By Heather Ward, SCAA
In February of this year, the Barista and Roasters Guild members gathered in San José, Costa Rica, eager to embark on a trip through the Costa Rican coffee lands. The group was an incredible mix of baristas, roasters, cafe owners, and traders from the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia. The contagious excitement within the group created an immediate bond that got stronger as the week went on.
This was the second consecutive origin trip to Costa Rica, hosted by ICAFE, a public non-state institution that supports, protects, and regulates Costa Rican coffee production. ICAFE regulates and supports coffee activity in order to achieve equitable product, quality, and sustainability.
ICAFE greeted the group with open arms and had planned a busy week-long itinerary. The week
was designed perfectly to balance those people who had never been to coffee origin and those who had multiple coffee origin experiences. In one week, we traveled to five out of the eight coffee regions: Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, and Brunca. Within the regions, we experienced a variety of farms, mills, exporters, and cooperatives. Each location was unique and provided exposure to different stages and topics of coffee producing, such as coffee varieties, harvesting, women in coffee, processing methods, post-harvest management, and exporting preparation. The amount of knowledge we gained every day was overwhelmingly valuable.
The three most talked-about themes that were consistent throughout this trip were micro-mills, honey process, and coffee leaf rust.
Costa Rican coffee production is in the midst of a shifting perspective. For many years, farmers did not know the quality of coffee they were growing. In an effort to take more control of the quality, farmers started processing their coffee in their own mills on their farm, known as micro-mills. Costa Rican micro-mills make up 60 percent of the mills within the country. The delicate process of coffee production requires special care and each farmer emphasized how important it was to under- stand what they can control and how to deal with conditions they cannot control, like the weather. Our itinerary included visits to six different micro-mills.
The first micro-mill we visited was called Finca Santa Rosa 1900, located in the Tarrazú region. We had the opportunity to pick coffee cherries and learn the importance of selecting only the ripe, dark- red cherries for the best quality. The farm was on the side of the hill which presented a humorous situation of giggles and images of people sliding down the hill with a large basket, full of coffee cherries, slung around their waists. Coffee picking is really challenging!
Finca Senel, Toboba is a family owned micro-mill and initially brought a breathtaking, lush, mountainous scenery. Stepping out of the bus, we all scrambled for our cameras and phones to capture the beauty. We were also surrounded by coffee trees that had just flowered and were giving off a heavenly jasmine and honeysuckle fragrance. Finca Senel focuses on high quality, with different coffee processes such as washed, semi-washed and honey process. We walked up a small hill to the African beds where the coffee was drying. The producing family kindly greeted us and explained each coffee’s process. Many of them were yellow, red, and black honey process. The textures were sticky like caramel corn and the red honey smelled like kettle corn. We spent time with the family, driving and hiking to their coffee farm that draped the sides of a mountain nearby.
Café Rivense is a small family owned micro-mill with 25 years of history in planting coffee and 10 years of milling. The father emphasized the importance of his children going away to college, only to return to help run the farm. We were given a tour of the mill and watched the de-pulping pro- cess. This mirco-mill only utilizes the honey process: white honey, red honey, and black honey.
Coffee leaf rust was present on almost all the farms we visited. Bellavista Mill, a Starbucks-exclusive farm, in the Tres Rios region was largely affected by rust four years ago. The rust fungus attacks the leaves of the coffee tree and causes them to fall off. Once this happens, it destroys the tree and it is necessary to prune and wait three years for the next production. The fungus is airborne and difficult to keep from spreading. Mr. Eric Andre, the Bellavista Mill manager, emphasized the importance of the research and testing going into rust resistant hybrid varieties. The aftermath of leaf rust has been detrimental to the farm and they are just beginning to recover.
The trip concluded with a visit to ICAFE and a formal cupping at Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica (SCACR). At ICAFE we witnessed current research and investigation trials of coffee plants, including coffee plant cloning. ICAFE’s work supports all coffee producers in Costa Rica. Throughout the week, I noticed the relationships that exist between all participants in the coffee production community. There is so much support and willingness to share ideas, knowledge, and resources.
I am very grateful to have experienced this beautiful coffee producing country with such passionate coffee people. Every person in the group brought a unique perspective that fueled conversations. The experience brought new knowledge, firsthand experience, and connection.
Heather is SCAA’s research analyst and is responsible for providing leadership and vision in gathering, analyzing, and reporting coffee-related industry research. Before moving into the coffee industry, she completed her MBA at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego with studies focusing on the economics of coffee. She is passionate about coffee, market analysis, and helping the coffee community better understand the landscape of the industry.