After recently featuring one of our Costa Rican coffees in their coffee subscription, Batch Coffee Club’s Tom Saxon gave us the low down on coffee from Costa Rica…
Costa Rican coffees are known for their gentle sweetness, lightness in body, and clarity in taste. They are typically mild in acidity and often carry hints of honey or molasses. A country renowned for its immense biodiversity, it has long stood as a pioneer in specialty coffee and its rich history is tied to coffee cultivation, now deeply interwoven with the nation's cultural and economic fabric.
Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica from the Caribbean in the late 1700s. The government quickly recognized the potential of coffee as an export product, and by the early 19th century, Costa Rica was exporting its coffee, mainly to Chile where it was re-bagged and sent to Europe under a Chilean brand.
In the early stages of the coffee industry, the Costa Rican government played a significant role. To promote coffee cultivation, they provided free land to farmers willing to grow the crop, and by the mid-19th century, coffee had surpassed cacao, tobacco, and sugar as Costa Rica's primary export.
Coffee earnings funded significant national infrastructure projects. The development of the Atlantic railroad, which connected the capital, San José, to the Caribbean port of Limón, is a testament to the influence of the coffee trade. This railroad was crucial in speeding up the export process.
Costa Rica's diverse climate and varied altitudes have led to the establishment of multiple coffee-producing regions. The eight primary regions — Tarrazú, Valle Occidental, Valle Central, Tres Ríos, Turrialba, Brunca, Guanacaste, and Orosí — each offer unique flavour profiles because of their distinct microclimates.
While coffee brought prosperity, it wasn't without challenges. Global coffee prices fluctuated greatly during the 20th century, causing economic instability at times. This led to the creation of Instituto Costarricense del Café (ICAFE), a national coffee institute established in 1933 to regulate and support the coffee industry.
Costa Rica has been a pioneer in sustainable coffee farming practices - in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there was a significant push towards sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, with many farms obtaining organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications.
The country's abundant water resources also made it easier for them to wash coffee compared to some other coffee-producing nations. Historically, washed coffees have been valued higher because they typically have fewer defects and are often perceived as superior in quality. This trend enabled Costa Rica to establish extensive infrastructure well ahead of many other coffee producers.
About two decades ago, the rise of micro mills made Costa Rican coffee highly traceable, down to the specific farm or plot. This has allowed for easier distinction of flavours from particular crops that might have been previously blended. The practice of honey processing is also deeply embedded in the country's coffee culture, with numerous farmers embracing this technique to yield more distinctive coffees.
Given the high traceability of many Costa Rican coffees, it's challenging to generalise them, as some flavours can be strikingly distinct. Nonetheless, whenever I see Costa Rican coffee on a menu, I'm always eager to try it, as it invariably offers something uniquely delightful.