Coffee in the Clouds


Nigel and Don Alfonso

Rainforest Alliance president Nigel Sizer with Aquiares president, Don Alfonso Robelo.

Aquiares president Don Alfonso Robelo has devoted most of his long life to this magical coffee estate up in the cloudy, dark green hills north of Turrialba, Costa Rica. At 76, the remarkably youthful Robelo probably has more to say about sustainable coffee than just about anyone.

“Whatever your ethics or religion, it’s just good business to treat the workers well,” he told me, as we toured the neat, clean, well-maintained barracks that house 480 seasonal workers on the farm at harvest time, most of them very poor Nicaraguan families who come into Costa Rica for a few months each year.

aquiares worker housing

Worker housing on the Aquiares coffee estate.

Following a long, winding drive past literally millions of coffee bushes to the top of the farm, 1,400 meters above sea level, I looked out over the one thousand plus-hectare estate, the largest contiguous coffee farm in the country. From where I stood, it was hard to distinguish forest from coffee—and in fact, the coffee plantings are so well-interlaced with natural vegetation that ocelots, sloths, and a wealth of other tropical species roam the farm. The coffee is shade grown, under a semi-open canopy of fruit and forest trees. As a result, it grows more slowly, ripens gently, resulting in distinct flavors and the high quality for which Aquiares is renowned.

aquiares view

Aquiares means “land between rivers” in a local indigenous language, Huetar.

The farm has even partnered with a global science team to measure the amount of carbon the farm is sucking out of the air with its flourishing trees and coffee plants. Aquiares participates in several other initiatives in an effort to battle climate change as well—in fact, it was the first farm in Costa Rica to fulfill the requirements of the Rainforest Alliance climate module.

Well-treated workers, biodiversity, growing trees, and carbon absorbed all add up to make Aquiares a truly perfect partner for the Rainforest Alliance.  The entire farm has been certified since 2003.

D Alfonso with RAC sign

Aquiares has been continuously Rainforest Alliance Certified since 2003.

“Of course, it costs us money to ensure we can maintain our certification. We are continuously making improvements—to worker housing, reducing chemical use, planting more trees, and saving energy, for example,” Don Alfonso explained. “But,” he added, “we make more money as a result.”  He leafed through carefully kept accounts and neat management committee meeting minutes, showing the net financial plus of the certification effort: higher prices and better relationships with premium buyers.  “Most important though,” he said, “our farm is more productive, the coffee is higher quality. We have a healthier, more sustainable farm and our workers are proud—they don’t leave.”

coffee seedlings Aquiares

Coffee plants on Aquiares farm.

There is little doubt about the quality of the coffee. A significant amount is sold to Nespresso, a company devoted to superior flavor (Nespresso also invented and still dominates the high-end capsule coffee market, despite now having over 200 competitors). Aquiares has built special coffee processing facilities and submits to rigorous quality controls to comply with Nespresso’s needs; in exchange, Aquiares enjoys a premium price. The Rainforest Alliance is also part of the worldwide success of Nespresso, now certifying almost half of all Nespresso’s coffee beans. We work to ensure high sustainability standards for over 80 percent of the production through Nespresso’s own AAA program, which we helped to design and implement.

If you have tried Nespresso, you know how good it tastes and how perfectly consistent it is. But one of the highlights of my visit to Aquiares, aside from simply spending time with a truly inspiring, gentle, and brilliant man, was tasting what Don Alfonso calls, with a smile, the “founder’s reserve”—the best of the best of his production. This coffee is sublimely smooth, not a hint of bitterness, and, as the name implies, is more like drinking a fine single malt whiskey or an aged estate wine—without the risk of a hangover! The estate sells this coffee in what are called “micro-lots,” destined for the most discerning buyers in Japan, Singapore, and beyond.

Thank you, Don Alfonso, for teaching me so much in just a short weekend, for sharing your passion, for being a loyal and longstanding Rainforest Alliance partner, and for giving me a few pounds of the founder’s reserve to take home with me—I don’t think it will sit on the shelf for long!

Don Alfonso

Don Alfonso Robelo says treating workers well is good business practice.

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