The pure and clean air of Costa Rica makes for a great atmosphere to grow coffee.
Costa Rica’s history is inextricably linked to coffee production: in fact, on the eve of the country’s independence from Spain, in 1821, free coffee seeds were distributed by the local government as a means of promoting coffee production to bolster the economy. Since it was first shipped to England in 1843, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s key exports (it was, in fact, the ONLY export until 1890) and is linked to Costa Rica’s identity in a way that no other agricultural product is. The country’s producers were also some of the first ‘responders’ in the global movement towards quality in the cup; nonetheless, as recently as the 1980s, specialty coffee was barely understood, and Costa Rica’s production was largely lumped together as undifferentiated SHB and HB.View Coffees
Place In World For Coffee Exporter15th
Sacks (60kg) exported annuallyApprox. 1,039,000
Percentage of world coffee marketApprox. 1%
Other major agricultural exportsPineapples & Bananas
Typical varieties producedTarrazú, Central Valley, Western Valley, Tres Rios, Brunca, Guanacaste, Orosi & Turrialba
Key coffee regionsTarrazú, Central Valley, Western Valley, Tres Rios, Brunca, Guanacaste, Orosi & Turrialba
Typical harvest timesOctober - March
Typically availableMay – July
Today, Costa Rica has answered the calls of export buyers for greater traceability and remains a leader in the boutique ‘micro mill’ and microlot movements, which allow specific lots to be traced back to a unique farm or plot. In many ways, Costa Rica is an ideal contributor to the movement: the many and varied micro climates found throughout the coffee-producing regions in this small nation provide a wealth of distinctive flavour characteristics determined by coffee varieties, latitude, altitude, soil type, rainfall and variation in temperature. Furthermore, 90 percent of the country’s 50,000 coffee farmers work small farms of less than five hectares, which ensures small lot sizes by default.
Unique Processing Methods
The majority of farmers in Costa Rica do not have facilities to process their own coffee but rather pick their cherries during the day and deliver them to a private- or cooperative- owned mill in their region in the afternoon. In the past, these mills produced predictable, clean washed coffees – though not so much interesting or distinct. Then, in the mid-noughts, a small revolution took place with regards to processing and approaches to milling.
In 2006, during the Cosecha de Oro (Golden Harvest) competition, a producer named Juan Ramón Alvarado submitted two coffees that were very well-received and scored highly in blind cuppings due to their interesting, pulpy, berry-like profiles. The coffees took first and second place and turned out to be “Honeyed” coffees produced using a demucilage machine as opposed to being fully fermented and washed. This surprising win heralded a proliferation of coffees processed and marketed as different ‘honey’ methods across Costa Rica.
Costa Rican farmers using a demucilager can take off or leave on as much of the mucilage or “honey” as they like. Different designations of white, yellow, red and black honey are commonly used (though there are often minor differences from mill to mill) and commonly refer to differences in:
- the amount of mucilage left on the bean after pulping;
- how the beans are dried (i.e. direct sunlight or shaded conditions);
- the length of time and conditions under which the beans are dried.
Tarrazú and West Valley
Tarrazú (33%-35% of production)
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,700 meters above sea level
Tarrazú cultivates almost entirely Arabica coffee, primarily Caturra. The region produces approximately 537,000 60kg bags across 22,000 hectares, most of which is composed by small farms that average a size of 2.5 hectares. The coffee produced here is 95% Strictly Hard Bean (SHB).
One of Costa Rica’s most well-known regions, Tarrazú produces coffees with a refined and very high acidity, the result of favourable soil and altitude and good processing.
West Valley (approx. 25% of production)
Altitude: 1,200 to 1,700 metres above sea level
The West Valley’s first inhabitants brought coffee from the Central Valley, igniting progress in the region. Around 85% of coffee growers here harvest from 1 to 100 quintals (a quintal is equal to 46 kilograms) annually, and the region’s average production falls between 307,000 and 460,000 60kg bags of Hard Bean, Good Hard Bean and Strictly Hard Bean (HB, GHB, SHB).
The West Valley is one of the most complex regions in the production of high quality coffee, thanks to its microclimates and the possibility of collecting the ripe cherry during the drier, summer months, and produces some of Costa Rica’s finest coffees.
Central Valley, Tres Rios, and Brunca
Central Valley (approx. 15% of production)
Altitude: 1,000 to1,200 metres above sea level
Under the influence of the Pacific watershed, the privileged Central valley enjoys a well-defined wet and dry season and reasonable altitudes.
This region’s soil has a slight tropical acidity, a result of its enrichment by volcanic ashes. An abundance of organic materials favours adequate root distribution, soil humidity and good oxygenation.
The coffee plantations here are some of the oldest in Costa Rica but are also fast disappearing due to pressure of population and industrial development. Some Bourbon varietal is still cultivated in the Central Valley.
Tres Rios (2% of production and declining)
Altitude: 1,000 to 1,650 metres above sea level
Tres Ríos is located just a few kilometers east of the capital, San José. It was created in 1820 by the expansion of the Central Valley’s coffee activity into the provinces, which continued through the 1840’s and well into the middle of the twentieth century. However, due to its proximity to the capital, arable land in the region is fast disappearing and many coffee farms are succumbing to economic pressure and selling up to property developers eager to build new homes.
Brunca (20% of production)
Altitude: 800 to 1,200 metres above sea level
Some fine quality Specialty grade coffee is produced in the highest altitudes of this region, but much of the production is HB and grown on large Fairtrade cooperatives.
The remaining 5% of coffee cultivated in Costa Rica is found in Guanacaste, Orosi and Turrialba at lower altitudes of around 600-900m.