When we started Sweet Maria’s in 1997, I found Costa Rica coffee a bit plain and boring. It lacked distinction; it was straightforward, clean, softly acidic, mild. It has lots of “coffee flavor.”
Many coffees were sold under “brand” names of large mills. These huge enterprises, often owned by multinationals, emphasized production yield, and volume, favoring the newer CatimorAteng is a common name for Catimor coffees widely planted in Sumatra and other Indonesia isles.: Ateng, with several subtypes, is a common name for Catimor coffees widely… …more hybrid plants that produced more coffee (but burned out every 8-9 years and had to be replaced). The coffee was increasingly machine-dried, to rush it through processingThe removal of the cherry and parchment from the coffee seed.: Coffee is either wet-processed (also called washed or wet-milled) or dry-processed (also called wild, natural or natural… …more and get it sold quick.
This wasn’t a quality-oriented system. The large mills mixed all the small-farm coffee cherries that were delivered, the high-grown and low-grown, the ripe fruits and the not-so-ripe. The result was mediocrity.
Then something shifted for the better: Small farmers who delivered their coffee cherryOriginally coffee literature referred to the fruit of the tree as a “berry” but in time it became a cherry. It is of course neither. Nor is the… …more to the big mills and coops didn’t see a future in business as usual. They wanted to process their own coffee separately, and sell it for a better price. At the same time, small-scale coffee equipment that used very little water became available, so called eco-pulpers. This meant they didn’t need access to a stream or river, where all the big mills were set up. They could invest in their own equipment, put it right on the farm, and sell coffee more direct to buyers.
It was called a micro-millSmall independent mills that produced finished coffee, ready for export, usually right on the farm. A Micromill is a tiny low-volume, farm-specific coffee producer who their lots separate,… …more and it changed specialty coffeeSpecialty coffee was a term devised to mean higher levels of green coffee quality than average “industrial coffee” or “commercial coffee”. At this point, the term is of… …more in Costa RicaCosta Rican coffee is typically very clean, sweet, with lots of floral accents. hey are prized for their high notes: bright citrus or berry-like flavors in the acidity,… …more. And the coffee became a lot more interesting too!
It wasn’t just about the quality of the big mills. Some coffee could be pretty decent. It was about a lack of transparencyTransparency is a flavor characterization synonymous with clarity. It is also a business ethics term, implying that as much information as possible about a product is made available… …more too, for the buyer as well as the coffee farmer.
For me, the main issue with Costa Rica had been the marketing model: big mills creating their own brands, not small farms with their own tree-to-bag processing. Since we are small and can handle small lots in a way that is not economical for a larger coffee company, we changed the way we sourced Costa Rican coffees in 2008 to offer coffees from the emerging movement of micro mill coffee production.
This new quality initiative is coming from smaller mills, low-volume, farm-specific coffee producers who now keep their lots separate, mill it themselves, gaining control of the process, and fine-tuning it to yield the best possible flavors (and the best price). This change in processing is possible due to new environmentally-friendly small milling equipment, and fueled by the dissatisfaction of small producers who sell coffee at market prices, only to see it blended with average, carelessly-harvested lots.
With an independent family mill, a farmer can become a true craftsperson, maximize the cup quality of their coffee, divide lots by elevation or cultivarCultivar is a term used interchangeably with Varietal in the coffee trade to indicate plant material, although there are distinctions.: The naming of a cultivar should conform to… …more, and receive the highest prices for their coffees. In turn, we get unique and diverse micro-lots, and long-term relationship with the small farmer. Some call it Direct TradeA term used by coffee sellers to indicate that the coffee was purchased through a direct relationship with the farmer. Unlike Fair Trade and Organic certifications, Direct Trade… …more, but we call it our Farm GateFarm Gate Coffee is the name we give to our direct trade coffee buying program. Farm Gate pricing means that we have negotiated a price directly with the… …more program, where we can be assured of exactly what the farmer received. And in these cases they yield 40%-100%+ more than Fair TradeFair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainability.: Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach… …more prices.
The range of flavors that result from Costa Rican coffees has expanded due to the new relationships we are forming, ranging from traditional wet-processed lots with vivid brightness and clean fruit notes, to … well, radically different dry-processed coffees as well as pulped natural “honey” coffees. Some of these experiments have crossed a threshold into ill-advised procedures that result in curious, yet unstable flavor attributes. We are not big fans of producing dry-process coffees in areas that can’t dry them well. The flavors may be outlandish, but the coffees tend to fade quickly, turning from fruit toward fermentAs an aroma or flavor in coffee, ferment is a defect taste, resulting from bad processing or other factors. Ferment is the sour, often vinegar-like, that results from… …more, and from rusticA general characterization of pleasantly “natural” flavors, less sophisticated and less refined, but appealing. : What is Rustic? This is a general term we came up with… Dried… …more sweetnessSweetness is an important positive quality in fine coffees, and is one of five basic tastes: Sour, Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Savory (Umami). In coffee, sweetness is a highly… …more to woodyGenerally a taste defect from age; old green coffee, perhaps yellowing in color. This is due to the drying out of the coffee over time, and as the… …more age notes.
Costa Rica can still produce great clean wet-processed type coffees, but lately we have found that competition from buyers, high internal coffee cherryEither a flavor in the coffee, or referring to the fruit of the coffee tree, which somewhat resembles a red cherry.: Either a flavor in the coffee, or… …more prices, and lack of commitment on the part of farmers to long-term relationships have made these coffees unattractive. On top of that, we can put together a table of blind samples from other Central American producing countries and find more clarity in the brightnessA euphemistic term we use often to describe acidity in coffee. A bright coffee has more high, acidic notes. : A euphemistic term to describe acidity in coffee…. …more and sweetness of the coffees. I would never say the Costa Rica highlands can’t produce world-class lots, but there aren’t as many as there are buyers, some tossing inflated prices at coffee lots that are of dubious cup character.
Is the problem of Costa Rica’s success its accessibility, and its downfall part of the constraints of other economic pressures, from the unchecked growth of San Jose and its suburbs, tourism and expatriate retirees, its educated and demanding work force, and their over-connectedness to the markets they sell into? It’s the success of development, and yet in crops like coffee it seems oddly off base. I mean, I don’t want the farms I work with to come up in Google with their own Flash-animated websites. I want them to grown good coffee, that’s all. Call me an imperialist. I have been to Costa Rica now many times. It’s a five hour flight, after all.
The botanical cultivars utilized are usually old, traditional selections: Typica, some Bourbon and Maragogype dominate, along with Caturra and Pacas. There is some of the less desirable Catimor types too, but many farms removed it after the “catimor craze” 10-20 years ago passed. CatimorCatimor is a broad group of cultivars derived from a Hibrido de Timor (HdT) and Caturra cross, highly productive, sometimes with inferior cup flavor. The main issue is… …more is a family of coffee varieties with some RobustaRobusta usually refers to Coffea Robusta, responsible for roughly 25% of the world’s commercial coffee. Taxonomy of Robusta is debated: some sources use “Robusta” to refer to any… …more genes mixed in with ArabicaArabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the taxonomic species name of the genus responsible for around 75% of the worlds commercial coffee crop.: Arabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the… …more, and while it produces a lot of coffee and has some plant disease resistant, it doesn’t generally cup as well as other pure Arabica varieties.