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Pura Vida from Costa Rica

This February Saskia and MT headed out to Costa Rica to catchup with our producers and taste some delicious coffees.

Costa Rica is an origin steeped in coffee history, their first export to England was in 1843 and coffee has been grown here since 1779. It was central to their economy and still today 90% of their coffee is exported, regions like Tarrazu are reliant on producing coffee. The main coffee varieties grown are Catuai and Caturra.

In Costa Rica, they measure coffee in cajuelas which is 13kg of cherry, and fanegas which is 46kg of cherry. Coffee pickers get paid per cajuela and the receiving stations measure out the coffee delivered in fanegas. The vessels used to measure out these amounts are provided by ICafe (Instituto del Café de Costa Rica), so the measurements are always the same. Coffee is highly regulated in Costa Rica by ICafe, an NGO formed in 1933, which regulates, researches and promotes the growth of Costa Rican coffee.

These regulations have the aim of making the coffee industry fair for everyone in the supply chain and that they are paid a fair price for what they are doing, from the amount the pickers get paid to the price at which the coffee is sold for export. Therefore, Costa Rican coffee can be more expensive than in other origins, but that extra money is going towards improving quality of life.

Our trip centered around the growing regions of Tarrazu, Central Valley and Brunca.

Coope Agri, San Isidro, Brunca

The first stop on our trip was to the Coope Agri office located in San Isidro to meet Jonathan Duran, their International Sales Manager, and learn a bit more about their cooperative. They have a total of 4,000 producers who also grow other exports such as plantain, banana, and avocado. They also own six supermarkets, gas stations and a coffee shop on the same site as their offices.

We were then taken to Finca Alaska, so named because it used to get extremely cold on the farm from the high altitude. It is run by Solidad and her husband Waldemor, and their five sons. When we visited we noticed they were growing tomatoes on the farm, which they said is to put some nitrogen into the soil for the coffee plants. There wasn’t much cherry on the trees because harvest had been a month earlier than expected, this was the same across the region, with only the highest altitude farms still harvesting.

Finca Alaska, Solidad and her husband Waldamor

We then visited their wet mill, their experimental coffee plot in which they are testing how different varieties grow and how effective different fertilizers are, and we learnt a bit about the unique way in which they are processing their coffee pulp – into a product called Naox.

Naox is made from the coffee mucilage, after being pulped the coffee is washed using mineral water and the result is a sweet water mixed with the mucilage, it is sent by pipes straight to the Naox factory where it is distilled down into a concentrate.

We started the next day cupping commercial and specialty coffees with Coope Agri in their office. We then visited the farm of Jonathan’s uncle Miguel, he has three children who have all gone to work in white collar jobs and none of them want to work on the farm. This is a common problem in Costa Rica as more people move to the city to get a more consistent income.

The owner of the farm Miguel (left) and Jonathan from Coope Agri (right)

Coope Tarrazu

In the Tarrazu region the majority of jobs are in coffee because as the locals say, “There is only coffee here”.

We met Ricardo and Fabian from Coope Tarrazu at their office, along with Sebastian from Sustainable Trading Company (STC). STC was set up by Sebastien Lafaye to support and assist coffee producer groups. Coope Tarrazu were founded in 1960 and have almost 5,000 members, of which 33% are women and they have four agronomists who regularly visit members.

We listened to presentations from both companies and then had a tour of the experimental coffee nursery, where they are testing out which varieties grow best in their area.

Our group along with some of the Coope Tarrazu team

We were then whisked away to visit the site where they make organic fertilizer for members from the waste coffee pulp. They lay it out in mounds, add a little parchment, spray it with existing fertilizer and regularly turn it with machines which accelerates the process. By doing this they produce organic fertilizer within 12 weeks.

Mounds of cherry breaking down to make fertilizer
Grass which the honey water is sprayed on to naturally filter out the mucilage

They also dispose of the coffee mucilage or “honey water” by spraying it onto a grassy field specially grown for the purpose, it then naturally filters through the layers of soil, purifying the water.

Nearby is their nursery Casa de la Alegria meaning “house of happiness”, which along with three others, provides free care for the children of coffee pickers when they are working. Most pickers come from neighboring Nicaragua and Panama because they get paid more than in their native countries. They do not like to leave their children with people they don’t know and often cannot afford to pay someone, so these nurseries provide food, education and a safe place to play whilst their parents are working. They are aiming to build 11 more of these in the coming years.

We started the next day with a cupping of the Fairtrade community and microlot coffees, then headed off to look around them. We visited the Canet, San Lorenzo, Carrizal and San Francisco communities which we have bought coffee from this year. We have worked with Coope Tarrazu for over 20 years and in 2011 we developed the idea of selling community lots so worked with Coope Tarrazu to make these available. This was the end of our time with Tarrazu and Fabian who had been our guide.

Fabian (left) and Saskia (right) at the Tarrazu cupping lab

Asoproaaa Association

The following morning we met Sebastien from STC, Asoproaa’s general manager Ivan, the owner of Las Palomas farm Jorge his brother Carlos and their children at the Las Palomas farm. The farm’s coffee is sold separately from the other coffees in the association. We had a stand-up meeting and then toured the beautiful farm which also grows the Gesha variety along with Catuai and Caturra.

(left to right) Saskia, Jorge, his son, and brother Carlos and MT at the Las Palomas farm

After lunch at the farm we travelled to the Asoproaaa mill where we saw a range of honey processed coffees drying on their patios. They explained that the reason for the different colours on their honey processed coffees is not the amount of mucilage left on the beans, but how soon they start turning them in the drying process, the yellow is turned first, then the red and lastly the black.

Honey and natural coffees drying at Asaproaaa

Asoproaaa were set up in response to the low coffee price in the early 2000s which caused many farms to go bankrupt. They provided finance to farmers to keep them in business, which they continue to do today along with finding financing for farmers from other institutions. In 2004 they opened a wet mill and drying patios, and they have built receiving stations so that farmers can more easily deliver their cherries. They concentrate on processing microlot coffees and can offer black, red and yellow honey processes, natural and washed coffees.

This part of Costa Rica did not previously have the notoriety of other parts such as Tarrazu, until 2007 when they won the Cup of Excellence; this gave them the opportunity to produce microlot coffees because of the higher demand.

World Coffee Research

On Saturday we met Emilia from World Coffee Research (WCR) at their on farm technical trial (OFTT) where they are growing their lab made trees to see how well they produce cherries and adapt to the soil, fertiliser and environment.

WCR were created in 2012 by the coffee industry and their aim is to ensure a future for coffee through research. Their work focuses on creating new coffee varieties which are disease resistant, high producing and cup well, testing existing varietals to see in what climate and with what care they grow best and recording this information for farmers. Then when producers come to plant new coffee trees they can plant a tree which they know will be suitable for their climate and be aware of how best to care for it. This is what the “check-off” program goes towards funding.

The plot we visited was in the Orosi Valley; the climate is very hot and it rains a lot, therefore the plants do not get a rest period after harvest as is usual because of the frequent rains. Plots are always on existing farms, and in this case is rented from the farmer – the trees height and width are measured every six months and once harvested the weight of the beans, how many it produces and the soil qualities are all measured. It takes five years to test a new hybrid, and another seven generations for that tree to become stable, so it is still early days from their first planting in 2014.

Emilia from World Coffee Research

Coope Dota

The next morning we headed to Coope Dota, which was just a short five minute walk from our hotel. Dota were formed in 1960 by 96 producers and today they are 900 strong. They have a coffee shop, mill, school, and farm all in the same area in the center of Dota town, where as well as processing coffee they run coffee tours for tourists with all the profits from these businesses being shared with the members.

They are committed to looking after the environment around them by using grass to filter out the mucilage from their ‘honey water’ and by producing their own fertilizer from coffee pulp which they give to their members for free. They have also spent many years improving their working practices to become carbon neutral, which they achieved in 2011.

They tend to focus on the quality of the coffee rather than quantity, and process about 10% of the coffee which is coming out of the Tarrazu region.

We were met by Monserrat who gave us a tour of their wet mill, where they ferment the coffee then dry the microlots on patios and the other coffees in guardiolas. They also have another unique machine to dry coffee – which I can only describe as a Ferris Wheel which is used to dry some selected lots.

They have 30 producers who they certify to supply coffee for microlots, requirements for this certification include a guarantee from the farmer that they will always supply 100% red cherries and that their farm is in a location which is ideal for good quality coffee production. Each microlot they produce is a careful blend of cherry from up to three farms which have similar locations and conditions.

Moving on to their El Cedral Farm which is owned by Coope Dota and used to plant new coffee varietals to see how well they grow, test out new fertilisers before rolling them out to their members, and at 1900 masl the farm still had plenty of coffee left on the trees to harvest.

While we were there we got to pick some of the cherry, we each managed about half a cajuela (or basket) each in about 45 minutes – 30kg in total. We then had a traditional packed lunch sitting amongst the coffee trees.

Then it was off to their cupping lab to taste some delicious coffees.

On our final morning at Dota, we visited their Barista school, which they teach roasting theory and the practical skills needed to make the perfect latte. Courses can be tailored to suit the needs of the pupils and can last a day, a week etc. The school is an important way to encourage the younger generation to stay within their communities, as many want to move to the cities, by teaching them other skills needed in coffee production they don’t just assume the only jobs available are picking coffee.

On the same site they also have their roastery which they roast for the Costa Rican market, we had a tour around the floor whilst they were roasting and packing up the coffee into bags – which were soon to undergo a re-brand into more beautiful and simple to pack packaging.

Then after a final presentation in the Coope Dota café over coffee and cake we made our way back to San Jose to catch flights and say our farewells.

It was wonderful to catch up with cooperatives who we have been working with for so many years and see first-hand their projects developing and hearing their ideas for the future.

On a personal note it was also very apparent to me that the coffee cooperatives are at the center of their communities, providing not just jobs but services like the grocery shops and gas stations I mentioned above. I also saw how ICafe regulations make coffee production fair for each person, all the cooperatives we visited adhered to the same rules and regulations and everyone understood what was expected of them. This being my first trip to origin I also left with a much better understanding of not only the way coffee is physically produced but I got an insight into the lives and challenges faced by producers in Costa Rica.