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 Catimor 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 processing 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 cherry 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-mill and it changed specialty coffee in Costa Rica. 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 transparency 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 cultivar, 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 Trade, but we call it our Farm Gate program, where we can be assured of exactly what the farmer received. And in these cases they yield 40%-100%+ more than Fair Trade 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 ferment, and from rustic sweetness to woody 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 cherry 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 brightness 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. Catimor is a family of coffee varieties with some Robusta genes mixed in with Arabica, 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.