The Lab

Origin Profile: Costa Rica

Overview

Production: 1.3 million 60-kilo bags
Primary Varieties: Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchi
Average Farm Size: 3.5 Hectares
Maximum Elevation: 1,900m or 6,200ft
Notable Growing Regions: Tarrazu, West Valley, Central Valley, Tres Rios, Brunca
Harvest Season: October – March
Export: November – June

Geography

Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the North and Panama to the South. The Caribbean Sea lies to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Sierra Madre mountains are comprised of four cordilleras that cross the country from the northwest to the southeast. The northeastern part of the country is costal lowlands more suited for cultivation of fruits like banana and pineapple. The Guanacast cordillera is the most northern with its highest elevation of 2,000m at the Miravelles Volcano. To the southeast is the lower Tilaran cordillera. The Central Cordillera forms the northern border of the Central Valley, and the Talamanca Cordillera forms its southern border. Costa Rica’s highest point is Mount Chirripu at 3,800m in the Talamanca Cordillera. The Irazu Volcano (3,400M) and the Poas Volcano (2,700m) are found in the central cordillera. These active volcanoes are responsible for the nutrient rich soils across the country.

Climate

Costa Rica is located in the tropics and temperatures remain relatively warm year round. The country has only two seasons: a wet season and a dry season. The wet season runs from May to December and the dry season from January to April. Trade winds from the Caribbean carry moisture over the mountains resulting in the eastern coast receiving higher amounts of precipitation. The Primary cause of temperature variation is elevation and the highest range of temperatures will occur during the dry season. The coffee plants will flower generally in April and May.

Growing regions

The Central Valley is where coffee production began in Costa Rica. It is highly populated and contains the capital city, San Jose. It produces 15% of the countries total crop, and 80% of it is grown between 1,000 and 1,400m. These cups tend to be more mild and sweet.

Tarrazu is southeast of the central valley and is probably the most well known growing region of Costa Rica. It produces 40% of the countries total volume and 95% of it is sold as Strictly Hard Bean (SHB). SHB coffees are grown above ~1,200m which creates more acidity and sweetness in the cup. 7 of the top 10 coffees in the 2019 Cup of Excellence were from Tarrazu.

The West Valley contains a multitude of microclimates. The region is the largest in terms of area of coffee cultivation and the average farm size is approximately 3 hectares. It produces 21% of the countries coffee. The coffee is primarily strictly hard bean and high quality microlots.

Tres Rios is the smallest of the coffee growing regions, but produces exceptional quality. Almost all of its coffee is designated SHB. The Irazu volcano adds minerality to the soil creating a rich terroir. It’s last eruption was as recent as 1963.

Brunca produces another 20% of Costa Rica’s crop, most of it at lower elevations. It is mild and sweet.

The other three growing regions within Costa Rica produce a small fraction of the countries total export. Much of it is similar in cup profile to Brunca. It tends to be lower elevation producing a sweet and simple coffee.

History

Coffee production in Costa Rica started in the Central Valley around 1780. After Independence from Spain, San Jose began to distribute seeds and grant lands to individuals willing to start a coffee farm. This process was emulated in Cartago and Tres Rios. By 1830 it had surpassed cacao, sugarcane, and tobacco to become the country’s largest agricultural product, primarily being traded with other central and south American countries. In 1832, coffee was shipped to Chile, rebagged, and sold to England for the first time. It took roughly 10 years before William Le Lacheur was the first to facilitate trade directly between Costa Rica and England. He was able to facilitate the trade of coffee from Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo’s farm the Labyrinth. By 1840 a transnational road connecting San Jose to the Caribbean Sea was completed. This along with increased relationships with England allowed the Costa Rican coffee industry to boom. The English heavily favored the clean and consistent profile that resulted from the washed processing style that was introduced by Don Buenaventura Espinach Gaul. The quality helped to stabilize the price of Costa Rican coffee through the price crash at the end of the century. Before Don Buenaventura, coffee was produced by drying the whole fruit and removing the seed after. This created coffee that was often defective and inconsistent.

Washed Coffee occupying most of the patio at La Candelilla

Costa Rica was beginning to draw interest from increasing numbers of Europeans as coffee became more popular and the possibility of constructing a canal connecting the Pacific and Atlantic began to be explored. Naturalists and scientists came to investigate possible locations for the canal and their writings enticed increasingly more Europeans to make the voyage to the new world. Those who came, usually stayed. One Exporer, Henri Pittier, built the most extensive herbarium in Latin America. He organized the National Agriculture Society and the National Observatory. These were later unified as the The Physical Geography Institute and gained government sponsorship. The Institute began to oversee collection of biological data, classification of specimens and management of the herbarium. The Institute researched agricultural problems and created more accurate maps. It was paramount in creating the culture of environmentalism seen in Costa Rica today.

The Great Depression caused global coffee prices to fall sharply and many processing centers were forced to close. By the end of WWII, the four largest processing centers controlled 80% of the country’s coffee. The coffee elite at this time contained a monopoly on the country’s banking and exporting as well, limiting options for the small producers. This set the stage for a revolution in 1948 triggered by elites refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a fairly elected populist President. After a bloody conflict, the revolutionaries were victorious.

The New President, Jose Figueres, enacted reforms meant to redistribute power to the people. He created a National Bank which gave access to capital to small farmers and offered subsidies to individuals interested in entering the export market. The new president negotiated better agreements with the ICO to for better trade agreements between Costa Rica, Europe, and The United States.

Coop Naranjo Collection Center (Fanega in Foreground)

ICAFE and CATIE

ICAFE, the Costa Rican Coffee Institute, was created in 1933 to help farmers deal with the price crash a result of the great depression. ICAFE focuses on agronomy, marketing, and legislation protecting Costa Rica’s coffee farmers. President Figueres increased the role of ICAFE during his administration. New regulations required that all transactions between processing centers and producers be recorded with the institute. There were new requirements for prices based on quality, incentivizing better farm management, picking, and processing standards. It educated farmers about the importance of pruning and planting of shade trees which helped decreased soil degradation. After extensive research, ICAFE began to encourage the planting of more compact, higher yield varieties. By the 1970s, Costa Rica was the most productive in terms of volume per hectare.

ICAFE strictly enforces collection based on volume instead of weight. When coffee is delivered, it is measured into metal boxes known as Fanegas. Each Fanega will hold approximately 100lbs of ripe cherry. Under or over-ripe cherries are smaller which would require more cherries to fill each fanega. Pickers are paid based on how many Cajuelas they are able to pick. Twenty four Cajuelas equal one fanega.

CATIE is the Centro Agronomico de Investigacion y Ensenanza or Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center. CATIE as an independent institution was founded in 1973, but was formed from institutions that date back to the 1940s. In 1991 a board of directors was elected with no vested interests outside of the institution, eliminating political or economic bias. The school conducts experimentation on its 8 hectare farm that contains over 9,000 coffee plants. It currently contains the largest collection of coffee species and varieties in the Western Hemisphere. There are 581 specimens from Ethiopia and 11 from Yemen. 1,905 other specimens are Typica and Bourbon varieties, hybrids, and 11 new diploid species. CATIE was the source for the Gesha variety planted at Hacienda la Esmeralda in Panama that won the Cup of Excellence competition in 2004.

Varieties

The primary coffee variety grown in Costa Rica are Caturra and Catuai. Caturra is a natural mutation of Bourbon that has good cup quality potential and good yields but is susceptible to leaf rust. Catuai was created from the cross of Mundo Novo and Caturra varieties. Villa Sarchi and Villa Lobos are not as prevalent, but are indigenous to Costa Rica. Villa Sarchi is descendent of the Bourbon variety and Villa Lobos is a descendent of the Typica Variety.

Villa Sarchi at Las Lajas

ICAFE, CATIE, and Starbucks’ new research center are working extensively on new cultivars focusing on developing rust resistant plants with good cup quality. Most work is being focused on the Catimor and Sarchimor hybrid families. These are Caturra and Villa Sarchi varieties that have been crossed with the Timor Hybrid. Experimentation with these cultivars and others is focused on creating complex coffee that is more resistant to rust and has a good yield. The Costa Rica 95 cultivar was promising and rust resistant for a short time, but eventually was infected.

Gesha or Kenya SL varieties are becoming increasingly popular, especially on farms looking to produce high end micro-lots. ICAFE, CATIE, and Starbucks are largely responsible for the proliferation of these varieties by providing farmers with the information to grow them properly. 6 of the top 10 coffees in the 2019 Cup of Excellence competition were Gesha.

SL28 at Las Lajas

Environmentalism and Legislation

Between 1950 and 2000, Costa Rica’s forest cover had decreased by more than half, primarily because of clear cutting for agricultural and pasture land. As a result, soil erosion and quality degradation became prevalent. Concurrently, coffee plantations were heavily reliant on fertilizers and releasing their wastewater into the countries water ways. The county’s ecosystems were heavily damaged, and the government responded by passing two landmark environmental regulations: The General Environmental Law and The Biodiversity Act. These laws created the Ministry of Environment and Energy, National Environmental Council, and a specialized environmental court. The Biodiversity Law also created the National System of Conservation Area and approximately 30% of Costa Rica’s land is protected as parks, reserves, or refuges. Costa Rica depends heavily on these protected lands for Eco-tourism, which accounts for more than double the GDP of coffee production.

The environmental laws created strict standards for water treatment to protect the countries water ways. The waste-water from coffee mills must be filtered which can be expensive when large amounts of water are consumed. This encouraged producers to stray from the traditional washed processing style which would consume 3,000 liters of water to produce 1 Fanega of coffee. Mills switched to eco-pulpers and mechanical demucilagers that require considerably less water. These machines can use as little as 200l of water per fanega of cherry.

Drying Tent at Las Lajas

Cooperatives and Micromills

Cooperatives became officially recognized by the constitution in 1949 and initially expanded, but fluctuating prices and organizational problems caused many to close by the 1980s. Today, Coop Dota, Coop Tarrazu, and Coop Naranjo are among the largest producers in Costa Rica collectively representing over 8,000 members. Over 700 cooperatives across all agricultural sectors exist in Costa Rica, and 1 in 5 Costa Ricans belong to a cooperative of some kind. Approximately 40% of Costa Rican coffee is produced through a cooperative.

Mill at Coop Naranjo

Beginning with La Candelilla in 2000, there has been a growing number of farmers or small collectives opening their own micro-mills. Since then, over 150 have opened. By processing coffee themselves, they attempt to retain more of the value that the coffee is sold for. Increased demand for “direct trade” and traceability has drawn specialty coffee consumers to buy from these mills across the country. The mills are pioneering new and experimental processing styles which elevate the quality of traditionally mild coffee.

Micro-mill managed by The Aguilera Brothers

Coupled with the water restrictions, micro-mills are heavily investing in natural, honey, and anaerobic processing styles. Naturally dried coffees are those that are dried with the entire cherry intact. Honey processed coffees are pulped and dried over varying periods of time with varying degrees of mucilage remaining. Anaerobic coffees are fermented in sealed tanks for several days before being dried in the sun. This may be whole cherry or pulped cherry. These tend to produce more fruit forward coffees that are desired in North America and Europe. Costa Rican micro-mills are creating successful brands based on the consistency and clarity of their unwashed coffees, and that allows them to have sustainable long term partnerships with buyers around the world.

Royal NY sources coffee from across Costa Rica. We partner with several micro lots and large cooperatives to offer a wide selection of coffees from washed to anaerobic.

Patrick McKeown

Patrick began his coffee journey on Long Island at a small coffee bar and roasting at home. Since then he has been a barista, manager, and craft roaster in NYC.