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Costa Rica: A Maturing of Speciality Coffee

Costa Rica is a special origin to visit, not least because of the influence it has had on processing. White, yellow, red, and black honeys, anaerobics, naturals, all have been produced for years there. It is arguable that the emergence of these coffees had a much bigger impact on the coffee processing world than a country of Costa Rica’s’ size might be expected to have.

With a focus on improving sustainability too, (the country won the Earth Shot award in 2021) it is perhaps a very modern coffee producing country despite having grown coffee since the very late 1700’s.  

Cordillera Del Fuego 

Landing in San Jose late afternoon, a quick stop in a hotel saw us ready to hit the ground running with our first proper visit to Cordillera Del Fuego just north of the capital San Jose in Alajuela. We met Nanci and Cesar from STC who showed us around. A speciality focussed mill, Cordillera is owned and run by Luis Eduardo Campos and Jose Fransisco de Jesus Fernandez Arias, or Coco for short. Their shared history goes back over twenty years, when Don Luis left the cooperative, he helped find it’s feet after an ideological clash over transparency.  

Nanci and Cesar, STC, Costa Rica

That led to a progressive development of an old mill his friend Coco owned, and subsequent investigations on processing lead also to a brainwave. Whilst delving deeper into the world of decaffeination as a way to return more value to farmers, the thought struck that in the same way coffee is exposed to heat and pressure to open the beans for caffeine removal, any fermentation stage that also made use of these techniques should have a bigger impact on cup profile that traditional methods did.  

Experimentation happened, collaborative at first but with the collaborator apparently absconding with the methodology to claim as their own. A few final refinements followed and lead to a piece of kit being built to precisely control fermentation. Understanding and monitoring the temperature, pH, Brix, CO2, and pressure allowed for exact replication of the processes. Of course, this involves an understanding of yeast and bacteria too, which have a control through the application of temperature control rather than inoculation.  

Switching then to the cherries and farms that supply them, another detail emerged. Sourcing from 5 or 6 farms that have proven over time to fit both in quality and quantity. The varietals – Caturra and Catuai – dominate in Costa Rica, but altitude and flavour will still have an impact. In a cupping soon to follow, were able to taste the underlying terroir but extremely well balanced with taste of the process too. 

This is because from those farms, the beans are pulped, and the skins and pulp blended to create an evenness of processing and consistency. Perhaps a little tricky to detect in isolation on a cupping table, but on a table with 12 other variations it becomes manifestly noticeable. Cordillera Del Fuego’s skill then is supremely apparent – the balance of the thermal shock or anaerobic process to be clear but not dominating, the varietal and terroir to be harmonious with the treatment. 

With conversation around Terroir, it was time to visit a farm of Coco’s just around the corner. Bananas and other ‘Musa’ trees are common of coffee farms. Normally these are used as windbreaks. In Costa Rica, or at least, in Alajuela, they have another use. Fighting Jogoto.  

Jogoto is the colloquialism for a larvae that if left unchecked will eat the roots of coffee trees similar to nematodes. Growing banana, plantain or similar not only provides a tasty fruit for us, but roots that are sweeter than coffee for the Jogoto. This is a sacrifice to save the coffee plant. Guaba trees are also grown and good for both shade and nitrogen fixing. Not to be confused with Guava trees, these are also known in English as the Ice Cream Tree, as we would find out later. The higher canopy allows air movement underneath whilst providing the dappled shade coffee prefers. The elong leguminous pods are full of a bean with an outer white covering which when ripe, tastes like ice cream.  

Inter-American Highway and coffees of Tarrazu

With a journey south to Tarrazu ahead of us we really needed to get going and so we hit the road. The Inter-American highway took us along and over the Cerro De La Muerte (mountain of death), a 3000+masl section of road running down the spine of the Talamanca mountain range joining Nicaragua to Panama. The mountains bisect the country and mean the climate can be under the influences of the Pacific or Atlantic weather fronts depending on location. This is great for microclimates.  

A pilgrimage route originally (and still, in fact), the extreme altitude is no problem for good infrastructure, even in fog at night. In good weather, and daylight, you can see from the Pacific to the Atlantic, coast to coast. This would not be us. Arriving late into San Marcos in Tarrazu we checked into the hotel and grabbed a bite to eat.  

Chumeca

The morning saw us head up the road to Chumeca. Similar to Cordillera Del Fuego the day before, this is someone we have now been buying from for a few years and were in need of a visit. A micromill run by father & sons Martin, Emilio and Jorge (Pacho), it was to prove just as special.  

Pacho, Martin and Emilio. Chumeca, Costa Rica

A modest cupping room with some distinctly outstanding coffees were to greet us, alongside a Bandola/Chemex comparison from the Bandola Champion of Costa Rica himself, Emilio. Named after a branch on a tree, a Bandola is a filter pot with a pouring spout, not dissimilar to a teapot with a V60 attached. Focussing on the brewing and the making of the coffees, his brother Pacho is the face of the growing. Both are clear sources of pride for their father as they take the reins of the farm.  

There are actually 4 farms in the family, all with a firm focus on speciality. La Fila, Montanita, Trinidad and Chumeca. The idea is not global expansion, but a product to be proud of on a scale that is sufficient and rewarding. Part of that reward is spending time with the family. With just 5 full-time workers (Nicho and Kenny being the two non-family members that work there), any coffee that is not destined to wear their name will be sold to CoopeTarrazu for their washed coffees. Chumeca does only naturals.  

We had another cupping with variations (varietal or terroir again) on their processes. 777 or Capulinero are the big hitters here and bespoke to Chumeca. The first is an ‘oxidation’/anaerobic cross; two stages of fermentation with the open fermentation that forms the oxidation part carried out specifically in orange sacks. This was fantastic to find someone else that had even looked at the effects of colour on fermentation as we are doing with Daterra in Brazil. With red winning out for us, and orange for them, there is a synergy we were pleased to see!  

The anaerobic process is controlled in an amazing series of stainless-steel barrels that can pivot as needed. An airlock sits at the top and a tap at the bottom to be able to test the contents without reintroducing any air.  The location took a year to decide after a study of average temperatures across their farms. This is someone that has focussed their offering to the benefit of the process they keep.  A specialism that feels, well, special.  

777

But what of the name? Never having really got to the bottom of this before I took my chance to finally get an answer. Those versed in Mexican popular culture are in for a treat and may have already guessed – the process is named after one of Martins favourite actors, Cantinflas. A film he (Cantinflas) made in the 1970’s is about a policeman that ostensibly says everything (about life) and nothing at the same time, Patrullero 777.  Whilst developing the recipe, they found feedback on the coffee was always slightly perplexing – lots of non-descriptors whilst simultaneously praising the profile. Delicious, interesting, complex. Detailed, but non-specific. A gentle homage then to what the film says, and a soft reminder if nothing else that feedback to producers should be both accurate and specific.  

Capulinero

One thing no one can control is the weather. Their second named process gains its name from a ten-day bout of rain that forced a change in the process they were doing at the time. It also coincided with a small flock of capulineros visiting and staying on the farm which not been seen doing this before. The anaerobic process then was interrupted due to temp variation, with an oxidation fermentation happening after. When the rain stopped, a final anaerobic fermentation was conducted, making this a triple fermentation process coffee. At the same time, the previously unseen capulinero birds left the farm, and have not repeated their visit since. The coffee tasted great and so the process remains, bearing the name of the visitors to the farm.  

We tried a couple of other coffees, two under consideration for Cup of Excellence entry. Needless to say, one of the ones that blew our socks off will be entered. We also had some cascara. Nothing really new here except for one major fact. This cascara had been processed and understood as a food product. A recent event in Germany I went to was discussing the co-products of coffee, and how if they are to have a future, they need to be treated with the requirements of the food industry rather than be seen as a by-product and treated as reclaimed waste, so this very much grabbed my attention. 

Chumeca have worked with a university looking at their fermentation processes, and this cascara came from those very same coffees. Not only that, but the batches had then also been sent to a lab for analysis, and certified as safe and can be imported with the documentation required. This is a huge step forward, though perhaps it might not seem it. As rules and regulations tighten in the UK and EU, with good reason, it is fantastic to see the true food safety aspect of this understood and leading innovation. The fact that as an anaerobic cascara it was the best I have ever tasted was just the icing on the cake. 

CoopeTarrazu & STC

Being close to San Marcos, we then popped down to the milling facilities of CoopeTarrazu, another long-term supplier and owners of STC who we source Chumeca and other super-specialities through. We visited the often misunderstood Hacienda Cafetalera to learn about wastewater recycling, fertilizer creation and visit some of their ‘farms’, Tirra and Granadilla.  

For anyone dealing regularly with coffee information you will understand the difficulties in unpicking misinformation. This was to be the case here when we came to understand Tirra as a plot on the estate rather than Tirra Estate. Tirra is a tree at around 200 years old that shades a sloped area of the farm belonging to CoopeTarrazu. Over time the name has ebbed and flowed and picked up a few interpretations. We are not the only ones to have found this – even when it was in Cup of Excellence the name was wrong, but it felt good to finally have clarity. Sometimes our obsession over naming coffees creates more problems than we are aiming to clear up!  

Cherry filling a medida with cajuela to the right

You can often find this with the ‘F1’ varietal and here was no different. F1 is just a denominator of generation and not the name of a varietal or suggestion at parentage. A varietal is not deemed stable until F5, and a swathe of new varietals that heralded new genetic research soon found themselves labelled F1 instead of the actual name. We have bought an F1 for a couple of years from here too, but were unsure of actual varietal mix. Again it was good to clarify. Here it is the Centroamericano, from the Granadilla plot, slightly lower altitude, less shade and less incline, but still part of Hacienda Cafetalera.  

A quick visit followed to one of the Casa De Alegria that are funded in part by our community coffees we buy from CoopeTarrazu. If you are one of the roasters that have bought them over the years, then know that your contribution has had an amazing effect. This year the houses (they are located in areas to provide childcare for travelling pickers) have provided care and education for 1300 children from 3 months to 12 years old. They are staffed by trained carers and additional helpers and are free for pickers, staff and farmers. Our project update is just being compiled for 2023, but for this project it comes in at over $100,000 and is an important part of who we are and how we like to operate. You can read more on our projects here 

ASOPROAAA 

Sitting in the San Jose province, are the cantons of Acosta and Aserri, with Tarbaca in between. It is here where we would find ASOPROAAA, long time suppliers of the black honey and providers of Las Palomas too. Ivan met us and was happy to show us around the micromill where the coffee comes in. New since our last visit was branding for Black Honey – this has become so well recognised it has become the focus of the coffee producers for the group and spawned its own brand too. 

ASOPROAAA Black Honey

As the name suggests, these are an Association not a cooperative, and they also count a number of other producers amongst their number. Out of 1200 members across coffee, cattle, citrus and vegetables, 200 produce coffee. However, some of this goes elsewhere as the first quality control is the front gate of the mill.  

This can be a hard thing to do, but Costa Rica has a lot of mills, and support is there for the farmers to improve to where they need to be. However, reputation and quality are hard to maintain and general manager Ivan wants to make sure those coffees that fit are rewarded. This exposure for the Black Honey created not only a brand, but a café in the town too, dedicated to speciality coffee. Think cups of a certain shape, colours chosen to accentuate the flavours, and a carefully roasted and brewed cups from a competition barista too.  

This has really provided a point of pride amongst the growers. Now, not only do they know they can sell their coffee for a good price, but they can see it served to the neighbours and family too. This has led to a number of farmers looking to sell their coffee to the mill, but also then a lot of engagement on how to grow towards the quality that is needed to perform. A longer path perhaps, but ultimately a more sensible one for increasing value in the crop.  

ASOPROAAA Black Honey ice cream, Costa Rica

At the mill, Ivan has decided to concentrate on the black honey as what they do best. They still do a little single farm lots for those really special farms, and some red honey or natural, but mostly it is black honey. By building this as a focus, it allows for better streamlining of the mill, with cost reductions whilst maintaining quality control. With the roasting, retail business and café side too (alongside an amazing black honey ice cream), the returns are bigger and so everyone benefits more across the association.  

CoopeDota

Leaving CoopeTarrazu and STC, we travelled not much further down the road to CoopeDota. The focus here is more the cooperative lots, both honey and washed. The constant demand for new and different can often lead to pressures to separate a farmer from the support network of their cooperative to sell a single farm lot but CoopeDota do things a little differently. The focus here is on the cooperative as a whole, and the feel is very much like coming home to a big family.  

Dinner with CoopeDota, Costa Rica

Microlots are produced and highlighted under their Microdota line, and there is a separate line for their Mujeres, or women’s coffee. Both of these allow the coffee to flourish in its uniqueness, while keeping the power of the brand behind them.  

This brand has extended in to a cleverly designed café in Dota town, where tourists and locals flock. Agrotourism is also here with farm tours arranged on their 1984 tractor that has been converted to zero emissions using a system innovated by Dota, CATIE and Centro Avanzado de Investigacion Aplicada (CAIA) that removes pollutants from the air and turns it in to fertilizer with the help of AI. Ah yes. The first carbon neutral producer in Costa Rica (earned in 2011) has decided they want to be carbon positive and remove other people’s pollution too.  

This is where the power of a cooperative can become hugely evident. That collective organisation when effectively targeted can have a huge impact.  We came to Dota after spending time with CoopeTarrazu. Their cooperative has been building Casa de Alegria’s or Houses of Happiness where travelling workers can safely leave their children to be fed, educated, and looked after whilst the parents are working in the fields. This is a huge achievement, as what you are asking is a travelling worker, perhaps up from Panama or down from Nicaragua for the harvest season, needs to feel the trust to leave their child in the care of another. This is human and social sustainability.  

For CoopeDota, the focus has been in innovation and particularly the use of tech in solving environmental issues. This in part is because of how much work they have already done. This covers environmental sustainability and economic, for the costs it saves in fertiliser purchases.   

For both Coope’s Dota and Tarrazu, there are programmes that turn the cherry in to fertilizer, albeit in different ways, furthering environmental sustainability. Costa Rica is unusual in that the harvest is received in cherries from producers more than processed on the farm. This has benefits in quality control through easier identification of colour and ripeness in the cherry. The flip side though is that the huge wetmills here have large amounts of honey water and waste cherry to process too.  

As a country with a strong environmental focus there are tough guidelines to follow. These were upheld rigorously. For Dota, this was where the opportunity presented itself though for capturing pollution. The detail behind this was impressive, but perhaps for the sake of brevity can be explored in its own article. It is worth knowing though, that it has had successful trials, and rebuffed the much larger companies that are trying to buy the researchers in favour of staying with a cooperative minded group to benefit everyone.  

Another similarity that was noticeable in Costa Rica was the presence of roasted brands. We had seen this with both ASOPROAAA and Dota having their own cafes, but others also roasted coffee for a mix of clients in the country. An economic approach to sustainability. This was to continue for the next cooperative we visited, CoopeAgri.  

Based in Perez Zeledon, more in the south of the country, CoopeAgri have a firm focus on FT certified coffee. They have a number of roasted brands in supermarkets and mirror them with purchases we can make in the green. Don Claudio for example is their top end line, named after the cooperative’s first president.  

Understanding HB Coffee

A lot of coffee that CoopeAgri deal with is HB. HB is lower altitude coffee with SHB, which was previously seen as ‘better’. We were keen to visit an HB farm as part of our time there, and so we headed off to a low-altitude farm owned and managed by Pablo Corrales.  

What followed was not only a clear demonstration of expertise in practice, but a solid challenge to this way of thinking. It’s probably fair to say, that much as Brazil was written off for being a country with lower quality, boring coffees, so were the lower altitudes in the coffee world. Here though, was an excellently managed farm with a shade canopy provided by the nitrogen fixing Guaba, and Guapinol to reduce temperatures. Healthy Obata, Marsellesa, and CA1962, a varietal unique to CoopeAgri populated the lands which are renovated at a rate of 15,000 plants each year.  

The abundance of new varietals and research around this has meant a more suitable tree for the conditions. This includes lower elevations and improved cup profiles. The pruning techniques were exemplary, with an eye on producing both good quality and good yield. The results? From an average HB farm producing 18 fanegas per hectare, this farm was up to 60. The cup quality was better, and a firm regeneration plan was being enacted.

HB coffee, Perez Zeledon, Coope Agri

Somewhat unsurprisingly then, we learned that Pablo was a trained agricultural engineer, but it clearly presented a question. In a topography that has both low- and high-level growing areas such as Costa Rica, and in conditions where we know climate change is forcing arabica higher up the mountains, why are we solely focussed on what happens there without paying attention to the lower altitudes and the gains that are potentially able to be made?  

The switch of varietals here is interesting to see. Most coffee in Costa Rica is Caturra or Catuai, so it feels like a brave move. But also, if that is suited for a higher altitude then it is sensible to switch, and Brazil of course has done a lot of work towards this. Pablo also grew his own seedlings. CoopeAgri have a program funded in part by the FT premium that helps producers to get new seedlings to renovate their crops. Plants are provided free for 4 years with free transportation too to smooth the path to the fields. There is a coffee school for training, and they have invested in new land to expand their mill.  

The wet mill provides yet more Costa Rican innovation. Pulp is siphoned off from the mill and sent directly in to a factory where it produces a high antioxidant drink. It can also be formulated in to moisturiser and other beauty products, and finally a liquid and solid fertiliser too. There is no waste here! The solid fertiliser itself requires a long time to break down as every last bit of juice has been extracted.  

So what impression of the country does this leave us with, and where are things heading? Most interesting for me it really feels like a maturation of the speciality scene.  

The focus is less on more is more and is tackling a less-but-better approach to whatever the passion is. Cordillera, Chumeca and Asoproaa this would be processing perfection. CoopeTarrazu, CoopeDota and CoopeAgri strong sustainability but with differing pillars and approaches to innovation and product mix to get there.  All have an eye on the numbers as we all do, but once again it feels like if you want to know where speciality coffee is headed, look to Costa Rica.  

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