When I tell people I just came back from Costa Rica, the first question they ask is, "Did you visit any coffee farms?" It's a fair question, considering that Costa Rica is the region's -- if not the world's -- vanguard for innovative coffee cultivation and farm organization. But I've already written about more advanced palates than my own traveling to farms in Costa Rica
Instead, I had other, simpler coffee experiences.
Here are a few "postcards" from my trip.
The author (background) and his friend Scott at La Casa del Café San Ramón.
When you hear "roadside" coffee, quality probably isn't the adjective that percolates to the top of your list. Sure, random roadside-diner coffee has its own "so bad it's good" charm, but let's be honest: It's nothing without that slice of coconut cream pie. Costa Rica breaks this stereotype for the caffeinated traveler.
As the Pan American Highway snakes its way up and over the Tilarán mountain range, small cafés and restaurants offer innumerable combinations of rice and beans, baked goods and, of course, coffee. Just outside Alajuela, immediately west of San José, there is a tiny roadside café that we visit every time we're in Costa Rica, La Casa del Café San Ramón. My boyfriend's father claims they serve the best coffee in Costa Rica.
La Casa is perched on a steep hillside as the highway makes a sharp curve. The low, dark wooden ranch sits away from the road. A gravel driveway buffers the semis hauling cargo from the Caribbean to the Pacific port of Puntarenas. The dependably moderate climate makes doors optional; La Casa has decided against them. It looks like any tico
café at first glance. The same dark wood makes up the floors, walls and ceiling, creating a homey monotony. The owner's family and possibly a friend sit at one of the tables and gossip. The café continues out on to a covered porch over looking a small valley and its dense canopy.
A Costa Rican view.
A cup of coffee is 500 colones
(just under a dollar). The proprietors of La Casa grow the very coffee they serve. This humble roadside café is the only place in Costa Rica where their coffee is served. The beneficio
(the mill that processes the coffee) reserves the rest of the crop for export only.
The barista prepares the coffee Americano style. With every cup made to order, there's never a concern about getting burnt coffee. The coffee has a clean, vibrant taste with medium body. There are the fruity, dark chocolate notes that one expects from Central American coffee. I have to admit, though, after having been in Costa Rica for only three hours, I'm more concerned with the setting than the intricacies of the coffee.
We take our cups to the patio and saddle up to a long, thin counter with some stools to take in the view. The canopy is so dense it's hard to tell when one tree ends and another begins. Low hanging clouds cover the verdant valley in a shadowy calm. Mist slinks long over the canopy in the distance, obscuring any view less than a kilometer. I've never seen the view in full. These clouds are here every time I am.
These roadside stops are a simple pleasure when traveling in Costa Rica. It's hard to imagine stopping in a similar place in the U.S. and not feeling like your walking into a scene from Deliverance. The Costa Rican stops have an honest, homey quality about them. The country's abundance of coffee -- quality coffee -- makes these small farm-based cafés possible. I can't say if it's the best coffee in Costa Rica, especially for a country with as sophisticated a coffee cultivation as this. One thing's for sure though: there isn't a bad seat in the house at la Casa del Café.Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.