Costa Rica Coffee Farms Micro Mills, My Early Visits

Going back to 2008 and a focus on the small coffee “micro-mills” in Costa Rica were producing better qualities of coffee.

What seemed like an easy, relaxing 4 day “farm and cupping tour” of Costa Rica turned in a thoroughly exhausting (yet fantastically rewarding) adventure. I didn’t see rare birds or jaguars, I didn’t get held up by bandits or lost on jungle paths.

This is no Indiana Jones fantasy. Rather it is a coffee buyers dream come true. From an origin catering to container load buyers, where mills pool together the coffees of small producers under fancifully-named brands, and the coffee association markets with little regard for true cup quality (well, if they think pretty girls and glossy print materials are something you can grind up and drink in a cup – yuck!) comes a new movement – micro-mills.

This little revolution has remarkable similarity to the “micro-roasters” of the United States, independent business owners tired of the medium quality of specialty coffee who know that no roaster can turn ho-hum green coffee into anything other than ho-hum roasted coffee. Wanting to push the limits, wanting cup quality that gets people excited. No, not Viagra in the coffee, no Mrs. Olsen flavor crystals, and not fancy branding that isn’t backed up by genuine cup quality. The small roaster wants to find that person on the other end of the line, the coffee producer, who is as dedicated as artisanal as the micro-roaster.

What I found is that Costa Rica has a new community of micro-millers forming into organic groups, drawn together by their pride in work, ove of the land, technical ability and perhaps more than ever, a need to be paid fairly for their efforts.

Sustainable coffee production is not a mystery; add up your costs, true costs to do the absolute best work that you can, to reward your team of workers fairly, to improve the health of the plant, the health of the soil, and the land, and to guarantee fair pay, education, and to re-invest each year to improve that quality.

Sustainable coffee production is not a mystery; add up your costs, true costs to do the absolute best work that you can, to reward your team of workers fairly, to improve the health of the plant, the health of the soil, and the land, and to guarantee fair pay, education, and to re-invest each year to improve that quality.

That’s the break-even point. And 20%. Where are you at? Above Starbucks price, above Illy, above the multinationals, above fair trade and organic certified coffee.  All that is left to find buyers who are willing to reward you for superior quality. 

And the only way you can do this is to invest even more in the coffee, break off from the pack who sell cherry at low prices to the coops and private mills and become a micro-miller of your own boutique lots. That you control from start to finish. Separate each days pickings and cup them separately so that even in your own little farm, there is no “pooling” of coffee without consideration of cup quality. So you end up with debts, mill equipment, elaborate accounting of each tiny lot. All this for the hope that your coffee has a home, somewhere out there in an unknown place, where it will be roasted with love, and presented with pride by a small roaster, hopefully with total transparency with the producers name and farm in full.

Yes, it’s a coffee love connection. The forerunners of this model exist: the small independent estates in Panama, the cup of excellence and best of Panama competitions, the small estate model each with their own millBut here we are talking about mini-lots, mini-mills, even nano-mills; you can rent a mill made in Colombia that is as big as a 2 bike motorcycle trailer, can be towed by a hyndai sedan. I saw it.

Maybe next year there will be one that just hooks on your bumper or fits into a station wagon. So here is an opportunity in Costa Rica and soon in other countries to get excited about coffee again. The only caution is that growth must be moderated by reality. The relations must be real, farmer to roaster, face to face and the quality must be verified in the cup.  There must be honesty and traceability, which basically means that roasters need to explain themselves to farmers and farmers need to understand something about the difficulties that a small roaster faces. We can’t allow this to be imitated or faked. The roaster can’t represent the macro lot as a true micro-mill coffee, and the producer can’t cheat either. Cheat himself, cheat the trees, his soil, his forest, or his laborers. And with fair rewards for true cup quality, a new micro-relationship is formed.

Here’s a photo tour of my Costa Rica Coffee Farms Micro Mills: