From January through March, Starbucks flew 800 partners (employees) from the U.S. and Canada to Hacienda Alsacia – the Starbucks research and development farm in Costa Rica – to participate in the 2023 Origin Experience (OE) and immerse in the story of coffee. Two more Origin Experiences are planned for later this year in Indonesia and Rwanda, for international partners.
The partners, all of them certified Coffee Masters, represent a variety of roles within the company, from barista to manufacturing to operations leaders. They met farmers, agronomists and exporters; planted coffee seeds and harvested coffee cherries; saw how coffee is grown and processed; and learned about the best practices that have consistently resulted in yields at Hacienda Alsacia that are 4 to 5 times the national average.
See what they experienced, through this photo essay, and hear from partners about what they’re taking away.
The Visitor Center
“My hope is you’ll never look at a bean or a cup of coffee the same way again,” says Beth Ann Williamson, one of the OE guides, right before partners get off the bus at the Hacienda Alsacia Visitor Center. OE starts with – what else? – a tasting of coffee grown, processed and roasted on the farm. Partners then get guided tours of the Visitor Center, which recently celebrated its 5th anniversary, where they take in sweeping views of the farm and begin to learn about what coffee plants look like at different stages, and how it transforms from seed to cup.
Carlos Mario Rodriguez, Starbucks head of global research and development, and Sara Bogantes, agronomist, explain the work being done to develop the next generation of coffee plants. Their job is to find and cultivate hybrids and varietals with the elusive combination of high yield, good taste and resistance to climate change and disease. Bogantes, a 4th generation coffee farmer, talks about the Starbucks core collection she manages – 617 different kinds of coffee available to farmers through Starbucks open-source agronomy initiative.
After lunch, underneath a big open-air tent on a soccer field, Victor Trejos, general manager of the farm, leads partners out to the Esperanza (hope) plot, named after his mother who passed three years ago, and named after the “hope and love you need to be a coffee farmer.” Partners plant seedlings into the ground, and decorate and personalize identification stakes next to each. “It was oddly emotional,“ says Josh Tesdall, a shift supervisor from St. Paul, Minnesota. “It feels like I contributed to my job in a way that I've never been able to before.”
Don Concho and Doña Maritza, two coffee harvesters, share their family’s story of migrating from Nicaragua and talk about the work of picking coffee cherries by hand. After learning it takes about 25 coffee cherries to make an espresso shot, partners team up and harvest ripe coffee cherries for the next half hour. They marvel at the physical labor needed to fill even the bottom of their baskets.
Wet and Dry Mills
Partners don safety helmets and vests to tour the loud, vibrating three-story wet mill. They can see how the raw coffee cherries are washed and processed; how the skin, pulp and mucilage are removed; and how the beans are sorted into different grades. Some of the beans go to a large concrete drying pad and racks nearby. Others go to the adjacent dry mill where they’re tumbled in heat and prepped for shipping in large burlap coffee sacks. Trejos surprises each partner with their own burlap sack.
A Model Farm
An hourlong drive away, partners meet Napoleon Chavez, 38, a smallholder farmer. About five years ago, his family coffee business was almost wiped out by coffee rust, a fungal disease. He restarted his farm with seedlings from Hacienda Alsacia and adopted Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices. He’s since doubled his yield, and now runs a model farm, where he evangelizes ethical sourcing and sustainability solutions to others in his community.
The Coffee Laboratory
Inside the coffee laboratory, partners practice cupping, the formal observation of the tastes and aromas of brewed coffee. Three cups are placed in front of each partner – a blind tasting of single-origin coffees from around the world. The conversation starts with the senses and how each coffee smells and reacts on the tongue after a big slurp. One sample elicits “tobacco,” “peppery” and “heavier mouthfeel.” Another is described as “sour,” “blueberries” and “juicy.” Other discussions follow. Is unripe banana a good or bad smell? What causes some coffee to taste like a band-aid, or a raw potato?
A tractor pulls a large trailer along a hilly ridge at about 5,000 feet elevation, past densely packed rows of coffee trees on the foothills of Poas, an active volcano. The tractor stops and partners walk up to an overlook, the highest point on the farm. Felipe Arbelaez Jaramillo, the manager of the Starbucks Colombia Farmer Support Center, introduces himself and talks about the role of the 10 FSCs around the world: to help farmers improve crop quality and yield.
After learning about the work of The Starbucks Foundation in origin communities, and a discussion around C.A.F.E. Practices of ethical sourcing and sustainability, partners are asked to gather their thoughts and prepare the stories they want to share when they get back home. It’s been a full, whirlwind schedule – back-to-back 13-hour days. Some want to lead a coffee tasting. Others build photo essays or write poems they plan to share with family members and co-workers back home.
Bella Ledesma (she/her), shift supervisor, Texas
“I'm feeling very grateful and just proud to be here and to be able to experience things first-hand. When we went to go harvest the cherries at the coffee farm, it was hard, and very hot outside. I'm thinking when I brew a batch of coffee that doesn't sell, when I drop a bag of coffee on the floor and it spills, it's perspective on just how much work goes into what we’re trying to produce. I want to share the passion and the love that goes into every single coffee bean that we're making. It's amazing. It's beautiful.”
Albert Millan (he/him), district manager, Philadelphia
“Most of my time with Starbucks has been inside stores and seeing the last 10 feet, so being here and seeing what the first 10 feet looks like, really closes the loop as far as my whole journey as far as being a Starbucks partner. One thing that I know that I can take responsibility for is how I can bring that coffee passion back inside our stores, in my portfolio, in my district, and then hopefully inspiring others to follow that lead and reignite that passion across the area.”
Kathleen Cook (she/her), senior administrative assistant, Toronto
“Sometimes when we're in the moment, a heated moment or a chaotic moment, we'll say, it's just coffee. And what I would say is, it's never just coffee. It is a livelihood. It is a person's pride. It is a family's heritage. It is a legacy. It is a community's future. And so I just sort of go back to respecting the coffee and the entire journey that it goes through. It was a really intense two days and very, very full. But I leave with excitement, engagement and pride. Just so much pride.”