30 Nov Quality and Conservancy in Costa Rica: an Interview with Alejo Castro of Volcan Azul
It’s been a while since we’ve had a coffee from Costa Rica come into the Glen Lyon roastery, so we’re very excited to launch this natural processed San Isidro from Volcan Azul. This is our first direct relationship coffee with Volcan Azul, so we caught up with owner Alejo Castro to chat about his family’s long coffee producing history and conservation work within Costa Rica.
Coffee farming runs in Alejo’s veins—he is either a fifth or sixth generation producer, depending on which side of his family you look at. His family started farming in Costa Rica in the 1840s—their first farms were located in what is today the capital city of San José—and ownership of the various farms has been passed down until it reached Alejo who today runs Volcan Azul, from where we’ve sourced our delicious San Isidro coffee.
“My family has been continuously growing and exporting coffee since the 1840s,” Alejo says, “and since I was little I always went to the farm together with my father. That was a big part of my childhood, so you can guess that most of my best memories are related to coffee.”
In a fun coincidence, it turns out Alejo’s great-grandmother was from Scotland—the small town of Coldstream, to be precise—and so he’s excited to be “sending coffee back to our roots.”
Honour our Ancestors
Volcan Azul consists of three farms, two located in the Central and West valleys and one near Tarrazú, along with a mill. Alejo and his team are hyperfocused on improving the quality and consistency of their coffee. “What we’re trying to do is honour our ancestors,” Alejo says, “and the best way to do that is to produce the highest quality we can.”
One of their focuses is on research into coffee varieties, which Alejo is interested in as a way to both expand their offerings and also because Costa Rica is in the path of climate change and so finding new, hardier varieties is essential. Coffee is a fragile plant, one that is extremely susceptible to harsh weather and climate upheavals. For example, adverse weather patterns and hotter temperatures can lead to outbreaks of diseases such as coffee leaf rust—something many Central American countries are battling and that Alejo has experienced first hand.
When instances of leaf rust started appearing in Costa Rica, it was more of a problem for farms at lower altitudes. But recently, even those at higher altitudes are being affected. “Now that it’s a little bit warmer, we have that disease at our farm,” Alejo says. “So we have to adjust faster, be more on top of our rotations, go around the plantations more frequently. It’s more work, so the cost of producing coffee is going up.”
The effort they’re putting in to produce higher quality and hardier coffees will pay off, Alejo says, because it shows that they’re serious about sustainability. “We believe that our production in Costa Rica is more sustainable than other places,” he says.
Conservancy at Volcan Azul
Speaking of sustainability, it’s worth talking about the conservation work being done at Volcan Azul. “It’s one of the most important things for my family,” Alejo says. “Volcan Azul is a farm of 300 hectares, and more than 200 hectares is just for conservation. Two thirds of the farm is just forest that we protect.”
The farms don’t use insecticides, relying instead on bees that also produce honey from the coffee blossoms. Alejo is experimenting with complementary planting, using specific grasses that not only help with erosion but also hopefully offer a tastier option to the insects that like to eat the roots of coffee trees.
Additionally, in the 1980s Alejo’s father started buying parts of the Osa Peninsula in order to help protect it. The peninsula, on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast, has been called “the most biologically intense place on earth” by National Geographic, with 2.5% of the planet’s biodiversity on just 0.001% of its surface area.
“We’re really proud of this conservation area,” says Alejo, “we have over 1500 hectares in that region. My father started in the 1980s before global warming was a trending topic.”
Alejo hopes that Costa Rica can be a role model for sustainable coffee growing, in the same way that it has been a role model for sustainability more generally. “In the 70s we had forest coverage of around 30%,”’ he says, “now we’re at around 60%. Also 98% of our electric energy is renewable, we’re really proud of that. Our idea is to continue producing and exporting coffees for many years to come, and lucky for us we are able to produce these coffees that are more sustainable.”