We’ve been sourcing from Aquiares for 7 years and recently our head roaster Tim Gane visited.
Aquiares is an amazing farm, sitting high on the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano. It is also the largest coffee farm in Costa Rica. 80% of its land is dedicated to growing high quality coffee and the remaining 20% is used for conservation. This amazing farm recently achieved carbon neutrality, its coffee plots are interlaced with over a dozen natural streams and almost 20 kilometres in streams, all protected with buffer zones in line with the Rainforest Alliance certification Aquiares has also achieved.
The farm has many wonderful advantages, it sits at a high altitude, with all coffee grown between 820 and 1,400 metres above sea level, the volcanic soil is extremely fertile as well as being high in magnesium and potassium, along with the cool night temperatures and high humidity desirable varietals like Caturra, Centroamericano and Esperanza flourish. Ultimately Aquiares aims to find synergies between environmental health and coffee plant health, seeking long term stability in production.
Coffees from Aquiares are characterised by a sweet, fruity and clean profile with a lovely line of minerality synonymous with volcanic soil. Over the years working with Diego we have tasted many exceptional coffees and we hope to continue expanding our buying from him, plans are in the works to purchase a higher volume lot from him in the future as well as continuing to buy smaller micro lots.
For 2022 these are the lots Tim selected, for transparency follow this LINK
Centro Red Honey
The backbone of Aquiares is it’s people, the people that have been there not only for a lot of years but people that share heritage from parents or grandparents, for example Armando Jara, who manages the mill, Armando’s father used to be the Agronomist and retired just last year after 44 harvests. Armando and I are good friends and we share this common thing of inheriting this from our parents and this level of commitment that comes with that. When I took over from my father Armando had almost been waiting for me, I started asking how the coffee tasted and he was like “I’ve been telling your Dad we should be cupping!” so we started super basic with old school grinders and a diesel fuelled roaster that would smoke up the whole room and we’ve come so far from there and Armando has been there with me through that whole journey.
Rafael Acuña the financial manager has also been at Aquiares for 40 plus years, he’s due to retire in 6 years, he started as a farm hand, working in the field, and he’s pretty much done every job there is on the farm, then he started an administrative role as a cashier, then an accountant, then the head accountant and now he’s the financial manager. He’s the nicest dude, he’s got this huge moustache, and he’s full of jokes, he never gets angry, also he’s this great balance for me because he’s always thinking of the risks whereas I’m always keen to take a chance. On top of that he worked with my Dad for a long time and my Dad was a real mentor for him so Rafael is great for me in looking back and keeping the same structure, order and organisation. Also Roger, the agronomist, his family have always been involved, my Dad gave him a scholarship and passed him through university, then when he came on board in 2014 a little after I did, he was the guy who helped me start the varietal gardens. He would go monitor those gardens, see how different varietals were in terms of pests, making sure the pickers were keeping the cherry from the gardens separate, monitoring the coffee for yield, screen size, all of those sorts of things. Two or Three years of that kind of information really helped us decide what we should be planting and that’s a lot of why we started planting so much and focusing on; Centroamericano, Esperanza, Caturra and Entre Rios. Last year Manuel Jara who was the chief agronomist on the farm retired after 44 harvests and now Roger is our chief agronomist, and he’s really young to be managing so many hectares of coffee.
It’s really hard to mention everyone because there are so many amazing people involved!
It’s because of this feeling that we’re getting slammed by a different curve ball every year when it comes to weather, and what does that mean we’ll be facing in ten or twenty years. We have all this data thanks to my dad, he was much more of an engineer than me, thanks to him we have a 37 year record of daily rainfall. So when you have a graph and you can see changes from year to year compared to the 37 year average you can really see how crazy things are. Our approach when it comes to climate change is adaptation, mitigation and reducing carbon towards a goal of net zero.
In the past the farm was just coffee, you could be on one side of the farm and you could literally see to the other side, there was nothing blocking your view. Now, it’s a freaking forest, you can’t see more than a hundred metres in front of you, and that’s a big change. A big change, and one that brings consequences that aren’t entirely positive in the short term. There’s more competition for nutrients in the soil, there are spots where the coffee is overly shaded and as a result there is a higher risk of fungal growth and pests on the plants. These are the main cons from a coffee growing perspective and there are lots of positives that outweigh them but they can take a while to come through. You’re building your soil, and helping to provide a shade buffer when the conditions for growing are getting hotter. You’re also improving the way that you select the best tree species for shade. We didn’t know that when we started this transition in 2003, so a lot of trees were left to grow that turned out to be an issue, for example the Poro tree is a huge tree with orange flowers, we planted them all over. They’re great, their leguminous trees, they fix nitrogen but they’re so big now and they aren’t that strong.
For example last year we had a big accident, a branch broke and it fell on top of a worker, and it was a bad accident, he had to have surgery, so there are issues when you’re making these changes. Now we are not planting those trees any more, we’ve selected other trees, so it’s a learning curve, but in coffee it takes so much time to learn these things. So it’s all about predicting and planning ahead, what is the weather, the rainfall going to look like in 10 years, when you’re planting a coffee tree that hopefully should be there for 25 years, you want to make sure it will thrive and you are planting shade plants etc that will also be there for 25 years. These are big decisions that require a lot of imagination and planning. Of course you can seek advice from other coffee producers, from agricultural departments of universities but we’re in Turrialba, and the advice of someone in Terrazu or West Valley or Central Valley.. well the difference in conditions mean it’s like asking for advice from someone on another planet. So we’ve tried make Aquiares a bit of a research hub, having all these varietal gardens and making these different alliances with World Coffee Research or working with CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre), it becomes really important. In essence the approach is to open the doors of your farm to whoever wants to come see it and to take advice and collaborate wherever possible. So there’s adaptation with doing this research, doing things like finding the best varietals, mitigation in things like growing shade crops and then the carbon emissions lowering, well, that’s really just about good karma!
Well lets see, honestly, it’s been a journey, of course, I have a two year old son, when you’re there and it’s a Friday or Saturday night and your there with your kid thinking back to ten years ago, being in a party or twenty years ago, I was in school or in uni, preparing for this moment and then I’m here, a grown man with a kid, with this old sort of, responsibility. And I love it, there’s a huge responsibility of course, Aquiares is a farm but it’s also this whole community and it has such a history, and there are people in its history who have allowed it to evolve and transcend from this sort of very old school, colonial estate from British descent with the Lindo brothers in 1890 to being this coffee powerhouse, exporting lots of coffee, with its own mill. The Figueres family who took over the farm in 1949 helped grow it from 200 to 600 hectares of coffee. They expanded the farm and invested a lot in the mill, they were leaders in pushing wet fermentation, and producing wet processed coffee at a time when naturally processed coffees were prevelent. Then of course another key person in the farms history is my father who took over in the 90s, he took over this still pretty old school estate where people didn’t own their homes, and if you lost your job, you lost your home. My father had worked as a politician in Nicaragua and had all of this frustration having failed to turn Nicaragua into a Democracy, it fell into the hands of the Sandinista’s who are still the current dictators. So he saw Aquiares as, the job he was going to retire in, he took it on when he was 62 and worked it until he was 80, he did all of these transformative things, turning it into a real community, turning it from a more extractional farm into an agroforestry model, trying to sell high quality coffee more directly to farmers.. He was a huge part of making the farm where it is today, developing a really good team and a really good organisation.
Empowering people from the town to take on jobs as accountants, or engineers or agricultural engineers. He built this team of people who were really looking up to him and developed it into this symbiotic relationship between the town, the community and the farm and it handed me a really solid foundation to go crazy. I’m working with people that are happy, are loyal and have a purpose. It’s a big responsibility but it’s a great opportunity, so when i was at uni and all my classmates were deciding what to do and going to employer fairs and deciding what to do and I wasn’t sure what I should do, my gut was telling me to stay with the family business. There were moments where I was very well aware and committed to the great opportunity that I had with Aquiares, it was clear to me that I needed to go at it full throttle.
So here I am at home with my kid in 2022 and I’ve been working at aquiares since 2013, so just short of a decade, I’m 34 and I think there is still a lot to be done and so many exciting challenges ahead. Every time I think about it, I think, I’m all in.