Don Alfonso - Aquiares Estate, Costa Rica

Aquiares Estate is one of Costa Rica's largest and most historic coffee farms, sitting on the fertile slopes of Turrialba Volcano. Its history dates back to 1890, where a British family planted the first coffee trees, seeing the enormous potential in the location. Over time, they grew the community to over 1800 people, becoming one of the first farms to export Costa Rican coffee.

In 1971, the farm was acquired by its current owners, three closely-knit families who have since taken the estate to greater heights. Don Alfonso Robelo is the patriarch of one of the families, who took over farm management in 1992, making social welfare a priority. The workers of Aquiares Estate see it as more of a community than a farm, and themselves as more of partners than employees, which speaks a lot about the management of the estate.

Don Alfonso's son, Diego, has since followed in his father's footsteps, leading the charge in experimenting with new varieties, and collaborating with World Coffee Research (WCR) and the Costa Rica Coffee Institute (ICAFE). This includes an experimental garden for Central American Coffee varieties for WCR.

This coffee is a 'Don Alfonso' lot, which means it has been specially selected by Diego, to represent the best the farm has to offer - named after his father, Don Alfonso Robelo. It consists of the 'Centroamericano' variety, which is a hybrid of Rume Sudan and Sarchimor. Developed by a variety of different research institutes, it combined the best traits like high cup quality and resistance to diseases. This variety has been found to be very well-suited to the farm's high elevation, and lends itself well to honey and natural processing. Hence, the Robelos decided on processing this microlot using the natural method.

All coffees from Aquiares Estate are picked by hand, to ensure high quality. Microlots, in particular, are picked by a special team of skilled pickers, who are paid well above the daily rate, for their skill in selecting the optimal cherries at each pass. Each tree is visited up to seven times throughout the harvest, to pick only the ideal ripeness.

The cherries are then transported to the mill, where it is analysed for floaters, green, or unripe cherries, ensuring quality. This natural lot is floated for density, with the floaters removed, and immediately moved to the solar dryers. This is a large greenhouse with ceramic floors, where the coffee will dry for 2-3 days. Thereafter, they are moved to raised beds, also in the greenhouse, to dry for another 10 days. The process finishes with mechanical drying in the Guardiola (a rotary drum dryer) for 1 day.

When Diego initially started to experiment with honey and natural lots, he faced a large deal of discouragement, due to the unsuitable wet, humid climate. "Everyone told us we were crazy. You are never going to make honeys and naturals in Turrialba. We decided to prove them wrong", he described.

The Robelos sourced a greenhouse from a neighbour who had been producing roses, and built drying beds in them. After drying the first lots, they realised there was still a great amount of temperature and humidity fluctuation, dependent on the time of day and weather. To tackle this, they installed an airflow system, which circulates dry air of 36°C, maintaining a consistent temperature. This worked well, increasing capacity and reducing variability between lots.

Today, the estate covers 924 hectares, 80% of which is shade-grown Arabica. The name 'Aquiares' means 'land between rivers' in Costa Rica's indigenous language, with the farm blessed with a multitude of clean water sources, with natural springs and rivers interlacing the coffee plots. The estate forms a natural corridor for local animals, birds and plants. The stringent environmental stewardship enabled Aquiares to achieve the Rainforest Alliance Certification in 2003.

Written by PPP Coffee

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