Looking For Great Coffee Or A Coffee Unicorn?

by Ralph Menezes //

Our latest blog is a take on the coffee industry in Costa Rica. Fabiola Solano, coffee blogger and passionate barista, tells us how the industry has grown over the years, the challenges that the specialty coffee market faces and her view on how the region needs to recognize the domestic market in a bigger way.

When amazing coffee is not enough...

coffee plant

Costa Rican coffee is amazing, don’t you agree? This country has been producing it since early 19th century and it was the first country in Central America to grow the magic bean. Costa Rican coffee is widely known for its good quality, but has it been falling short for the internal market?

Let’s go back in time and learn how coffee production developed in this tiny country.

In 1821, when the country’s independence from Spain was declared, coffee seeds were given away for free to encourage production of the crop that seemed to grow very well in San José - nowadays, the capital city. Coffee began being so important that by 1931, the government decreed that if anyone grew coffee on fallow land for five years, they could claim the ownership of it.

Between 1846 and 1890 coffee was the sole export of the country, making it completely dependent of it. Thanks to these exports, Costa Rica’s infrastructure began to develop: railroads, hospitals, the first post office, libraries, universities and even the National Theater were built. During this period, washed coffees were highly appreciated and were a synonym of quality, which means they achieved higher prices; even at the commodity marketplace they fetched premium prices.

“It is undeniable that Costa Rican coffee held a good reputation and achieved good prices for its coffees for a very long time, even though the coffees it was producing were typically clean and pleasant rather than interesting or unusual.”

- James Hoffman, The World Atlas of Coffee

The 8 coffee growing regions

Costa Rican coffee regions

Costa Rica is divided into 8 producing regions; these were created based on characteristics such as altitude, climate, the origin of the soil, the harvest season and the flavor profile. This produces a variety of flavors within each region and that is increased thanks to the popularly known micro mill revolution. This revolution is the way farmers are able to control their coffee and diversity of milling styles. Owning their own micro mill allows producers to be independent from the co-ops and commodity market prices. This has been a major game changer in the Costa Rican specialty coffee market, since there are hundreds of mills doing different experiments to differentiate their coffee from the neighbors’.

In this country, 92% of the producers own less than 5 hectares, all summed up represent 44% of the total producing area; only 2% own more than 20 hectares, that represent 35%. Now just do some quick math to imagine the variety of flavor profiles that you can find in Costa Rica.

It is now easier than ever to taste several different varietals, processes and origins, yet somehow it seems, internally, they are not appreciated enough.

Internal consumption

coffee farmer

Costa Rica is a small country, and the producing areas are becoming even smaller as urban areas grow wider, but it is also accountable for being the country with the 15th highest per capita coffee consumption in the world (2013).

This causes a tremendous problem: ticos (Costa Ricans) want coffee, farmers want to sell their coffee at prices that dignify their job, there is only a limited amount of amazing coffee, 90% gets exported, then what do ticos drink? Imported coffee! Sadly to mention, lower qualities are being imported from nearby countries and they represent almost 50% of internal consumption.

Third-wave efforts

costa rica cafe gotraveloco.com

Since 2013, third-wave coffee shops have been opening in San José, in an effort to promote specialty coffee within the country. Historically, Costa Ricans have not known the good quality that has been produced for decades until now; several producers have not even tasted their own coffees ever.

Coffee schools have been also opening for the last years and thousands of students have taken their barista courses, giving the market the possibilities of more specialty coffee shops, varietals, processes, regions, brewing methods, you name it..

People have become interested in high quality coffee but, is the cup profile not enough for the demanding palates? Some say that it is always composed by bright acidity, nutty and sugar cane flavors with a chocolatey finish. I greatly differ on this. Costa Rica has a lot to offer, from fruity to nutty, high and mild acidity, to full bodied coffees. Yes, Costa Rican coffee might not offer the flavor profile of African coffees but that doesn’t make them any less exotic.

Exotic coffees involve higher costs that consumers need to be willing to pay if they are interested in different flavor profiles, i.e. natural and anaerobic process, the latter being the new experimental tendency in the country. But when exotic coffees become ‘not good enough’ what are we really expecting? Are we looking for ‘competition coffee’ in every cup we drink or do we want to enjoy and praise the farmers’ tremendous efforts for us to drink a cup o’ joe? Personally, I’d rather choose the second option.

Para ver esto en español: https://www.soybarista.com/buscando-cafe-o-un-unicornio

About Fabiola Solano

fabiola solano

Fabiola Solano started in coffee 5 years ago when she enrolled in her first barista course and later went on to become the first Authorized SCA Trainer in Costa Rica. Fabiola runs her own blog in Spanish called Soy Barista (www.soybarista.com) and has been writing for a few years for other magazines as well.

Her goal, as a Spanish-speaking blogger, is to create content that delivers knowledge especially to Latin American coffee producing countries. Follow her on Instagram @passionbarista or @soybaristacr and email fabiolasolano@soybarista.com.

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