Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to produce coffee for commercial purposes. It all started in 1808. In 1821, the municipal government gave away free coffee seeds to encourage production on the eve of independence from Spain. Their coffee production was so successful that it boosted the economy. Since it was first shipped directly to England in 1843, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s key exports and is linked to Costa Rica’s identity in a way that no other agricultural product is. The English became ever more invested in Costa Rica which led to the establishment of the Anglo-Costa Rican Bank in 1863, which provided finance to the industry which in turn allowed the industry to flourish.
The income made on coffee was used to modernise the country by building roads and cultural centres such as the National Theatre in San Jose. Costa Rican Coffee took a big hit during World War II when England was rationing and stopped buying coffee. Another misfortune found Costa Rica in the 1980s when a blight hit the coffee farms, killing millions of plants, and damaging the industry for years to come.
Despite this, Costa Rica prevailed, and their coffee is still prized around the world. Costa Rica’s coffee infrastructure had long given it an advantage when fetching a better price on the international market. The coffee industry continued to grow until it reached its geographical limits. However not all of the land was suitable for growing coffee and this is something that still constricts the growth of the industry today. Costa Rica is the 15th largest coffee producer in the world, producing just 1% of the world’s coffee supply.
Still, even if Costa Rica is not a big country, it is diverse in both climate and geography, with great altitude for coffee growing. Coffee was first planted in the West Valley but the most famous and productive region in Costa Rica is Tarrazu. Another thing Costa Rican farmers are known for is their tendency to experiment and plant rare species of coffee, such as SL-28, geisha, and Villa Sarchi. Costa Rican farmers tend to focus on Arabica and Robusta is seldom grown.
Costa Rica coffee has had a longstanding reputation for good quality and as such fetched a premium price in the commodity marketplace. What they lacked as the specialty coffee market developed, was traceable coffee. Typically, coffees exported from Costa Rica carried marks that were essentially brands created by the large coffee mills or ‘Beneficios’. These brands masked where the coffee was actually from, where it was grown and the qualities that it may possess.
In the mid to late 2000s, there was a dramatic increase in micro mills. Farmers were investing in small scale post-harvest equipment of their own and doing more of the processing themselves. This in turn increases the ability of the farmers to control the coffee processing and this increases the diversity of styles and coffees from all regions of Costa Rica.
This makes Costa Rican coffees exciting to explore, as it is now easier than ever to taste several different coffees from a particular region side by side and begin to see how the geography can impact taste.
Coffee Processing in Costa Rica
Washed – the most common method used all over the world. The fruit of the cherries is removed by water and machines, leaving only the seed (bean). In Costa Rica, many variations of this method are used including low water washed process as well as some producing wet and dry fermentation washed coffees.
Naturally – The cherries are left to dry on patios or raised beds in the sun. It can take up to 6 weeks and is considered as a traditional method of processing coffee. Costa Rica produces some fantastic natural process coffees with some farmers choosing to produce only high quality natural microlots.
Honey processing- This is a method invented by Costa Rican farmers, and it represents a mid-way method, something between washed and naturally processed coffee. What they do is remove only a portion of the fruit and leave the inner layer. The coffee is then dried on patios or raised tables. Honey process coffees tend to showcase a range of flavours some tasting very similar to washed coffees and other much close to naturals.
Costa Rica Coffee Flavour Profile
Depending on the method of processing, Costa Rica coffee can have three different flavours:
Washed coffees are typically well balanced with gentle acidity with nut, chocolate, and fruit notes. Stone fruit like peach and apricot are common flavours.
Natural process coffees typical showcase juicy fruit and berry notes. There is a wide range from bright, low ferment naturals to big bold, juicy, and almost alcohol like fermentation.
Honey processing tends to showcase something in between washed and natural. Honey processed coffees dried quickly with very little mucilage let on tend to taste more like the washed coffees with those dried slowly more mucilage can showcase more fruit character like some of the naturals
Anaerobic fermentation is a method of processing that creates very unusual flavours often with spice notes like cinnamon, wine and alcohol. Sometimes these flavours are highly desirable but it’s challenging to get the balance right.
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