For over a decade, Carlos Mario Rodriguez has cultivated coffee trees he considers to be “as special as children.” From seeds to sprouts, to selected plants and finally sprawling branches, he has watched over them.
“The only thing that competes with my family is the love I have for working with farmers to help improve the productivity and quality of their coffee crops,” said Rodriguez, Starbucks director of global agronomy.
Rodriguez has been with Starbucks since 2004, when the company opened its first farmer support center to provide coffee growers in Latin America with resources and expertise to help lower costs of production, reduce pests and disease, improve coffee quality and increase their yields of premium coffees.
Six years ago, in partnership with a local cooperative, Carlos planted a very special coffee on the La Ines farm. Together they were looking for the perfect union of disease tolerance, high yield and a coffee that would have an exceptional taste.
Geisha takes its name from the village in Ethiopia where it was first discovered before being brought to Central America.
The Geisha coffee plants are more resistant to fungal infestation than other varietals, but they’re also challenging to grow. They grow more slowly than a typical coffee tree and only produce a small number of coffee cherries. The low yield allows for more of the soil’s nutrients to reach each cherry, intensifying the coffee’s flavors.
“This truly was a labor of love,” said Rodriguez. “We selected only two plants each out of lots of 20 and then nurtured the plants for six years.”
This resulted in a 150 pound bag of green coffee that Starbucks purchased. It was approximately a third of the total harvest (the rest went to the farm and an exporter). That’s an amount so small the beans were roasted in two batches in a roaster at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle – the company headquarters known as the SSC – instead of the Starbucks Roasting Plant in Kent, Washington. To compare the size difference, the small roaster can handle about 100 pounds of green coffee beans per batch while the company’s biggest roaster in Kent holds almost 1,000 pounds.
Starbucks master roaster Brian Hayes, who began his career with the company 22 years ago, monitors computer screens and dials while green Costa Rica Geisha coffee beans are heated in large, rotating drum. The constant tumbling motion keeps the beans from burning.
“A coffee’s full flavor is achieved through roasting,” Hayes said. “Coffee roasting is part art and skill, and part science and technique.”
For a master roaster, timing is everything.
The beans slowly shift colors as the roast progresses – from green to yellow to beige, Hayes explained. Around 370 F, popping sounds can be heard as water inside the beans flashes and the size of the bean almost doubles. From there, the beans develop richer shades of brown until the roaster decides the coffee has reached its potential and ends the roast.
“There is a very limited amount of Geisha coffee so the roasting had to be perfect because we can’t get more of the beans to test,” he said. “We had one chance and I’m pleased with the result.”
The rare, small batch of Starbucks Reserve® Costa Rica Geisha La Ines was available online in the U.S. It sold out within hours. Customers who were able to purchase one of the 170 bags available will also receive a signed note card from Carlos Mario Rodriguez.