Coffee Talk “pura vida” – meet Juan Carlos, barista at Cafeoteca (San Jose)

Having crossed the border from Panama, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side was my first stop in Costa Rica. Following the same route of many fellow travellers I then spent some time on the Pacific coast, after heading up North first. I’m very happy I decided to not listen to many of those travellers I spoke to along the way, who recommended to avoid San Jose. If I had followed these people’s advice I would have completely missed out on one of my trip’s coffee highlights, being Cafeoteca, a lovely coffee shop situated in a more residential area of San Jose. I actually have to thank the barista of Emilios Cafe in Manuel Antonio, who told me that Cafeoteca is a must visit for coffee lovers in Costa Rica.

Having originally just stopped by for a coffee, I ended up spending an entire rainy afternoon at Cafeoteca, enjoying Tico hospitality, tasting coffee from the different coffee regions of Costa Rica, as well as talking coffee with both baristas, Juan Carlos and Remy. Both are very down to earth (unlike plenty of baristas out there) and were extremely passionate when it comes to coffee. Luckily Juan Carlos was also very patient and was happy to be my next coffee talk guest. Along with being thankful to Juan Carlos, I’m also grateful to William Viquez for sharing some photos of my coffee talk guest.

Juan Carlos, going by the full name of Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, comes from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. The 22 year old has spent the last four years working in restaurants and cafes, and while he and his brothers didn’t care for coffee whilst growing up, remembers how his mother dipped pieces of cheese in her coffee while his father dipped pieces of buttered bread in his cup of coffee. Since then things have changed and Juan Carlos’ passion for coffee is second to noone’s. He tells me of his fascination for the stories behind each grain of coffee and how he loves the experience of meeting people all along the bean to cup journey. As a barista he has met the families growing coffee whilst visiting coffee farms, learning from their spirit and passion for coffee, and passing this passion on to customers buying and drinking coffee. Working at Cafeoteca he has also been impressed by the increasing number of people who want to know more about the background of what they eat and drink.

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 Juan Carlos, how did your career coffee begin and what made you become a barista? Why at Cafeoteca?
At the age of 20 I started working as a baker at a very successful bakery in San Jose, which had the best baked goods in the area. The coffee we had however, was of very low quality, so we had many unsatisfied customers complaining. My question was: Why does one even have bad coffee in Costa Rica? Seeing several clients get to the bakery for breakfast with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, I gave myself the task to thoroughly research and learn how to prepare a good coffee and that’s how my adventure began. Arriving at my first barista class and trying for the first time a cup of specialty coffee increased my desire to investigate why coffee has that particular taste and how the difference in flavours relates to the country or region of origin. The fragrance and the aroma of coffee got me and made me enjoy every day. In Costa Rica coffee has a very important value in the country’s history, which fuelled my interest to further explore the world of coffee. In 2014 I became a certified barista of Costa Rica for the ICAFE (Costa Rican Coffee Institute) which was one of my best experiences. After being a certified barista I chose to work at Cafeoteca as this cafe is also a small coffee museum, with a focus on helping and teaching more about the culture of coffee. At Cafeoteca you can taste over 20 varieties of coffee, using various different preparation methods. It is a place where baristas give personalised customer service, and do the most they can to satisfy their guests with different coffee-based drinks. We are always looking to innovate and create new coffee products. Here everything revolves around coffee.
What do you like most about your job? What do you dislike?
With my job I enjoy having contact with people from all around the world, educating and teaching people to appreciate Costa Rican coffee. I like to innovate and create new dishes and drinks using coffee. Every day I am in search of new things. To be honest there’s nothing about my job that I dislike, but it does upset me that industrial coffee companies are gradually swallowing up the smaller businesses. I also find it depressing that a lot of coffee producing families are working so hard, yet they are earning very little. And know that coffee producing families are working harder and are earning less.

At Cafeoteca, what kind of coffee beans do you usually have, which regions do the beans come from and from which roaster/s? Which espresso machine and brew methods do you use?

At Cafeoteca we work with 23 different coffee varieties produced in Costa Rica. We buy 17 different kinds of beans directly from the farms, some using the honey and others the dry process. They all are distinctly characterised by their height, climate and soil. Mario Salas, our roaster, is well known in the industry, used to be a professor for coffee roasting, and now has his own company. At Cafeoteca we prepair coffee using 14 different methods. My favourite methods are Chemex, Kalita and fabric filters (blasting), and for our espresso based drinks we use a Rancillio Epoca machine.

What are the most popular coffee drinks at your coffee shop and what’s your favourite?

The most popular are the coffee drips, (Natural and honey process) espresso, cappuccino and cold beer. My favorite drink is cold beer on the rocks, and my favorite coffeehouse is the Geisha Bat Coffee, a coffee produced in southern Costa Rica, which is that bats a national park area feed the mucilage of geisha coffee fruit farm (Coffea Diversa) which limit the interesting thing is that the fruits are dried on the ground and fermented with the animal’s saliva, which creates a very unique and delicious flavor.

What are your impressions of Costa Rica’s coffee scene, a country known globally for producing some of the best coffee (beans)?

The coffee has evolved throughout the history of Costa Rica and we have very good specialty coffee, but the coffee culture is very poor in which large companies often use sugar to hide the poor quality coffees. The good news is that more and more families are producing more specialty coffees and are preferring quality over quantity. In Costa Rica 98% of quality coffee is exported, and 50% of low-quality coffee is imported for domestic consumption (blends), which is an alarming figure. It’s very positive for Costa Rica as a whole that the specialty coffee culture is growing, and increasingly more international companies visit the country in search of the best coffee.

What kind of customers visit your shop, who are your favourite customers and who (celebrity, e.g. Madonna) would you most like to serve a coffee to?

At Cafeoteca we welcome people from all over the world, tourists as well as many people involved in the coffee industry. A lot of locals also really enjoy specialty coffees at Cafeoteca. My favourite customers are those who really appreciate specialty coffee and customers who always carry a new bag of coffee to share with friends. I would be very happy if I could serve my mother a coffee soon. It’s been a long time that I haven’t seen see her. She is my celebrity and the person who supports me every day.

What advice can you give to people who want to follow your path and also become a barista?

I would advise people to never think they know everything, people learn every day, if you do not know, learn, and if you know, teach others. If you like a coffee, investigate why it has that flavour and welcome to this wonderful world of coffee. Humility is the most important of all, it always helps people who need it most. Never believe that you can’t, knocks down walls, don’t get stuck, and always enjoy what you do

Do you have any exciting plans of your own regarding coffee? Is there anything in particular you would like to do if you had the time and/or resources?

I’m currently finishing my coffee cupping classes, in order to further extend my coffee knowledge. In the future I plan to go to study in Austalia to improve my English, and of course also to work in the Australian coffee industry, to gain more experience. While I’m still young I hope to travel, see new places and cultures and meet people from all over. Further down the road, together with my family, I expect to have our own business.

Juan Carlos, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and teaching anyone who visits Cafeoteca about coffee, especially about Costa Rican coffee. With being so humble and keen to also listen to what others have to say about coffee, I’m sure you’ll go your way successfully in the world of coffee. I hope our paths will cross again, where ever that may be, and that we can share some more interesting coffee stories again.

If you’re visiting Costa Rica and even just vaguely interested in coffee, don’t make the mistake of skipping San Jose and make sure you visit the “coffee museum” Cafeoteca. Whilst enjoying one of the numerous different kinds of coffees on offer, prepared using your chosen brewing method, feel free to be lectured about Costa Rican coffee or share your own coffee knowledge/experiences.

Cafeoteca (homepage)

Juan Carlos Vargas Soto, barista (instagram)

WillPhoto – photographer (instagram)