In the end of February, I had the honor of being the Barista Guild of America representative on the Specialty Coffee Associations origin trip to Costa Rica. Within a day of arrival, it became apparent that Costa Rica is an extremely special coffee growing country. The country produces around 1% of the world’s coffee and is on the cutting edge of farming and milling practices, research, as well as socioeconomic and environmental sustainability. In six days, we visited ten farms and mills, as well as the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica’s (Icafe) research center and the Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica. The country’s economic and environmental models surrounding coffee are truly beautiful and inspiring.
Farms and Micro Mills
The farms in Costa Rica are breathtaking. Coffee trees blanket the 60 degree slopes of lush, green mountains. It is apparent that many of the farms are grown in harmony with the surrounding flora and fauna. Shade trees are grown throughout many of the farms we saw and the rest of the slopes were left untouched and pristine.
The first farm we visited was a member of the CoopeAgri cooperative, and was located in the Brunca region. The climate and altitude of the region have labeled Brunca as the territory with the highest potential growth for quality coffee in the country. The farm we visited was part of CoopeAgri’s Café Don Claudio project, which brings together producers whose farms lie at 1400 meters above sea level (MASL) or higher. The project supports the growth of quality oriented coffee varieties and the picking of only 100% ripe cherries. The producers involved in the project have received higher payments in the last few years, which in turn has motivated them to push the envelope of quality and picking practices.
The farm we visited was situated somewhere around 1750 MASL. The climb up the slope quickly demonstrated how difficult picking coffee there is. It’s hard enough to stand on a 60-degree slope for hours. Add in the task of selectively picking only the ripest cherries and carrying them in a basket around your waist and coffee picking quickly becomes an extreme sport.
The next day, we moved to the famed Tarrazu region. Our first stop was La Candelilla Estate. Upon arrival at the estate, it was clear how organized and efficient they were. The estate is family owned and operated, as well as vertically integrated. They grow, process, and dry mill all of their coffee, guaranteeing quality from every lot. La Candelilla grows multiple varieties, such as Caturra, Catuai, SL-28, Typica, and Geisha. The estate also practices multiple types of processing, including natural, multiple types of honey, anaerobic, semi-washed, and fully washed. All of their coffee is sun-dried on patios or raised beds.
Our group had a cherry picking competition at La Candelilla (on Geisha plants nonetheless). Three of the members of our trip versus one worker. You can probably guess who won -- the worker. Picking only the ripest cherries is not an easy task. It involves quick thinking, extreme dexterity, and maximum efficiency.
The next morning, our first stop was one of the micro mills that introduced me to specialty coffee, Helsar de Zarcero. Helsar is a completely organic coffee mill with a long-running focus on quality and sustainability. Currently, Helsar is producing 4500 quintals (a quintal is approximately equivalent to 100 pounds of green coffee) a year, which come from about 30 farms. Along with exceptional coffee, Helsar is working with the University of Costa Rica to create other uses for the coffee cherry. They are adamant about thinking of the coffee cherry as food and not just a vessel for the treasured seeds. Some uses are cascara (dried coffee cherry for infusions), energy drinks, flour, and additions to bread and pastries.
After Helsar, we made our way to Hacienda Sonora -- perhaps the most beautiful property I have every seen. Sonora is a father-son business focused on farming and milling the highest quality coffees. Located in the Central Valley of Costa Rica, the operation is approximately 100 hectares. 55% of the area is coffee, 25% is forest reserve, and 20% is sugar cane. Parcels of coffee plants are interspersed amongst exotic trees and other vegetation.
Hacienda Sonora is powered by 100% renewable energy produced on the farm. The energy is harvested from a natural stream running through the property. There are several varieties being grown on the farm and they specialize in honey and natural process coffees.
The next day, in the morning, we visited Sumava Lourdes, 2016's winner of the Cup of Excellence. This farm and mill is a phenomenal example of organization. Color coded raised beds for drying, signage throughout the farm and mill, and beautifully planted sections were indicative of the attention to detail at Sumava. They are also growing an unbelievable amount of varieties, including Caturra, Catuai, SL-28, Villa Sarchi, Geisha, Pacamara, and Mokka.
At Sumava, coffee is grown between 1670 - 1790 MASL. Along with the numerous varieties being produced, they process coffee several ways as well. Multiple honey processes, natural, anaerobic fermentation, and double washed processes are all used.
After Sumava, we visited Cafetalera Herbazu. A family business of four brothers, which processes the coffee of their own estates -- a total of nine farms. Like many other micro mills, they use multiple styles of honey and natural processing. Their farms have won Cup of Excellence prizes for many years, and in 2015 Finca Leoncio won first prize with an SL-28 variety. We drove just up the road from the mill to visit one of the farms, which was tucked into a beautiful valley. Massive trees, overflowing with cherries, covered the landscape.
Though the farms and micro mills are beautiful, they are only one aspect of what I saw in Costa Rica. It's important to talk about the larger cooperative mills of CoopeAgri and Coopedota, as well as the massive San Diego Mill, owned and operated by Volcafe.
Cooperative Mills and the San Diego Mill
Our first day out in Costa Rica we visited the CoopeAgri mill. What an incredible start to my understanding of the cooperative based milling systems in Costa Rica. Currently CoopeAgri has more than 10,000 members and the services the cooperative provides to its members are quite exceptional. They operate medical facilities, grocery stores, gas stations, and even provide fertilizers to their farmers at cost.
The mill is extremely efficient. They have minimized their water consumption by using mechanical depulpers, mechanical demucilagers, and using augers to move the seeds between different parts of the mill. When water is needed, the smallest amount possible is used. And any water used is treated in a series of pools that brings the water back down to a useable level of nutrients/contaminants. That water is then re-used on the sugar cane fields that surround the mill or for the experimental coffee crops they are growing.
My second day in Costa Rica, we visited another cooperative based mill, Coopedota. Dota was in full swing receiving cherries and processing them when we arrived. Similar to CoopeAgri, Dota is processing coffee in the most sustainable way possible. In fact, in 2011 Coopedota was identified as producing the first carbon neutral coffee in the world. Today, they are pushing for even more carbon neutral coffees as Costa Rica as a country is moving toward total carbon neutrality by 2020.
This push for sustainability and environmental consciousness has not detracted from the quality of coffee produced. In fact, my favorite coffee on the trip (which we will hopefully be able to get at Huckleberry), is from Coopedota.
The last mill we visited on the trip was the San Diego mill. Operated by Volcafe, a massive miller and exporter worldwide, the San Diego mill is very large and quite the operation. Volcafe operates three mills in Costa Rica and San Diego is the largest of the three. Despite it's size, the mill is still environmentally minded (as they must be in Costa Rica). It was amazing to see coffee being processed on such a large scale. Enormous drying patios, a never ending row of mechanical dryers, and the largest biodigester (a machine which takes organic material, decomposes it with micro-organisms, and renders biogas and fertilizer) I have ever seen.
Research and Costa Rican Coffee
The last day we were in Costa Rica we visited Icafe, the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica. Icafe sits on 13 hectares, just northeast of San Jose. The institute researches everything from seedling to cup. The research surrounding varieties is aimed at determining best production, quality, resistance, and pruning needs for different types of coffee. Water treatment and usage research has resulted in lowering use of water in the coffee sector by 97% along with reversing eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff from the land, which causes a dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen) in most of the bodies of water in Costa Rica.
The farm at Icafe is currently growing 48 - 50 varieties along with developing new hybrid varieties. Along with the varieties, there are other species of coffee there, such as Liberica and Robusta. Coffee leaf rust (Roya) has been a major issue in Central and South America. Through cross breeding, the research facility has been able to develop new varieties of coffee, substantially more resistant to rust, than many Arabica varieties. There are 55 types of rust which have been identified. The Liberica species has a gene, SH3, that is resistant to 53 of the types of Roya.
Mills in the country must be aware of noise, emissions, and smoke, as there are regulations that dictate the allowable limits. The coffee sector has also minimized the fossil fuels used for running farms and machinery. When possible electricity or biogas is used for power needs. Icafe is currently working with dried coffee cherries to create fuel pellets which can be used to heat mechanical driers and other equipment. Dried cherries or parchment have an equivalent BTU to wood.
Costa Rica has an incredible model for guaranteeing financial solvency across the board for pickers, producers, millers, exporters, and researchers. The country requires payment of approximately two-thirds of the final price upon delivery of the cherries to a mill. This helps the farmer to continue working before the coffee is sold. Also, nearly 80% of the money generated in the sale of a producers coffee goes directly back to the producer.
Currently mills in Costa Rica can only mill coffee, which means for over half the year, they are dormant. The idea of shared mills in the future could help with efficiency in the country. Other products for which milling equipment can be used are cacao, rice, and beans.
Icafe also generates seeds for the country, and essentially acts as a seed bank. Icafe sells its seeds for $8/kilo -- a substantially lower price than $30 - $40 from private producers. Producers are allowed to purchase seeds from other countries, but they must go through a certification for authorization.
In the end, Costa Rica is an incredible model for quality and sustainability in the coffee world. The country has substantially lowered its water usage, minimized the coffee sectors impact on the environment, guaranteed fair prices for farmers, and created an economic system which benefits everyone involved in the process. I feel honored to have seen such and incredible system working across the country. And of course, Costa Rica is a beautiful country, with amazing landscapes, kind people, and progressive concepts being implemented across the nation. I cannot wait to go back and see what the future holds for this amazing coffee producing country.