Origin Profile: Costa Rica

Costa Rica's coffees range from mild and sweet to exotic and tropical

HarvestOctober - December
ArrivalFebruary - July
Number of Producers~38,000
Average Farm Size3.2 Hectares
Annual Production~1.5 million 60-Kilo Bags
Common VarietiesCaturra, Catuai,
Villa Sarchi,
Typica, Bourbon
GradesHard Bean (HB) <1,000m
Good Hard Bean (GHB) = 1,000-1,200m
Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) > 1,200m
Tarrazu~40% of Total Production - Majority of the Coffee is SHB with many farms producing micro-lot quality coffee
West Valley or Valle Occidental~20% of Total Production - Majority of the coffee is SHB with a with many farms producing micro-lot quality coffee
Central Valley or Valle Central~15% of Total Production - Majority is SHB with a more citric and sweet flavor profile with some farms producing Microlot Quality
Brunca~20% of Total Production - Mostly HB or GHB resulting in a more mild and full-bodied flavor profile
Turrialba, Guanacaste, Orosi~5% of Total Production - Coffee is mostly HB or GHB resulting in coffee similar to that produced in Brunca
Data Based on MY2019/2020

Costa Rica is the motherland of opportunity for coffee producers. We sourced our first lot from Tarrazu back in 1995 and have been finding new and exciting coffees from there ever since. The cup profiles back then were bright, caramel- forward, and showed promise. As the years have gone on, we’ve seen the cup quality progress significantly with wide-ranging flavors from marzipan to peach. While the macro-lots are consistent with notes of chocolate and mild citrus, the micro-lots have wildly exotic cup profiles.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.