Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #29.
This review is a tad out of the ordinary for two reasons. First, I don’t buy coffee from Costa Rica. For the most part, they have gone in for sun coffee and chemicals and the Costa Rican marketing model makes it very difficult to identify where and how a particular bean was grown. You can read all the details in my post on coffee growing in Costa Rica. Second, I don’t buy coffee from Starbucks. Not because I dislike the company, but I just find most of their coffee overroasted, not very fresh, and in the case of the Black Apron line, outrageously overpriced ($14/half pound). Nonetheless, the back stories of the Black Apron coffees have been so interesting (e.g., Gemadro, Terranova) that I always see what’s new and what I can find out about it.
The latest Black Apron Exclusive is Organic Lomas Al Rio. Lomas Al Rio is not an estate, farm, or co-op, but a coffee mill in the Central Valley. This area is known for its sun coffee. To its credit, Starbucks makes no claim that this is shade coffee, and clearly states Lomas Al Rio is a mill. This source is not new to Starbucks, which has been purchasing Lomas Al Rio coffee since 1998; it is an intregal part of its Cafe Estima blend.
The Lomas Al Rio mill receives coffee from well over a hundred small and medium farms. It doesn’t process exclusively organic coffee, in no small part because so little organic coffee is produced in Costa Rica (less than 1% of the crop). Many farms in Costa Rica that were once organic have given up on it and gone back to using chemicals (non-organic nitrogen fertilizers in particular). The reason often given is that quality can’t be sustained organically. This is inaccurate in general, but in the case of large areas of sun coffee, it may be true. Sun coffee monocultures strip the soil of nutrients, and pests are more prevalent without the predators (birds, lizards, other insects) found in more forested coffee farms. The long route to high quality organic coffee in Costa Rica would probably involve re-planting a lot of native shade trees. Obviously, it’s easier to just start using non-organic means instead.
Around 2002, Lomas Al Rio was Costa Rica’s first Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified coffee. Alas, it is no more, having let certification lapse.
No doubt this coffee is Catuai and/or Caturra, as these sun-tolerant varieties are very dominant in Costa Rica. If the “use by” date on the packaging is 6 months out from roasting, we sampled this coffee at two months old, rather long in the tooth. It produced a weak bloom, so I’d guess the we’re pretty close on the age. As I mentioned, most Starbucks coffees are roasted too dark for my taste. This wasn’t too bad, a medium-brown with a sheen, but no spots of oil. But I was dismayed at the pieces and shards in the bag, and the tell-tale missing divots on many beans, a sign that the coffee was roasted too fast. This is a sign of carelessness, but may only affect a given batch. At $14 a box, I was not about to buy another to see how common this error might be. So my expectations were not high. I was very happily surprised.
This coffee had great balance, with a medium body, a pleasant, soft mouthfeel, and a nice finish. It was wonderfully sweet when hot, and it had a distinct flavor than none of us (amateurs) could identify. Marzipan popped into my head — some sort of carmelized sugary almond flavor. Another taster also felt strongly about an almond note. This intriguing mystery flavor meant we tried it repeatedly with different people. Just about everybody liked it, and nobody came any closer to really nailing the sweet taste. Once the coffee really got cool, it took on a sort of odd flavor. But, what do you know, it got a solid 3.25 motmots.
Coffee Review tasted Lomas Al Rio from two different roasters in 1998 and 2002.