela and Adriana, always wanted to have a business together.
What Makes Them Different
Specialty coffee, which is a type of coffee ranked over 83 points on the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), obtains such a high score because it comes from very small lots and the grain obtained is very high quality. But it’s not only specialty coffee that Roble Sabana wishes to be recognized for.
First, as mentioned before, it’s traceable. There’s a face associated with the bag of coffee that person is purchasing. Marcela points out that “coffee is selected or pre-selected, from the farm to the roast. That means that it is traceable to the farm. You know who the producer of this coffee is.”
Such a way of treating specialty coffee is very similar to how the market works in other countries. “Of course, that happens in other countries. Specialty coffee markets are present in some countries of Europe. You’ll see them in Japan. It's happening more and more in Korea, as well as some parts of Australia and in a few cities of the United States, too. Our idea was to create a specialty coffee market right here, with Costa Rican producers.”
But there’s a third particularity that makes Roble Sabana stand out. “We are part of the International Women in Coffee Alliance. This organization focuses on forming bonds between other women that work in the coffee industry - from producers, to coffee roasters, to coffee tasters, to coffee exporters. We wanted to look for producers of high quality coffee, but also for women who are in charge of the business.”best coffee beans in the market.
“The coffee business is very male-driven and women seem to have little room in this market.” She continued: “Yet there are many times when it is women who are behind the business. We wanted to look for these professionals, many of them very very successful in the coffee world, but relatively unknown here. Because that's what happens with quality coffees.”
Roble Sabana’s three pillars are intimately tied to the owners themselves. The company was created by two sisters, one of them who lives in the United States. Marcela, on the other hand, is a publicist that worked with the Costa Rican Coffee Institute (Icafé) for over seven years. At the Institute, she not only learned about processing and roasting - she became a barista, too.
Marcela’s time at the Icafé was key. It helped both sisters get to know the producers and create a strong contact network that would help them start their own business. The last step was to choose specific producers they wished to buy the coffee from and negotiate each lot. They purchase the coffee in its green (also called “oro” or gold in spanish) in order to roast and commercialize the grains purchased from local producers.
For the Porras sisters, working with women-lead or women-only business is incredibly important for their vision.
To both sisters, the image of the roble sabana tree is a powerful one. This tree, which grows in both the Central Valley and Guanacaste, is widely known for its pale pink flowers. When researching about this particular tree, both sisters found out that the roble sabana was used as a border between coffee plantations. Although few plantations use them nowadays, it’s relationship with the coffee plant itself is undeniable.
The Best Coffee Beans, from the Plantation to Your Cup
So, how does coffee grains go from a farm in, for instance, Tarrazú, which is one of their providers, to your cup? Turns out each farm follows very similar steps, with slight differences between each other. She mentioned specifically the case of Las Lajas in Sabanilla de Alajuela, owned by Francisca Cubillo and Oscar Chacón, one of the four farms they purchase coffee from and the only certified organic farm they work with.
“The Las Lajas farm, because it is an organic farm, requires more people. An organic farm needs more maintenance in pruning and manual fertilization. So, there are a lot of workers during the harvesting season, which is between November and January. Everything is processed little by little, not in big quantities.”
She continued: “The coffee is dried in African beds in a process called honey. This does not mean that anything is added to the coffee. They use the same honey from the mucilage to impregnate the green coffee and give it a special sweetness. This is a special treatment that is given to coffee.”
Coffee from Las Lajas farm is 100% certified organic.
After the coffee has dried about three, four or six weeks - depending on the climate - they are stored for one, two or three months. The parchment is then removed and the coffee is stored in sacks. Las Lajas reserves a part for Roble Sabana to sell them as their brand.
The toasting process, according to Marcela, is a particular one. “Once we have it in our warehouses, we roast the coffee with a specific setting for each lot. It's not the same roasting setting. It's like a chef who cooks a specific dish and has already tried out the best way that dish tastes. At the beginning of the year, we roast the coffee in several settings and we choose the one we like best.”
“We keep that setting and that is the one we use for the rest of the year. That's the coffee that reaches the customer.”
Photos courtesy of Marcela Porras.
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