Kicks from Costa Rican Coffee
“No sweat … that’ll be easy,” said no writer ever who would know better undertaking an overview of coffee in Costa Rica. With so much information from a world of knowledgeable sources — including experts outside Costa Rica — how hard could it be?
As it turns out, the abundance of riches in that regard makes the task downright formidable. Merely scratching the surface of Costa Rica’s coffee legacy yields onslaughts of fascinating facts, all worthy of digging deeper. Think hundreds of randomly unboxed question cards from a Trivial Pursuit game devoted exclusively to this topic, scattered all over the floor and needing to be picked up and sorted.
That is why you can expect much more from the Howler about Costa Rican coffee topics than what is captured in this primer. For starters, we offer these A-to-Z highlights.
Arabica … anything else against the law
One of Costa Rica’s proudest claims to coffee fame is that 100% of its output comes from the Coffea arabica plant species. The inferior-quality robusta species has been legally prohibited in Costa Rica for more than 30 years.
Taking this a step further, the planting of specific arabica varieties has been promoted for added assurance that Costa Rican coffee has the most desirable characteristics of fine taste, aroma and consistency. This has sometimes meant sacrificing quantity — faster, easier and higher-yielding growth — for quality.
Is it really worth it? Absolutely. Most gourmet coffees are made from arabica beans. So yes, in those markets where it matters, the package label verifying “100% arabica” is a big deal.
Local coffee processing mills in Costa Rica are known as “beneficiary plants” or beneficios. This is where the coffee berries are delivered immediately after harvesting for removal of the pulp from the beans in preparation for drying. Due to the rapid fermentation process that begins as soon as the ripe berries are picked, transfer to the mill must occur quickly, within 24 hours as legally required.
Berries and beans
This is where the magic begins. Ranging in size from smaller shrub-like varieties to large bushes or trees, coffee plants produce white flowers and red berries — also known as cherries. Within each berry is what we call the coffee bean — in fact, the seed. That’s what is processed and roasted after harvesting for transformation into the universally familiar beverage.
It’s no secret that caffeine is a chemical stimulant with properties that can cause dependency habits and withdrawal symptoms in some people. Although modern science continues teaching us more about caffeine, the alertness boost from caffeine’s “kick” is ancient wisdom.
With the first known coffee plants migrating at some point from Ethiopia to Yemen, then spreading elsewhere in the middle east, coffee as a beverage had taken root in the Muslim tradition by the 12th century. Some have speculated that the legendary “whirling dervishes” were fueled by coffee. Early evidence of coffee consumption as a beverage comes from the Sufi (“Islamic mysticism”) heritage of monasteries, where monks found it helpful in staying awake.
Few climates in the world, in any given country, come as close to perfect as it gets in Costa Rica for growing coffee, especially arabica coffee.
For starters, coffee plants need sufficient and frequent enough rainfall to grow and mature, along with adequate dry conditions for proper crop harvesting and post-processing moisture removal. With Costa Rica’s annual climate cycle more or less evenly split into dry season and wet season, what more could coffee producers and exporters want?
Being one of the best places on earth for coffee cultivation, of course, does not protect this agricultural sector in Costa Rica from many of the same impacts of climate change being felt everywhere on the planet. Dramatic deviations in coffee plant flowering and fruit production cycles are a significant concern with complex, overlapping implications for farmers, processors and exporters alike.
Collaboration between public and private entities at local, national and international levels is imperative in seeking innovative and sustainable solutions.
Geographic diversity has been a key element in the Costa Rican coffee industry’s evolving success story from the start.
On one hand, essentially predictable temperatures and annual rainfall amounts are a feature of the aforementioned dual seasons. At the same time, diversity between micro-climates and ecosystems is our nation’s special gift to discriminating coffee drinkers the world over.
Costa Rica boasts not one coffee-growing region but eight — each perfect for growing different varieties of beans with special characteristics of flavor, aroma and consistency.
After being sorted and separated from the harvested berries at a processing facility, the coffee beans must undergo drying to the level of 12% humidity before they can be roasted. There are several methods for sun drying of beans — generally in highest demand by coffee importers — taking about a week.
Mechanical driers are sometimes used in cases of non-ideal sun-drying conditions, and/or to fine-tune the moisture content of sun-dried beans. Mechanical drying can reduce drying time to just 24 hours.
Costa Rica’s dry season is when coffee is harvested, generally from December to April. Soaring populations in the growing regions — up to triple the year-round number of local inhabitants — include influxes of seasonal farm workers from Nicaragua and Panama.
For the most part, Costa Rica’s eight coffee growing regions are perfectly positioned when it comes to mountainous altitude, which is measured in meters above sea level (masl). Specialty coffee consumers might be familiar with seeing the masl number printed on the package of their favorite artisanal roast.
This information alone can be misleading because altitude-related quality indicators are not straightforward. But without understanding the in-depth plant science, it’s true enough to say that coffee grown higher above sea level is better. This is largely due to cooler temperatures, as well as less available oxygen, which enable coffee berries to mature more slowly and gradually for the desired flavor profile.
From first to flourishing
No less than 200 years ago, Costa Rica was the first Central American country to have a full-fledged coffee industry. Within a remarkably short timespan between the arabica plant’s introduction from Ethiopia in the late 1700s and impressive early export milestones, the stage was set for our country’s golden grain to shine brightly.
Enthusiastic government support and incentives saw the Costa Rican coffee industry grow and prosper quickly. By 1821, marking the country’s independence from Spain, Costa Ricans were embracing the opportunity to boost the national economy while lifting burdens of poverty. The value of coffee as a major agricultural export commodity soon overtook that of cacao, sugar and tobacco.
Make no mistake in thinking Costa Rica’s time-honored tradition of manually harvesting coffee beans is about quaintness. It has everything to do with patience in achieving perfection. Harvest is no time to rush the process of delivering some of the best-brewed flavors on earth. Allowing every coffee berry to fully mature, for picking at precisely the right time, is the best assurance of excellence in every cup. Only the ripest beans are selected, and only a qualified human is up for that task.
The Coffee Institute of Costa Rica, known as ICAFÉ, was founded in 1933 as the national governing and regulatory authority for the country’s coffee sector. It also has a fair-trade advocacy role in supporting and protecting the mutual interests of coffee producers, processors, roasters and exporters.
International Coffee Organization
The International Coffee Organization (ICO), which administers the International Coffee Agreement in force, was established in London in 1963 under the auspices of the United Nations. Its intergovernmental mandate is to bring together exporting and importing governments to cooperatively tackle challenges facing the world coffee trade.
ICO members currently represent the governments of 98% of the world’s coffee producing countries, including Costa Rica, and 83% of consuming countries.
Progressive attitudes and approaches have been a driving force in Costa Rica’s coffee economy from the beginning. Willingness to embrace new knowledge, technologies and alliances is an enduring theme.
Farmers here are known for being innovative in experimenting with harder-to-grow plant varieties and processing enhancements that translate to cups of consumer appreciation. The more desirable in world markets, the higher the price it will fetch.
July 28, 2020
Having long been an inherent part of Costa Rica’s national identity, coffee was recently declared its15th national symbol under Law 9815, pertaining to economic, social and cultural development. Representatives from the education and coffee sectors joined legislative and municipal officers at a news event on July 28, 2020.
On the same occasion, legislative amendments were enacted under Law 2762, governing relations between producers, beneficiaries and exporters of coffee.”
Kaffa, Kaldi, Koffie and Kahve
Indigenous to Ethiopia’s Kaffa region, the coffee plant is steeped in widely accepted legend about its accidental discovery during the 9th century. A goat herder named Kaldi noticed how unusually frisky his herd animals became after grazing on the red cherries of a coffee plant. It made him curious enough to eat some of the berries himself, only to experience the same invigorating effect.
The English word coffee, is derived from the Dutch “koffie,” which in turn, came from the Turkish “kahve,” predated by “qahwah” in Arabic.
While not directly relevant to Costa Rica’s coffee story, Kona is noteworthy for being the only coffee cultivated anywhere in the United States. This exclusive premium brand of arabica coffee — one of the most expensive in the world — is named for the mountainous districts of Hawaii where it is cultivated.
Having originated in Ethiopia and been confined to monopoly production on the Arabian peninsula for many centuries thereafter, coffee species now grow widely in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. More than 70 coffee-producing countries are located primarily in the equatorial regions of Central and South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Coffee processing and sales activities in Costa Rica are regulated under Law 2762, enacted in 1961 for implementation and enforcement by the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFÉ). Commonly referred to as the Coffee Law, it established an “equitable regime to regulate relations between coffee producers, mills, and exporters that guarantees a rational and truthful participation of each sector in the coffee business.”
After oil, coffee is the world’s second-most-valuable commodity exported by developing countries.
- The global coffee industry earns an estimated $60 billion annually. About 600 million people rely on the coffee industry for their survival, including nearly 25 million farmers.
- Costa Rica is the 13th-largest producer of coffee in the world, adding up to about 1.5 million 60-kilogram bags every year. From this total, 90 percent is exported, accounting for around 11 percent of Costa Rica’s export earnings.
- After pineapples and bananas, coffee is Costa Rica’s third most valuable agricultural export, worth about $400 million a year.
NAMA Café de Costa Rica
Coffee NAMA is an ambitious, innovative collaboration between public, private, financial and academic partners in advancing national carbon-neutral goals. NAMA stands for Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action. Undertaking this first project of its kind in the world put Costa Rica at the forefront of developing countries joining the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Expanded export markets are anticipated as an eventual outcome of Costa Rica pioneering the world’s first certified low-emission coffee. With the overarching goal of producing and processing Costa Rican coffee in a low-emission, sustainable manner, NAMA Café also aims to improve resource use efficiency at the level of both coffee plantations and coffee mills.
Costa Rican coffee producers have access to assistance and support from myriad public institutions and non-government organizations, as well as business stakeholders.
From financial grants and loans to low-cost plant seedlings, crop pest and disease alerts and field tests of new coffee varieties, the scope of programs is wide-ranging. Ministry of agriculture-sponsored training sessions and technical assistance extends to producers across the country.
As economically devastating as COVID-19 has been globally, the outlook for Costa Rica’s coffee sector was less dire than in other sectors such as tourism. Not surprisingly, the international shift in market demand from restaurants and coffee shops to at-home consumers has been a saving grace.
Less than three months into worldwide border closures and other pandemic health and safety measures, there were reasons to be cautiously optimistic. International Monetary Fund data indicated that arabica coffee was the only world market showing a significant uptrend. That held true for Costa Rica, where shipping activity increased during March and April 2020, and coffee accounted for 56% of outbound container cargoes.
Quality over quantity
A consistent theme when researching Costa Rican coffee — even if the source is not Tico-exclusive — is the list of reasons why it is “better” or even “the best.”
Typically cited attributes cover the gamut of plant species, growing conditions, harvesting and processing methods, economic responsiveness and technological innovation. Suffice to say here that Costa Rica has always come by its coffee bragging rights honestly in the world market by emphasizing quality over quantity.
Integral to the country’s aforementioned reputation for quality are the eight coffee-growing regions that cater to the finer distinctions in consumer tastes: the Central Valley, Tres Ríos, Turrialba, Brunca, Guanacaste, Tarrazú, Orosí and Valle Occidental.
An informed commentary on the attributes of each region is incorporated with this detailed overview of Costa Rican coffee at craftcoffeeguru.com
.Under a 2019 agreement with ICAFÉ, Starbucks is supporting Costa Rican research into new coffee varieties resistant to both diseases and detrimental impacts of climate change. Investigations are carried out at Hacienda Alsacia, a 240-hectare farm in Alejuela where Starbucks operates its Global Agronomy Research & Development Center.
This is also one of nine international sites where Starbucks has set up Farmer Support Center services in coffee-producing countries.
Sustainability is a multi-faceted challenge for the coffee sector worldwide, and Costa Rica is no exception. Recent decades have seen increasing emphasis on solutions with social and economic development goals — in particular aimed at poverty reduction — while addressing relevant concerns about environmental protection and climate change.
On the positive side, the coffee industry can build on its existing strengths as an eco-friendly contributor to the economy. Being an evergreen plant, coffee plays a role in preserving and restoring biodiversity of forested ecosystems. Research conducted by Dr. Fournier Origgi, a biologist at the University of Costa Rica, revealed that two hectares of planted coffee removes as much carbon dioxide from the air as one hectare of virgin tropical forest.
Costa Rican coffee figures prominently in the so-called third wave of coffee, evolved from a generation of specialty coffee consumers with sophisticated tastes for knowledge as well as fine brews. These connoisseurs crave artisanal insights into how and where coffee is grown, processed, traded, roasted, prepared and savored in their cups.
If coffee plantation tours are not already on everyone’s Tico travel destination bucket list, they should be. There are numerous options in every coffee-growing region.
As founder of the iconic Café Britt brand, Steve Aronson opened new world windows to Costa Rican coffee by making it a take-home souvenir for retail purchase. He was also instrumental in pioneering coffee tours showcasing where and how the coffee originates, extending tourism benefits to the local farmers who make it possible.
United Kingdom and United States
England’s long-standing importance as an importer of Costa Rican coffee began in 1832. For the first nine years, overseas shipments there required a stopover in Chile for re-bagging. Then, following the first direct shipment from Costa Rica to the United Kingdom in 1843, growing interest from British trade authorities yielded significant investments in the Costa Rican coffee industry. The United Kingdom remained our principal export customer until the Second World War.
Despite a recent decline in market share, the United States remains the main destination for Costa Rican coffee, representing about 47.7% of the total. Belgium is the second largest export market (17.5 percent), followed by Germany (6.6 percent) and South Korea (4 percent).
Since the original typica variety of arabica coffee was introduced to Costa Rica from Ethiopia some 250 years ago, new possibilities for adapting different plant types to specific growth, yield or market requirements has been a never-ending focus of interest. A cornerstone of this cultivar quest is that quality is never sacrificed for productivity.
Examples of common arabica varieties that have been cultivated or mutated here include caturra, bourbon and catuai. Villa Sarchi, a natural single-gene mutation of bourbon, is a native Costa Rica dwarf variety.
In October 2019, the first Costa Rican product to bear Walmart’s Great Value label was unveiled: gourmet coffee grown by 25 producers in Tres Ríos, Naranjo and Tarrazú.
Introducing the coffee at Walmart and Mas X Menos locations in Costa Rica, the international retailer indicated the premium product may be sold in other markets down the road.
“X” for the right picks — expertise and extra care
Reading a job description for harvesters of premium Costa Rican coffee finds one awestruck by the art and science it entails. Coffee bean pickers are on the front lines of quality control where the income stakes are high and the plantation’s reputation hinges on consistent excellence.
The skill set includes superior eyesight and expertise in readily distinguishing a berry’s ripeness, with zero error tolerance. A few under-ripe berries mixed with a bag of ripe ones can taint the end product. For work compensated per bean volume collected, it takes nimbleness and speed to move efficiently through the planted rows without missing any berries. To ensure green buds remain attached to the tree — they will become next year’s harvest — you need a delicate touch and finesse. Every movement requires coordination and extra care to avoid brushing against the sometimes narrowly spaced plants and dislodging or damaging berries on the branches.
The International Coffee Organization is pinning hopes on young people as “Coffee’s Next Generation” — the focus of last year’s International Coffee Day on October 1, 2020.
“An increasing number of young people in coffee-farming households are moving away from ‘the family business’ to other locations and jobs that they see as more progressive and lucrative for their future,” the advocacy group notes on its website.
In targeting talented and motivated young people and entrepreneurs in the coffee sector worldwide, the ICO is appealing to its members and all stakeholders to collaborate in providing access to finance and knowledge, skills development, coaching and training, as well as networking.
Zeniths of progress
As a catalyst for economic transformation and modernization, Costa Rica’s early 19th century coffee boom opened many pathways to the wider world and elevated standards of living.
Academic studies in Europe became affordable for some young people. Connecting the Central Valley to Puntarenas with a roadway, opened in 1846, revitalized the regions in between and gave rise to the urban hubs of Grecia, Palmares, San Ramón and Sarchi. Coffee revenues funded the country’s first railway link to the Atlantic coast in 1890. The unveiling seven years later of the magnificent National Theater in San José, today retaining its luster as an architectural and cultural treasure, became a reality thanks to a coffee tax.
Golden grain profits played a part in another astonishing progress milestone from the same era. On August 9, 1884, San José became one of the first electrically lit cities in the world, after Paris, London and New York. Street lighting was launched via a generating plant on the grounds of the Tournon coffee mill.
Juxtaposed with up-and-down sequences throughout much of the 20th century, focusing on improved coffee production techniques paid off when yields doubled between 1955 and 1973, ranking Costa Rica highest in the word on that count.
How fitting it seems to celebrate coffee’s newly attained status as a national symbol of economic, social and cultural advancement.
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