Memories of La Minita
The coffee farm known as Hacienda La Minita, located in Tarrazú, in Costa Rica’s Central Mountain region, has grown considerably since its founding by Bill McAlpin in 1985. But its adherence to its founding principles of sustainable farming practices, partnership with employees, and, above all, an almost fanatical obsession with quality, has not wavered over the years.
Mary Allen Lindemann, Coffee By Design’s owner and co-founder, calls McAlpin “a truly visionary leader,” and recounts a story to bolster her claim. “Every year Bill McAlpin would have a sort of ‘state of the union’ gathering with all the workers on the farm. And it was about 10 years in, after he took over the farm, in his speech, he said, ‘I know every year in these talks you're pretty much used to hearing about basic state-of-the-business things like sales figures and crop yield. And I haven't really talked about what we've been doing all along behind the scenes, because if I told you what we were trying to accomplish, you wouldn't think we could accomplish it.’”
What McAlpin had been doing in the background in those years was indeed unprecedented and hard to believe: he established housing for workers, an onsite medical facility, a pension fund, and a school. Lindemann continues, “It’s incredible when you see what La Minita is today. It is viewed as, ‘this is the standard everybody aspires to.’”
“Bill was fascinating,” says Lindemann. “I only met him a few times. Huge guy, one of those larger-than-life characters, big in every way possible. He doesn’t say a lot, but everything around him, you can tell, he’s just taking it all in—the wheels are always turning.”
A McAlpin profile in Cigar Aficionado from 1995 notes that part of the original conception for La Minita came out of the hypothetical question, “If cost were no obstacle, how would you cultivate the best possible coffee beans?” The article notes the exacting processes used on the farm for planting, tending, and harvesting only the finest beans. One example is that La Minita’s coffee plants are weeded manually, with machetes, which is time-consuming and expensive, because the farm does not use herbicides, which are not only harmful for human health, but ruin the soil over time.
La Minita is renowned for its environmental resource management, which includes their own hydro-electric turbine, which provides a renewable (and non-polluting) power source, an on-site water-treatment plant, terraced coffee groves, regular soil testing, and the implementation of water-conservation methodologies in their mills and processing facilities.
Coffee By Design organizes “origin visits” where employees visit coffee farms, so that everyone in the company can have a first-hand appreciation for where and how the beans are grown. “Almost every year, we send a group to La Minita,” says Jeremy Rävar, Coffee By Design’s director of coffee and wholesale operations. “It’s the perfect destination for your first origin trip because they have the infrastructure, they have incredible coffee, and they share our values around sustainability and how you should treat employees.”
McAlpin is now mostly retired, and La Minita has grown as an enterprise to encompass its own milling operation and collaborations with other farms, including a partnership with the Vasquez family in Colombia. In 2014, the entire operation was purchased by a Japanese beverage conglomerate, Ito En.
“Of course, we were all very anxious [about the purchase] at the time,” admits Lindemann, alluding to the fact that family-run businesses often lose their way when sold to large corporations. “But nothing’s really changed: the workers are still there; the practices are still maintained. They still have Sergio Cruz, one of the most amazing quality-control cuppers [experts who taste-test each batch of beans] in the business.”
In fact, she elaborates, the purchase has provided an infusion much-needed capital for investment in experimental cultivation techniques, which are critical as the coffee industry adapts to new climate-change realities. Against today’s environmental backdrop, the kinds of sustainable farming practices pioneered by La Minita are more important than ever.
“It’s so important to understand,” says Lindemann, “that there is no waste on these farms. They use everything—which is exactly what we try to do with our roasting operations here in Portland.” She goes on: “The coffee cherry is used for compost. Biomass waste from the coffee fruit is burned to heat the coffee drying furnaces. The beans themselves are sorted something like fourteen different times before they can actually be called La Minita. But that doesn't mean the other beans are not used—just they get placed in other bags and they're used differently.”
Lindemann acknowledges that fourteen stages of bean-sorting might seem excessive, but it is exactly this attention to detail that elevates La Minita above so many of its competitors. “Go into their sorting rooms,” says Lindemann, “and it's fascinating to watch that whole process. And it’s all women. These are highly paid positions for women. And so, we want to know, why is it all women? Is it because of dexterity? Hand size? Because, literally, they are the last sort before it goes into the bags. And the reason? Turns out, it's because it's very rare for a woman to be colorblind.”