You can’t talk about the history of Costa Rica without mentioning coffee. In fact, if it wasn’t for coffee, Costa Rica may have suffered the same fate as The Mosquito Kingdom, a place you may have never even heard about! Fortunately, Costa Rica possessed all of the natural ingredients for producing the savory bean we know and love today.
As with just about any “first” in history, there is still much debate about how the first coffee bean arrived in Costa Rica. Some say that the first seeds were brought from Jamaica by a sea captain under orders of the Costa Rican governor. Others, insist the bean emigrated from Panama or Cuba at the end of the 18th century. Still others argue that the bean was transported directly from Ethiopia in 1779, the theory of which I am personally least convinced. You can be the judge of which story seems most probable. Regardless, it is well known that in the beginning of the 19th Century, the Costa Rican government saw the potential value that the coffee bean had and highly encouraged its production.
After Costa Rica’s (read: Central America) independence from Spain, the government began offering plots of land to anyone that was willing to grow and harvest the plant. With fertile volcanic soil, favorable temperatures year round, a varying elevations, the crop grew quite easily in the country. By the end of 1821, there were over 17,000 coffee plants in the nation, producing a crop that, for the most part, was still not being exported. In 1825, in an effort to promote growth in coffee production, the government exempted coffee harvesters from paying a tithe. Four years later, coffee became the leading crop in production, easily surpassing cacao, tobacco, and sugar.
By 1832, Costa Rica finally began “exporting” coffee. The bean was sent to Chile, where it was re-bagged and renamed “Café Chile del Paraiso” and then sent to Europe. After learning of “Cafe Chile del Paraiso’s” coffee bean’s true origin, an Englishman by the name of William Lacheur arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to negotiate the purchase of Costa Rican coffee beans. Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo, the owner of the farm prospective exporting farm, was suspicious of this Englishman and his “promise to return with silver” in exchange for his coffee beans. In 1843 he allowed Mr. Lacheur to take over 5,000 sacks of coffee and set sail for England under the watchful eyes of a Costa Rican trade specialist. Six months later, both men returned, paid the coffee growers in pounds in sterling and fully loaded another two ships for export. England had acquired a taste for Costa Rican coffee and a new market had been discovered.
Cultivation of coffee in the early 1800s had transformed Costa Rica from a remote, struggling country to a leading exporter, allowing a stable middle class and a wealthy coffee oligarchy to form. By 1850, coffee comprised over 90% of Costa Rica’s exports. The coffee industry transformed the economy and modernized the country. The revenue generated funded the first railroads connecting the capital to the Atlantic coast in 1890. In 1897 it funded the building of The National Theater in San Jose (modeled after a Paris Opera House). Thanks to the revenue brought in from coffee, Costa Rica was one of the first cities in the world to have an electric lighting system in 1884.
After World War 2, the demands for Costa Rican coffee was steadily increasing and productivity was falling short. The Typica and Bourbon varieties of low productivity, were replaced with small caturra and catui varieties. This led to an increase from just over 10,000 coffee plants per hectare to an average of over 30,000 plants per hectare. By the late 1980s, coffee production had increased from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons.
Today, coffee is the third largest export in the country, behind Medical Equipment and tropical fruit. It accounts for 3% of exports at an export value of $308 Million. The top importers of Costa Rican coffee are the US (52%, $161M), Belgium (14%,$44.2M), Germany (4.1%, $12.5M), Italy (3.6%, $11.2M), and Australia (3.5%, $10.7M). Japan is 10th on the list at 1.8%, $5.63M. Still, with so much revenue generated from coffee exports, Costa Rica provides less than 1% of the world’s coffee production! However, the per capita consumption of coffee in Costa Rica is the highest of all coffee producing countries in the world.
If you find yourself in Costa Rica and would like to learn more about Costa Rican coffee, there are plenty of coffee farm tours available throughout the 8 coffee producing regions (Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, Guanacaste, Turrialba, Brunca, and Orosi). Or you could take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee in Heredia, a quick 20 to 30 minute drive from San Jose, depending on traffic. If neither of those sound interesting to you, then head over to Barrio Escalante and check out some of the new, up and coming 3rd wave café’s that have coffee from all over Costa Rica in different plant varieties, washes, and roasts. The coolest part about Barrio Esclante is you can still see some coffee plants on the sides of buildings and restaurants, remnants of the first coffee farms in Costa Rica.
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I had the honor of touring Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, located just an hour and half south of San Jose. I was lucky enough to meet them at the Cafe Expo Tarrazu in February seen below.
And then by chance, at the San Jose Coffee Expo a few weeks later.
Being March, most of the coffee had already been picked, processed, dried, and stored, however, we were still able to see all of the equipment and process of how everything functioned.
The harvest season in Costa Rica is generally from December to March. Workers arrive from Nicaragua and Panama to pick the fruit, which is then sent to the processing plant via truck.
Upon arrival at the plant, the coffee is sorted, stripped of its outer layers (depending on the wash [we’ll get into that in a following post]), and dried. Cafe Doga uses mostly water, gravity, and sun to achieve these goals with a “home-made” engineered system.
The fruit is placed into these storage tanks which sorts and temporarily holds the beans until they are ready to be sent, via water, to the “de-pulper.”
After the fruit is transferred, it is stripped of its outer layer (unless it is a natural process which we will get into later) and sorted based on quality. Sitting in water, the beans that float are not yet ripe and are pushed down the line, to be collected in another section and used “Para la casa” instead of being sold or exported.
The heavier, better quality beans, fall through the small slits in a rotating drum and are collected at the bottom on a wheel barrel. The water that brought the fruit to this stage is then recycled back to the beginning to be reused on the next batch.
The coffee is then taken to be dried on African Beds or concrete flooring. African beds are an elevated lining that provides a porous underside, which allows air to flow upwards into the beans, helping prevent molding and fermentation. On concrete flooring, the beans are also dried by the heat of the ground, however, since there is no airflow as found in African Bedding, the beans must be raked many times a day. Both concrete and African beds take just over 10 days to fully cool the beans.
Interestingly enough, upon arrival to BioCafe Oro Tarrazu, coffee beans usually have a moisture level of about 50%. By the time they are bagged and ready to be shipped, they are sitting at 10.5%. Too much moisture and the risk of mold increases, as does the amount of money the buyer pays for each bean. Too little moisture, the coffee will lose most of its flavor and the farmer will earn less per bean.
Once coffee reaches the desired level of moisture, it is stripped of any leftover casing and bagged, ready to be sold. They must be stored with extreme caution, as extra moisture in the bag could spoil the entire shipment.
Although Cafe Doga is a small, family owned coffee estate, they do provide quality coffee that is carefully processed. Compared to the other estates in the area they are relatively new, but have already made a name for themselves in Costa Rica coffee.
Also, Cafe Doga has started a quite intriguing Ponche de Cafe line. They offer a liquor filled and alcohol free version of the cold milk coffee beverage. I was pretty exhausted from the tour that I didn’t realize which one I had, but I do remember that it tasted amazing.
To the family of Cafe Doga and Biocafe Oro Tarrazu, specifically Mrs. Vargas and Ms. Madrigal, I can’t thank you guys enough for your warm hospitality and an opportunity to see a part of coffee that not many people get to experience. Look forward to running into you guys at the next coffee event!
If you’re interested in contacting Cafe Doga for more information or would like to purchase some coffee, check out their Facebook. Ask them how they came up with the name Doga! Interesting history behind it.
My very Hispanic step-mother from Bogota, Colombia, whom I endearingly called by her first name Edith, survived on coffee. The first thing she did after waking up was prepare coffee. She drank coffee in times of great happiness, and great sadness. She drank coffee to help her raise my two younger brothers Mateo and Santiago, who were never short of energy. She even somehow drank coffee at night, prior to going to sleep. She and coffee were one and the same. After my many visits to Bogota, I quickly learned that, for her and her family, coffee wasn’t just an energizing refreshment, but rather, a way of life.
Edith had these three red, ceramic, air-tight jars that she kept in the cabinet above the oven. Each one was a different size, and within each, she kept coffee beans, sugar, and rice, respectively. Every morning on the weekends, I would like to treat myself to a big bowl of oatmeal that I could eat while I watched cartoons in my pajamas. Of course, as a sweet toothed teenager, nothing went better with my big bowl of oatmeal than a generous tablespoon, or two, of sugar. Well, of course, I could never get the jar size right. “Last time, I tried the middle one, and it was coffee…so it has to be the big one,” I would think to myself. And every weekend, without fail, I would open the wrong one before finally getting to the sugar. Well, each time I guessed incorrectly, and opened the jar with the coffee beans, I would spend a good minute with my nose in the jar, taking in the smell of the beans and its entire aroma. At the time, I thought coffee was just coffee, I had no idea where the beans came from, that there were levels of roast, or even that there were different kind of beans. All I knew was that I was in love with that smell and everything it reminded me of.
Flash forward ten years and I’m on a U.S. Naval Warship, having just graduated from the Naval Academy. It’s three in the morning, pitch black, and I’m standing my first duty night-watch, guarding the ship. To say that I was struggling to stay awake is a gross understatement. The person I was standing watch with, HM2 Deane, a young medic originally from Guyana, asks me in his heavy Guyanese accent, “Sir, would you like some coffee to help you get through this watch?” Growing up, I had never really had coffee. Edith would offer me a sip from time to time, but my father was worried my growth would be stunted had I enjoyed too much coffee. I carried this mentality with me to the Naval Academy, and I never really drank coffee, always desiring to be in top physical and mental condition. I told HM2 Deane that I was appreciative for the offer, but that I didn’t really drink coffee. Again, in thick Guyanese English, “Sir, you’ll be able to breeze through this night watch, without the pain of your brain trying to fall asleep.” “What the hell,” I thought. I was no longer at the Naval Academy, competing against my peers. It was the first time in my life that I was awake at three in the morning, with the expectation that I would have to stay awake, guarding the ship, until seven in the morning. “Sure, why not,” I thought, “It couldn’t hurt.” My eyes were so heavy. All I could think about was placing my heavy head on a pillow and sleeping the night away. HM2 went to get the ship’s coffee for me.
By the time he returned, I was barely clasping to consciousness, praying for any situation that would give my eyes just a fifteen minute break to rest. As soon as he handed me the Navy Coffee Mug, I got a whiff of the smell, which looking back, I’m sure was terrible, and my entire childhood flashed before me. I saw Edith in the kitchen preparing coffee as Mateo and Santiago got ready for school. I remembered the weekend morning cartoon session with my big bowl of oatmeal and three, maybe four tablespoons of sugar. I even remembered my step-mother yelling at my brothers and I for using all the milk before she could have her morning coffee, and my Father in the living room chuckling. I was instantly awake and I did in fact, breeze through the rest of the night-watch. I spent the remaining four hours, reminiscing on the fortunate childhood I had, my loving step-mother and father, and the best younger brothers a former only child could have asked for. All of these memories, brought about, by the unforgettable and enticing smell of coffee.
I’ve been drinking coffee ever since. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get my hands on better quality coffee. I can’t imagine that the Navy’s twenty year old, instant coffee machine, filled with 3 week old coffee grounds, was anything taste-worthy. Since that first cup, I’ve become fascinated with coffee culture. I’ve always considered myself a man of science, and the coffee bean is nothing short of that. The variables on altitude, bean selection, processing methods, roasting level, and exposure time all fascinate me beyond belief.