Coffee consumers may claim that they have experienced the diverse array of flavours of Costa Rican brews. In fact, the diversity of Costa Rican coffee is far broader than one may anticipate. Habitating eight distinct coffee growing regions, Costa Rica boasts eight distinct coffee varieties, each enjoying a vast and unique combination of aromas and flavours.
Costa Rica, situated in the South of Central America, is the thirteenth largest producer of coffee beans in the world and is renowned for its ideal coffee growing conditions. The country produces roughly 1.5 million bags of coffee beans per year, 90 percent of which is exported. Small farmers play a significant part in the production which makes up around 11 percent of Costa Rica’s export revenue, although nearly 90 percent of producers have less than 12 acres of cultivation farmland.
Diverse Geography, Diverse Coffee
One of Costa Rica’s most famous regions is Tarrazú, known for its full and heavy aromas and acidic flavour. Contrasting flavours are found in Brunca - the most Southern coffee region of Costa Rica - known for the production of moderate flavour beans. Valle Occidental is also renowned for its subtlety, its beans denoting fruity flavours such as apricots and peaches.
The reason for Costa Rica’s outstanding coffee is perhaps its awe-inspiring landscape; its rugged yet beautiful terrain and unique rainforest climate providing coffee conditions of pure perfection. Coffee beans, in particular, Arabica beans, demand specific conditions from the climate and the landscape, specifically mild temperatures and high altitude. Costa Rica is perfect for coffee growing with its warm climate and mountainous terrain. Despite the different regions producing different beans, overall, Costa Rica boasts the ideal environment for producing some of the highest quality Arabica coffee. Given that Arabica is the highest quality of coffee beans, Costa Rica has made it illegal to produce any other type of coffee that is not 100 percent Arabica. The law was introduced in 1989 and prohibits the planting and growing of low-quality beans. Costa Rica is the only country in the world that has made poor quality Arabica illegal, with the aim of encouraging its farmers with the pursuit of excellence to maintain its quality reputation.
With only two seasons (rainy and dry), Costa Rican coffee is of a consistently high quality. Both seasons provide ideal climates with the temperature at a stable range of 17 to 28°. The stunning mountains and enriched rainforest soil create ideal farmland for coffee beans. Most of its coffee regions are situated in areas with altitudes of 800 to 1600 metres and experience an average rainfall of 2000 to 3000 millimetres per year.
However, the different regions do experience varying altitudes which ultimately shapes not only the flavour of the beans but the body, acidity and aromas. The soil is also enriched with volcanic ash, a factor that makes Costa Rican coffee so unique and distinct in flavour. Volumes of volcanic ash in the soil vary depending on the region meaning oxygenation of the beans gives the coffee differing levels of richness, depending on its source.
A quality coffee reputation
Coffee growth in Costa Rica took stead in the 19th century, particularly after 1821 when it was declared independent from Spain. After their declaration of independence, the municipal government aimed to encourage production and so supplied free coffee seeds to its population. The encouragement prevailed as records show that it led to seventeen thousand coffee trees being grown throughout the country.
Government promotion of production continued and by 1825, coffee was made exempt from certain taxes. Further to this, 1831 saw a government order ruling that anyone who grew coffee on fallow land for at least 5 years could then claim ownership over that land.
Production promotion undoubtedly succeeded as, by 1846, coffee was Costa Rica’s sole export that ultimately made significant advancements the country’s infrastructure. Coffee was the sole export for 44 years and provided funding for the first railroads. The country’s infamous ground-breaking infrastructure gave it a significant advantage over other coffee growing countries and allowed it to demand a much better price when exporting through the international market.
This was also somewhat due to the washed process that was taken up by Costa Rican coffee producers; the wet process was introduced within the country in 1830. Costa Rica experienced a staggering increase in the number of wet mills and by 1905, the country boasted over two hundred across its regions. With such a high number of wet mills, Costa Rica’s coffee exports rose to an all-time high. Beans produced through the wet process did (and still do) achieve the highest prices due to the consideration that coffee produced in this way is of the highest quality, as opposed to the natural process. (read our post on the processes here)
Not only did Costa Rica achieve some of the highest prices for its coffee export, it was also known for its superior reputation, although its coffees were typically not unique or interesting, instead they were just pleasant. Towards the late 20th century, there was a drive towards high-yielding varieties which arguably decreased the quality. However, recent changes to Costa Rican coffee have reinstated its reputation for high-quality coffee as well as its modern reputation for uniquely interesting flavours. During the 2000’s, there was a dramatic increase in the number of micro mills, contrasting the typically large Costa Rican mills known as beneficios. Farmers started investing in their own small-scale harvesting equipment in order to carry out the processing themselves. This saw the reinstating of Costa Rican quality and distinctive flavours as the increase in control over their coffee led to greater diversity of tastes.
Costa Rican coffee has regained its reputation for exciting blends of unique flavours and the beans from the eight different regions are now easily distinguished by geographical impact through small-scale farming and processing. Next time you sample the delights of a Costa Rican beverage, remember that each and every brew is entirely unique. The flavours of Costa Rica are like no other.
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Written by Katie Humphrey