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A Guide to Costa Rican Coffee: History, Production and Taste

28 April 2021
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Costa Rican coffee is renowned for its exceptional quality. In fact, coffee connoisseurs laud Costa Rican coffee as among the world’s best.

Let’s find out what makes Costa Rican so desirable, while learning about the historical moments that shaped this Central American country’s coffee culture.

History

Coffee is synonymous with Costa Rica’s history, and continues to play a major role in the country’s exports and larger economy. It all began in the late 1770s when Arabica beans were imported to Costa Rica by the Spanish colonial rulers.

Coffee was first planted in the Central Valley, a lush green plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanoes in the centre of the country. In the 1800s, the local government strongly encouraged more locals to join the coffee farming trade by offering them plots of agricultural land.

The coffee industry gradually transformed into a highly profitable export market, which contributed to the development and modernisation of the Costa Rica that we know today.

Growing Regions

A panoramic view of the town of Turrialba, Costa Rica and its volcano
A coffee plantation on the fertile slopes of Turrialba Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Photo from raularosa.

Costa Rica has eight main coffee-growing regions dotted across the country. Most of the country’s output is produced in the San José, Alajuela, Puntarenas, Heredia, and Cartago provinces, where the elevation ranges from 1,200m to 1,700m.

The cooler, yet tropical climate is perfect for coffee plantations – lower temperatures allow coffee cherries to mature progressively, giving it time to develop more complex and sweeter flavours.

The distinctiveness of Costa Rican coffee stems from its cultivation in extremely rich and fertile volcanic soil. The resulting brew has low acidity, and is highly valued by coffee connoisseurs due to the balance in flavours it brings.

Production

coffee cherries on a coffee tree
Not all coffee cherries that grow on the same plant mature at the same rate. Costa Rican coffee farmers selectively hand-pick cherries to ensure better quality control. Photo from Juliana Barquero.

Local coffee farmers are known to take pride in their harvests. In fact, Costa Rican coffee farmers were one of the first drivers in the global movement towards quality in a cup.

That is why even today, many coffee farmers continue to hand-pick coffee cherries instead of using modern machinery. This ensures greater quality control by allowing each coffee cherry to mature and develop its full flavour character before harvesting.

Harvested coffee cherries are transported to local processing plants to be washed and have their pulp removed. Although mechanical drying is beginning to replace manual labour, small-batch processing plants still sundry their beans and manually sort them according to their shape and size. These beans are then exported in bags.

A Diminishing Trade

In 2019, the production of coffee in Costa Rica reached its lowest level in a decade, with an output of less than 1.3 million 60kg bags. That’s 16 per cent less than the previous year.

Climate change, deforestation, an ageing population, and pest infestations – these are some factors that are causing coffee farmers immense stress and pressure. However, one major issue is deterring current coffee farmers and future generations from pursuing this trade – the price of coffee.

Small-batch coffee farmers – like all coffee growers globally – are exposed to the volatility and competitiveness of the international coffee market, where prices can fall sharply and remain low for extended periods. These prolonged price slumps force farmers to take loans, sell their land, or relocate to urban areas in search of better-paying jobs.

Here’s the saving grace.

There are organisations that actively finance small-batch coffee farmers to alleviate their financial issues and provide a more stable income. In addition, consumers can also support coffee farmers by drinking better coffee. From buying from roasters that source from small-batch farms to choosing organic and fairtrade coffee, we can support the continuous cultivation of high-quality specialty coffee.

Taste

Despite being known for its coffee production, Costa Rica is a small country that contributes to less than 1% of the world’s coffee. Therefore, they can’t produce large volumes compared to countries such as Vietnam or Guatemala. Instead, quality rises above quantity for Costa Rican coffee, giving your brew a richer flavour profile.

Classic Costa Rican coffees have distinct and sweet flavours, making them perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up. Flavour notes often range from chocolatey to fruity, depending on the bean’s roast level.

Lighter roasts give honey and citrusy flavours. Medium roasts produce milk chocolate and red fruit taste notes. And a darker roast gives brews a dark chocolate and nougat flavour.

In general, unlike most coffee varieties, Costa Rican coffees are less acidic, which is ideal for those who suffer medical conditions such as acid reflux and gastrointestinal issues.

Where to Find Costa Rican Coffee

Tad Coffee

coffee beans in a bag
Tad Coffee’s ANNA Signature blend is made from a blend of Colombia and Costa Rica beans. Photo from Tad Coffee.

Tad Coffee is a well-established coffee roaster in Singapore that supplies to a handful of specialty cafes. Best of all, its co-founder, Terence Tan, who won the Singapore Barista Championship in 2017, has a heart of gold.

He sources raw beans only from smaller, sustainable farms to support the workers’ livelihoods while ensuring quality beans for the end-consumer.

These include the Costa Rican Don Claudio and ANNA Signature Blend which feature beans from Costa Rica. Each bag of beans has a detailed description outlining where the beans are sourced and the unique flavours of the blend.

Depending on your brewing method, Tad Coffee will grind the beans to their ideal size to ensure perfect extraction.

Mister Coffee

coffee beans in a bag
Mister Coffee’s Costa Rica Tarrazu Don Fernando features beans grown in the mountainous heart of Costa Rica. Photo from Mister Coffee.

With more than 30 years of experience in coffee roasting, Mister Coffee is one of Malaysia’s largest coffee companies. The firm is currently helmed by Gavin Sia, the son of Mister Coffee’s founder.

Every batch of coffee beans that arrives at Mister Coffee goes through stringent quality checks and sample roastings. Moreover, advanced technology is used to seal each bag of coffee bean to ensure that the end-consumer receives the freshest beans.

Mister Coffee’s Costa Rica Tarrazu Don Fernando has citrus and fruity notes, and has received multiple five-star reviews from customers. The Tarrazu region is one of Costa Rica’s most famous coffee-producing regions, with the beans grown in high-altitude farms. That’s a definite must-try.

  • Join De’Longhi Rewards and enjoy 15% off Mister Coffee’s products with a minimum spend of RM60.

Your Local Coffee Shop

Unlike large coffee chains, a local independent coffee shop pays more attention to where they source their coffee beans as well as how the beans are processed and roasted. This means better, and fresher coffee.

Many local coffee shops also feature seasonal beans and blends that are sourced from across the world. Check in with your local coffee shop occasionally and you might be delighted to find coffee beans sourced from Costa Rica.

You may also like: 3 Great Reasons to Support Your Local Coffee Shop

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