Specialty Coffee Origins: Costa Rica

Specialty Coffee Origins: Costa Rica

This week our coffee origins in focus series takes us to the tropical island of Costa Rica which is in Central America. As well as amazing tropical fruit and chocolate, it is a haven for specialty coffee lovers, renowned for producing sweet and delicious beans. Let’s learn more about it together!

We do love it when new coffees arrive, not just because it’s an exciting time to taste new coffees but it’s also time to talk about new specialty coffee origins. What better way to celebrate summer than to turn our focus to one of the most tropical growing regions in the world. The equatorial nation of Costa Rica may be dwarfed by its South American neighbours in size and output, but its tradition of growing exciting and exotics produce is easily as competitive.

Central America refers to the small strip of countries that combine to connect North America and South America, plus its surrounding tiny islands. In many ways, it ticks the boxes as a coffee growing region. It is in the tropical belt laying just north of the Equator and south of the Tropic Of Cancer. Climate and rainfall are mainly consistent with plenty of sunlight and replenishing wet seasons. Also, there is good elevation with around 25 peaks climbing as high as 3,000+ masl - and as we know, great coffee loves elevation.

The region is quite unique in other ways. For instance, you would be hard pressed to find such a high concentration of coffee growers so close to coastlines. In Central America, the strip is bordered by water on both sides (Caribbean Sea to the east and Pacific Ocean to the west), and is just 30 meters wide at its thinnest point! This makes for some intriguing weather patterns and microclimates that all go to add to the magic of this magical region.

With that in mind, let’s go there now to one of the smallest links in that chain…

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a small nation that sits between Panama to the south and Nicaragua to the north, both of which are notoriously good producers of excellent quality - you have probably already heard of Panama Baby Geisha. It covers an area of around 51,000 km with a population of around 5 million people. Like any tropical country, it enjoys generally good weather with long spells of sunshine and wet seasons.

However, based on its location and varying levels of altitudes, Costa Rica is a country rich with microclimates and pockets of weather systems. Temperatures at low ground can hover around 27℃ all year round, running as much as 10℃ cooler in the peaks. Heavy rain occurs often, especially between September and October. Fruits such as bananas and pineapples have traditionally been its main export, but this has slipped in recent years as it has been replaced by various technologies and medical exports.

Nevertheless, coffee has been and still remains a staple source of employment in Costa Rica and it contributes about 1% to the world’s total coffee output. Various climatic occurrences and global economics have impacted coffee exports in the country in recent years, creating something of a boom-and-bust pattern. In 2015, the value of its coffee exports was worth $305.9 million, representing a production increase increase of 13.7% percent. It had then declined by 17.5% in 2016/2017 but was expected to increase by about 15% in 2018/2019. 

Coffee Production

Coffee isn’t native to Costa Rica and had to be introduced in the 1700’s, as was the case with most countries where we now heavily associate coffee production. Just like in Brazil and Colombia, cultivation thrived here and had become an important economic driver by the late 1800’s. It even surpassed cacao, tobacco and sugar. In 1933 the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica was established to regulate and improve coffee production in the country. It also aimed to protect farmers to ensure that they received payments for their exports.

Micro-lots are predominant in Costa Rica, producing short runs on coffee harvests. This can make Costa Rican expensive to buy. But when you consider the care and manual handling that goes into it, this seems only fair. Farms are often too small or hard to access to work with heavy machinery and on-site processing, unlike the gargantuan farms in Brazil. So the small lots are often harvested by seasonal workers and transported to shared wash-stations nearby (which could be anything from 1 to 100 miles). There has recently been an upward trend in ‘Micro-Mills’ where one or a group of farmers in an area combine resources to build small stations on or near their land, which can heavily reduce transport costs.

Some 1.25 million sacks (60kgs) of green coffee are produced each year in Costa Rica, grown across eight main regions. Tarrazú, to the west just south of San Jose, is the biggest and accounts for around 35% of the total production. Some of the region’s farms are as high as 1,700+ masl producing almost entirely Arabica beans. There are also the West Valley and the Central Valley regions with high slopes that are ideal for getting plenty of sunlight and also water drainage during the wet seasons. The soils in these areas are often credited for giving Costan Rican its high levels of acidity and refreshing taste. Brunca is another notable growing region in Costa Rica but its lower altitude of around 800-1,200 masl means it more widely produces coffee of a lower quality, although you can still find some excellent examples from the highest points in this area.

Costa Rican Coffee In The Cup

Washed coffees from Costa Rica can be mild with high levels of acidity. They’re usually very pleasant as a filter or as part of an espresso blend to add brightness. Honey-Washed and naturals are becoming something of a signature style for coffee exported from here. These are much bolder in flavour and body, and can offer a deep and complex filter option. Look out for notes of honey, pineapple and dried fruits! Check out the latest seasonal coffee options from the best producers.

Key Facts Country: Costa Rica
Famous Regions: Turrialba, Western Valley, Central Valley, Brunca
Common Varietals: Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Villa Sarchi, Villa Lobos, SL-28, Gesha
Common Processing Methods: Washed, Natural and Honey
Growing Altitude: 1200-1800 masl
Flavour Notes: High acidity with sweet notes of tropical fruit and honey.

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