Costa Rica: A Coffee Voyage to the Heart of Central America
Costa Rica is a Central American country that is almost the same size as Estonia in terms of area, but has four times the population. While the crops ideally suited to the Estonian climate are carrot, beet and turnips, in Costa Rica it’s bananas, melons and coffee. In this blog post I discuss how coffee is grown in Costa Rica and what I saw and experienced on my travels.
How and when to travel to Costa Rica?
Today there are many more flight options to and from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose than there were several years ago. Being the safest country in Central America, many North Americans travel there in the dry season, and the number of Europeans is also increasing every year. Three airlines fly to San Jose from Europe – KLM, Air France and Swissair. The flight time is from 10 ½ and 11 ½ hours depending on the point of origin. The best time to go there starts in December when the wet season has ended and dry and warm weather awaits. Our visit was in early November but we escaped any rain showers on this occasion.
Arrival in Costa Rica
Our flight was through neighbouring Panama City, so it took us about 16 hours to reach our destination. Upon arrival, we were greeted by summer weather and friendly people, thanks to which it was easier to overcome our travel fatigue. My first impression of Costa Rica was pleasant – traffic was civilised and not chaotic, the streets were clean and people positive, smiling and open.
We were hosted on our travels by Paulig’s local colleague – Anna – and Volcafe, Paulig’s partner in Costa Rica. Volcafe is a company that helps to develop and improve the quality of coffee, the productivity of farms and farmer output. In addition, their goal is to ensure long-term and sustainable coffee yields. Besides Costa Rica, Volcafe also operates and assists farmers in African and Asian countries, engaging in cooperation with local coffee growers.
Costa Rica and coffee
Coffee has been grown in Costa Rica since the 19th century. At first, coffee was sold and exported via the neighbouring Panama. Then raw coffee from Costa Rica started to spread to other countries as well. Starting in 2000, coffee growing became more popular on smaller farms, which invested into the equipment needed to grow coffee.
Costa Rican coffee farms have 84,133 ha under cultivation, which makes up about 2% of the country’s area. There are a total 45,035 farmers who earn a living growing coffee. Coffee is not a major source of revenue for the Costa Rican economy, only accounting for about 2% of the gross domestic product. Instead, the most important export items include medical equipment, followed by bananas and other tropical fruit.
Coffee farm life in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has eight principal coffee growing areas – Central Valley, West Valley, Tarrazú, Tres Rios, Orosi, Brunca, Turrialba and Guanacaste. In most regions, the growing area is 1,200 m above sea level, but there are also areas where coffee grows at a lower altitude of about 600 to 900 m above sea level (Turrialba being one of them). There is a great variety in flavour found in Costa Rican coffee because the growing area, amount of precipitation and soil have an impact on the final flavour of the coffee. In addition, the harvest matures at a different time, which also plays a role in what the end result tastes like. The flavour of Costa Rica Coffee could be best described as pure and full-bodied, sweet with a slight fruitiness.
This time our itinerary took us to Tarrazú in the La Laguna region. The farm we visited was 1,750 m above sea level. When we arrived at the farm, we were greeted by slightly cooler air because of the altitude and, of course, a captivating view – clouds on the horizon, green lushness, mainly Arabica coffee trees. We were received by the farmer, Juan Vargas Naranjo, who has been growing coffee for 40 years. Juan expressed keen interest in Estonia, wanting to know what our coffee consumption habits are, how cold our winters get and what Paulig products we use his coffee in. We visited the farm in November – at a time when the first harvest was starting to mature. Most of the harvest to be picked was still unripe, as could be seen on the basis of the green colour of the coffee cherries. But we also saw beautiful red ripe coffee cherries. On many farms, coffee trees are interspersed with other plants, which protects the coffee trees and provides the necessary minerals. On the farm we visited, banana plants and Erythrina trees were growing among the Arabica coffee plants. The bananas grown there were destined to be used for animal feed because of the high export costs. Juan also grew avocados, melons and oranges in his home garden for his own use.
Additionally, we had the opportunity to see coffee plantations and how coffee plants are planted. The farmer had to slash and clear a path for us by machete, because the plantation is located at 1,700 m above sea level and is covered with very wild, dense vegetation. When we arrived at our destination, it was explained to us what the required and optimum conditions were for a long-term high yield. For example the spacing between plants should be at least half a meter, with 1 m between rows, so that the plants could get all of the nutrients needed from the soil.
Coffee is harvested three times a year in Costa Rica. The period with the highest yield is in January, which is when there are about 70,000 harvesters in Costa Rica. Usually the workday for the harvesters starts at four or five in the morning. Many of the workers are hired from neighbouring Panama and Nicaragua. It should be said that all of the coffee in Costa Rica is picked by hand and usually two harvesters per hectare are used.
Processing the harvest
After the harvest, the coffee cherries must be sent to processing as quickly as possible so that their quality is preserved. That means that the outer skin and pulp of the coffee cherry must be removed to obtain the seed – the coffee bean. There are two primary methods for this procedure – wet processing and dry processing. In Costa Rica, the coffee beans are mainly processed at plants separate from the farms. This was also the case at the farm we visited. After the harvest has left the farm and has reached the plant, the first thing that takes place is measuring the volume of the coffee cherries. The farmer is paid based on the volume. In the next stage, the coffee cherries are sent to wet processing. Wet processing uses water and specific equipment, making it an expensive method of processing. At the plant we visited, a river next to the plant was used as the water source and the water was pre-filtered. In wet processing, the coffee cherries move along a belt that separates ripe red coffee cherries from unripe green coffee cherries. The line transports the red and ripe coffee cherries to a device that presses the coffee bean, the seed and the pulp separately. The same process takes place on the next line with the less ripe coffee cherries. There is variation in the quality of raw coffee, which is also reflected in the price obtained.
The wet-processed coffee is then sent to the drying stage. This process has to take place relatively rapidly, otherwise the coffee will ferment and spoil. The drying is done in large drums where the coffee from the wet process is circulated in hot air and excess moisture becomes steam. After that, the raw coffee is sent to quality control, performed by a machine that separates smaller and larger coffee beans. The outcome of this step is different quality levels, which determine the final price for the raw coffee. Finally, the raw coffee is placed in large vats to wait for the buyer. The coffee usually spends two months in the vats before it is sold.
Cupping: a perfect end for the coffee tour
Finally, we were able to sample the end result – picked, processed and roasted coffees from different growing areas of Costa Rica. We tasted this year’s harvest and, for comparison, also last year’s harvest. As mentioned above, the coffees from every region have their own flavour profile, personality and nuances. This was best demonstrated by cupping – a sampling of the coffees on the table. As coffee takes a long and time-consuming journey from farmer to producer, it’s important to remember while enjoying a cup how much work, effort and dedication has gone into it.
If you’re visiting Costa Rica and its capital San Jose, it’s possible to arrange a visit to a coffee farm to suit your preferences. The choice is wide, with an option of shorter or longer coffee tours. So if you’re interested in coffee’s journey and want to know and see more, Costa Rica is precisely the right destination!