If you love coffee as much as I do, a coffee tour in Monteverde is a must-do item to put on your bucket list! After doing a bunch of research and asking a few people who had done both of the main coffee-chocolate-sugarcane tours here (Don Juan, and El Trapiche), I decided to do the El Trapiche tour. It’s a family-owned business and the reviews on any and all review sites are absolutely glowing; as it turns out, with good reason!
The tour costs USD$33, which includes being picked up from and dropped off to your accommodation; an extensive explanation about coffee, sugarcane and cacao; and quite a few tastings. The guide I had, Jairo, was incredibly patient, polite and knowledgeable.
Along the way we got to taste a multitude of things, including a raw coffee berry we picked off the coffee trees ourselves; guaro made on the premises; sugar syrup, taken straight out of a vat where it was bubbling away, dipped into cold water, and formed into a thin, chewy, very sweet wafer; sugarcane, peeled and chewed to extract the juice; sugar syrup again, this time rapidly stirred to aerate it until it formed a hard ball; raw cacao bean; roasted cacao nibs; crushed unsweetened cacao; chocolate with freshly crushed cacao; lemonade made from brown sugar grown and processed on the premises; black coffee made traditionally from coffee grown on the premises; and arracacha.
We started our tour learning a little about a few plants we came upon along the way to the coffee plantation, including banana, plantain, macadamia, and arracacha.
We learned that sugarcane is related to bamboo, and originally came from India, which was news to me! Among the interesting facts we learned about sugarcane was the fact that it matures after about a year, when it should be cut down for use or it will die. The roots of the plant keep living and a new plant will sprout after the harvest. Only the main trunk of the plant is useable for human consumption; the leaves and other offcuts are often fed to oxen who work on the plantations. We saw sugarcane growing, and then two ways of extracting the juice from the cane – the old-school oxen-powered press (called a trapiche), and the newer water-wheel. We saw the juice cooking to thicken into syrup, and then we were split into groups to stir oxygen into the syrup until it thickened into a solid. These hands-on elements of the tour really made it stand out and made it so much more fun and interesting than expected!
From sugarcane we moved on to coffee, where our guide talked us through and showed us most of the process from the plant to peeling, drying, separating, and roasting the beans. We learned about the different ways of processing coffee, and the differences between Arabica and Robusta coffee. Apparently Arabica coffee has a much better flavour and is much more popular, but Robusta is (as its name suggests) much more robust and easier to grow; plus it has more caffeine. Costa Rica only produces 1% of the world’s coffee, but it is the only coffee-producing nation in the world that exports 100% Arabica coffee, with no Robusta coffee sold for exportation. We also learned that espresso, although tasting stronger, actually contains less caffeine than other ways of preparing coffee that involve more water, such as percolated coffee or using a French press! Almost all of our group was fascinated to learn this, myself included!
We moved on to cacao at the end of the tour, where we saw a plant growing, and then learned about the process of fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao, to turn it into the product most of us know and love more than any other – chocolate!
As it turns out, coffee was originally introduced from Ethiopia to America, and there is now more coffee grown in America than Africa. Conversely, cacao originated in America; but there is now more cacao produced in Africa than the Americas! In fact, the country that produces the most cacao in the world is Côte d’Ivoire!
The coffee berry was surprisingly sweet; you chew the flesh off the berry and then discard the bean within – a raw coffee bean is not too tasty, and it’s very hard. The guaro (which the guide himself described as moonshine) turned out to be about 60% abv, and actually tasted nicer than the most widely-known guaro brand in Costa Rica, Cacique. In case you’re wondering, guaro is a clear spirit made from sugarcane, very similar to white rum. It usually sits around 30% abv. El Trapiche only makes guaro for samples for people attending their tours, and does not sell it.
The two types of sugar syrup we had (both in liquid and solid forms) were obviously very sweet; as they were made straight from real sugarcane syrup that had just been pressed, they were caramel in colour and tasted quite a lot like molasses. They were so much more flavoursome than the sugar syrup you might be used to seeing in bars, which is made from refined white sugar, which has had the molasses extracted and had therefore lost that complexity of flavour. Biting into a stick of sugarcane was something I had never done before, and it was really interesting to taste the flavour of sugar as it changed from its original, purest form, to a cooked form, to an aerated version of the cooked form; and compare all of these to the sugar we are used to having in our kitchens at home.
When it came time to learn about cacao, we were given a cacao seed from the inside of a cacao pod to taste. It’s covered in a kind of substance that you are told to suck on, and it tasted to me so much like lychee I was astounded at the resemblance. The inside of the seed doesn’t taste like too much at all, surprisingly. Once it was roasted, however, we tasted some cacao nibs (which are extracted from inside the roasted seed), which were quite bitter, but not as bad as most of us in the tour group had expected. The next stage of tasting was the roasted cacao nibs, crushed into a paste. This was awful. It was terribly bitter and my tastebuds absolutely did not care for it! The next step more than made up for it, though! We were given freshly made chocolate, which was the cacao paste mixed with milk, and then sugar. It was delightful; I couldn’t believe the difference between commercial chocolate and fresh chocolate made from scratch – yum!
Arracacha looks like a celery plant, but it is only the root of the plant that is eaten, usually chopped up and cooked with mashed potato, spices, and meat; then served on small tortillas as a taco. We were told that these are usually served at special occasions, like weddings and birthdays. At the end of our tour we were given one to try, which was really lovely! We had these alongside the lemonade, which was far too sweet for me, but it was very interesting to taste the difference between lemonade made from scratch with brown sugar processed on the premises, and lemonade bought in the shops – they are absolutely nothing alike. The coffee we were given was amazingly smooth, and naturally sweet, which was a lovely surprise.
After the two and a half hour tour and tastings, we were shown to the shop, where we could taste more coffee, and buy any products we liked. I tasted each of the coffees on offer, and was amazed at the difference between them. There were also body products which used the plantation’s coffee; chocolate; liqueurs; and a few other souvenirs for sale. We made our purchases and were on our way back home. Seven hours later, I am still totally buzzing from the enormous quantity of caffeine and sugar I consumed today, and still totally impressed with how incredible the tour was! I would definitely recommend spending a morning there, and I would come back again!
El Trapiche Tour
Tours Available: Monday – Saturday, 10am and 3pm; Sunday, 3pm
A: Carretera Monterverde a Tilarán, Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica
P: (506) 2645-77-80 or (506) 2645-76-50