Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to grow coffee commercially.
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The Beginnings of Costa Rican Coffee
The first coffee plants were brought to Costa Rica from Cuba in 1779, and commercial production began in 1808. The first exports occurred in 1820, just a year before the Central American countries declared their joint independence from Spain.
The rapid growth of industry in the 1800s was fueled by government incentives and hopes for a more autonomous, less Eurocentric economy. And it worked. Exports were shipped all over the Americas, eventually reaching Britain in 1843 and the United States in 1860.
The coffee income led to a modernization of the country, which at that time belonged to the Federal Republic of Central America. Railroads were built, roads improved in rural areas, and cultural centers were built in the capital, San Jose, including the famous National Theater.
In the midst of this rapid success, the coffee economy changed worldwide. New players entered the coffee economy, diseases made their way to Central America and the world wars changed the way people bought coffee.
The coffee industry of Costa Rica
In 1900, Brazil made waves in the coffee economy, causing frequent price swings for Costa Rican farmers. The country’s neighboring countries, especially Honduras and Guatemala, also became important players in the world market for coffee.
The start of World War II also meant a change for Costa Rican coffee. Costa Rica used to be England’s largest supplier of coffee, but as norms and economic priorities changed, England halted its purchases during the war. The golden age of Costa Rica seemed to be coming to an end.
In the 1980s, coffee farms in Central America were ravaged by a disease that killed millions of plants and shook the industry for years to come. By the mid-1990s, coffee production had increased dramatically again, but prices had not. It is obvious that coffee growing in Costa Rica is not as profitable as it used to be. Despite the drop-in profitability, Costa Rica continues to grow, especially in the tourism and real estate markets.
In the 2000s, a dozen farmers began selling their farms near San José to real estate investors. This trend continues to this day, but Costa Rica shows no signs of slowing down: the country’s coffee is still appreciated around the world.
About coffee cultivation in Costa Rica
Today, less than 1% of the world’s coffee supply comes from Costa Rica. Nonetheless, the country is still the fifteenth largest coffee producer in the world. A quick look at the map shows that Costa Rica is not a very big country, but it still has a great geographical and climatic diversity.
Coffee grown in the rainforest areas is very different from coffee grown in the highland regions. Costa Rican growers also distinguish themselves from other markets by growing more experimental and rare plant varieties, including SL-28, Geisha, and even local genetic mutations like Villa Sarchi and Venecia.
Costa Rica also invented the “honey” process, which falls somewhere between washed and natural. Farmers can impart a rich sweetness (along with other flavor characteristics) to their beans by leaving some of the slime (but not all of the cherries) on the beans while they dry in the big yard. Today, honey processing is common across America.
The unmistakable taste of Costa Rican coffee
There are many different types of coffee in Costa Rica, but the country’s coffees are generally known for their vibrant acidity, light body, and mild, sweet, and floral flavors.
Tarrazú is probably the best-known growing area. The beans from this region have a particularly intoxicating acidity.
The West Valley is lesser known, but the region consistently produces Cup of Excellence winners, often coffees with a caramel-like sweetness, mild flavor and floral aromas.
The Central Valley has the most unique wet and dry seasons, allowing growers to explore alternative treatments. Naturally processed coffees here tend to have milder acidity, stronger body, and rich aroma and sweetness.
Factors of Costa Rican coffee
- Palate: Overall lively acidity, light body, rich sweetness and mild aroma.
- Processing: washed, honey
- Main growing areas: Tarrazú, West Valley, Central Valley Tres Ríos, Heredia
- Coffee harvest: December to April
Costa Rica rightfully enjoys a reputation for quality. The beans are an asset here in Colombia, and we’re proud to occasionally have something to offer here.
Cultivation, tourism and coffee in Costa Rica
- In Costa Rica you can see coffee fields with green and brown mosaics on the slopes. It’s a beautiful pastoral setting.
Most coffee is grown in the provinces of San José, Alajuela, Puntarenas, Heredia, and Cartago. The climate in these provinces is ideal for growing coffee.
The soils in these areas are volcanic, slightly acidic and extremely fertile. The higher elevations, especially between 3900 and 5600 feet (1200 and 1700 meters), and the cooler climate are ideal for coffee growing.
Most coffee berries are picked by hand. The coffee beans are dried in the sun or in a machine. The beans are then sorted by size and shape and packed in sacks. The classic Costa Rican coffee is mild and slightly acidic. It is an exciting treat and goes well with dessert.
Nowadays, manufacturers are experimenting with new, lighter and fruitier flavors. They are not as traditional as the older varieties, but are finding favor in international markets. A visit to a coffee plantation is a good opportunity to learn about the history and production of this important crop.
Speaking of tourism and coffee: Read our blog about the best travel destinations for coffee lovers.
The coffee-growing regions of Costa Rica
Valle de orosi
This valley is known for its famous coffee. The land was planted in 1950. A few kilometers from the capital one can admire a multitude of coffee plantations offering one of the best varieties. You will appreciate it immediately when you taste a smooth coffee with good acidity, body and aroma.
The region consists of coffee plantations that were previously introduced in other growing areas. An important feature is the soils fed by the Irazú, Barva and Poás volcanoes. This makes it possible to grow vigorous plants and enjoy a well-balanced cup.
The area is under the influence of the Irazú volcano. The soil therefore contains volcanic ash and a lot of organic material suitable for cultivation. Its beans are characterized by hardness and closed cracks. This coffee has a fantastic balance of body, acidity and strength.
Caturra and Catuaí, due to the abundant rainfall and temperatures typical of this region.
The region consists of two coffee-growing areas: Coto Brus and Pérez Zeledón. The first is entirely dependent on coffee cultivation, which survives on uneven and overgrown terrain. The second, on the other hand, is a valley surrounded by mountains with a very diverse ecosystem.
Classified as a Pacific type, this bean is characterized by a small, firm, and delicate aroma. Small amounts have also been planted in other regions classified as Atlantic, such as San Carlos and Sarapiqui. The local coffee is smooth and balanced.
It is arguably the most famous area in the world. The coffee is grown on sedimentary soils at an altitude of 1,200 to 1,900 meters, which contributes to its specific acidity. The cherries ripen slowly, so the aromas are intense and clear.
Valle del oeste
In this area there are ideal conditions for coffee cultivation with volcanic, fertile and moist soils. The coffee of this region has won the Cup of Excellence for its noble fruit with aromas of orange, peach and dark chocolate.
The founding of ICAFE
In the 20th century, Costa Rican farmers struggled to open up new areas for coffee cultivation and increase yields.
In response to the threat of the global financial crisis impoverishing thousands of vulnerable farmers in the 1930s, the Costa Rican government enacted a series of policies that laid the foundation for the fabric of modern Costa Rican coffee production.
This included the establishment of the Instituto de Defensa del Café (IDECAFE) in 1933, which later became the Oficina del Café. Today it is the Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE) whose main task is to regulate and mediate between the different branches of the coffee industry. After World War II, demand for Costa Rican coffee increased, but the country’s productivity plummeted.
It’s time for the country to make a big change. After a very careful research process, a start was made on replacing the highly stressed and low-productive “Typica” and “Bourbon” varieties with the smaller “Caturra” and “Catuai” varieties.
These changes have increased planting density from over 1000 plants per hectare to an average of over 3000 plants per hectare. Other important changes were introduced in the editing technique and the use of shadows.
Costa Rican coffee is Arabica by law
Changes at the international level also played an important role. An international coffee agreement and a system of export quotas were introduced, guaranteeing minimum prices.
Costa Rica focused on improving its production technology. By 1973, the country’s production had doubled from 1955, putting Costa Rica at the top of the world productivity list. This high ranking is reinforced by the quality policy implemented by ICAFE.
Also, farmers have access to improved coffee beans and therefore commit to only growing the Arabica variety. This regulation was later converted into a law adapted to the country’s soil, climate and shade conditions in order to produce only high-quality coffee.
In addition, the Costa Rican government and coffee industry have established a foundation for fair trade, in which export earnings are shared pro-rata between growers, processors and exporters, further strengthening Costa Rican coffee ‘s position in the international market.
This national transaction model, known as the settlement system, is unique in the world.
Costa Rica and the Third Wave of Coffee
The change in global consumption habits, the emergence of new trends in coffee cultivation and purchasing preferences, and the evolution of Costa Rican consumer tastes pose new challenges for the coffee industry, which it takes very seriously.
This is reflected in the increasing use of certified organic coffee, Fairtrade International certification or recognition from organizations such as UTZ and Rainforest Alliance that demonstrate good agricultural practices, reduced water consumption and other environmental factors.
As a result, the third coffee wave began to develop. This generation is interested in the production, processing, roasting, preparation and of course enjoying high-quality coffee. This is what we know as specialty or premium coffee.