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Stephen Hurst, Mercanta founder and "Coffee Hunter," hunts for the best coffies in Costa Rica.

Hunting for
in Costa Rica

By Ian Boughton

Coffee from Costa Rica is ready to hit the big time in the specialty field - and the growers and their co-operatives are also ready for a complete change of image. They are, politely, tired of the image of a peasant leading his coffee-laden mule. The country has always been known for its quality, which is why the World Encyclopedia of Coffee wrote: “most people hope to go to heaven when they die - coffee-lovers hope to go to Costa Rica!” And yet the country’s coffee is widely misunderstood. To clear this up, a group of British roasters recently traveled to investigate whether Costa Rica, as an origin, is a country of one overall homogeneous taste, or whether there are individual specialties, which can turn out to be gems of the specialty market.

They were led by the “Coffee Hunter” - this is the British import company Mercanta, whose entire business is based on seeking out interesting coffees, finding new co-operatives to work with, and giving the specialty sector something with which to fight bland ‘industrial’ coffee. The cupping sessions the Brits held in each coffee-growing area of Costa Rica produced such local interest that they were even featured on the country’s television stations.

“Some people around the world have got the idea that the quality of Costa Rica coffee has gone down - but it hasn’t,” remarked Mercanta founder Stephen Hurst, the “Coffee Hunter” himself. “The quality is actually higher than ever.

“What has really happened is that our traditional importers have failed to pay competitive prices for the best grades, so the quality of the Costa Rican coffee which reaches the European market simply reflects the low prices being paid.

“Another problem is that too many large roasters are just buying ‘origin.’ They say ‘oh, we know that origin, and we can buy it wholesale’ - they have the idea that all coffees from one country of origin are the same. And they aren’t!

“What some people in the coffee trade have to realize is that coffee doesn’t come from a country, it comes from a farm. Coffee from across a country can vary so much that a coffee from one individual farm can win more international allegiance than the coffee from the rest of its country.

“We are looking to show what quality can come from the individual farms.”

Is it worth the effort?

“It is - in Costa Rica, we already found one incredibly rare organic bourbon. What we may see is that Costa Rican coffee is going to ‘go boutique’.”

The European roasters were keen to learn about the true situation of the Costa Rican farmers. The European trade in general has heard all the stories from Central America, about poverty and starvation, farm-clearance and emigration.

However, they were told politely but firmly, even if international advertising agencies think a Juan Valdez image is a good idea, Costa Rican farmers do not think of themselves as peasants with mules.

“The Juan Valdez image represents a misconceived idea - it isn’t current, certainly not in Costa Rica,” the Coffee Hunter reported. “These growers are professionals, and you don’t have to be a big business to be professional. The efforts of the small growers shouldn’t be under-rated because, organized by a good co-operative, these people can do great things.

“These growers have more expertise, and know a lot more, than many coffee-buyers realize. That’s why the rest of the world must not generalize about Costa Rica.”

A movement towards quality coffee is already under way. A first step is that Costa Rica’s farmers are forbidden by law to grow Robusta, as a deliberate strategy to help them compete in the higher-price sectors.

However, as their law also says they cannot import any coffee, it is not possible for local farmers to compare their produce with the rest of the world, and so until recently they did not know what is wanted by customers elsewhere. Typically, the last a farmer sees of his coffee is when he delivers the cherries to the co-operative. So, unless he is told that a specialty market exists, and is guided on how to tailor his crop, he will not know any better and will be happy to dump his cherries in the same container as his neighbor.

The good co-operatives are working on this. About 40% of Costa Rican coffee now goes through co-operatives, and the British party was interested to find how hard the co-ops were working to change the individual farmer’s idea of what coffee could do. They are having some success, and their farmers are reasonably well off, and looking forward to the next internet auctions in May. Last year, the best coffee fetched $10.35 per pound, which had an encouraging effect on individual farmers.

However, visitors still have a hard job explaining to growers about foreign markets. One group of farmers listened attentively to what a visiting buyer advised them about catering for the specialty market, and said afterwards: “we found that very interesting - where can we buy seeds to grow this specialty coffee?”

As a help towards getting over misunderstandings like that, the arrival of a team of British cuppers was regarded as a big event in all of the growing areas they visited. Everywhere, the growers gathered round to listen to the cuppers’ judging and assessments, even though they could rarely understand what was being said.

A.J.Kinnel, Coffee Buyer for Matthew Algie, checks out the goods.
It also changed the growers’ view of why cupping and tasting is done - in the past, it was said, what little tasting was done was just ‘to check that the coffee is OK’. The concept of cupping as a guide to high-profit selling on the specialty market was alien to them. And so, something they could not have realized is that the British cupping team was unique - for the first time, sessions included the U.K.’s top three female cuppers working side by side. New Zealander “A.J.” Kinnell, always known only by her initials, is a coffee buyer for the Matthew Algie Company of Glasgow. Anita Le Roy of Monmouth Coffee, from London’s Covent Garden, is regarded with some reverence as pioneer of good coffee since before the word “specialty” was even thought of. And Flori Marin, of Mercanta, is a native Costa Rican who was making a trip home to assess her own country’s coffee.

These European buyers are important to Costa Rica’s farmers - Britain was its first-ever overseas market, and to this day Europe takes 60% of the 1.7 million 60-kilo bags exported from Costa Rica. About 40% go to the U.S., and the Japanese take the rest. “Everyone thinks we have a large American influence,” one local told the British. “But we don’t. We are influenced by the Europeans, and even our flag was copied from the French!”

What the British party discovered was confirmation that Costa Rica’s five coffee-growing regions do indeed hold undiscovered gems of single-estate work.

Costa Rica is a contradiction in ecology. On the one hand, 40% of the whole country is under private or government-run conservation schemes, including the only dry tropical forest left in the world. All the country’s electricity is “pure,” coming from hydro power, or windmills or even geo-thermic volcanic activity. The production of clean power is so good that they now even export electricity to Honduras and Nicaragua.

On the other hand, all the best alluvial soil in the central region is now under concrete, and the growth of big shopping malls means that some prime coffee-growing land has been lost for good. Fortunately, the sheer mountainous terrain of what coffee lands are left makes for their own protection. The amazing Tarrazu plantations consist of a central valley completely surrounded by steep mountains - in the middle of the valley is one central hilltop which gives a panoramic view of the entire growing area. This, grinned one of the British roasters, guaranteed its safe future for coffee - it would be impossible for any developer to build a shopping mall in such a place!

It turns out that remote regions do indeed have their own characteristics - Turrialba has a large cherry, Orosi has a long uniform-size cherry and a very balanced coffee. Tarrazu is late-blooming with a wonderful aroma.

“We have a high amount of light, and natural drying winds,” explained Roberto Mata of DOTA, the Tarrazu co-operative. “We have a tropical soil, and temperatures of 24° C by day and 13° C by night. We have a balance between natural elements and organic material, and we have people who are very close to their coffee.”

According to the locals, the primary plant types of the area are naturally light in caffeine - this, say the farmers, is particularly appreciated by European customers. It is appreciated so much that there are fake Tarrazus in Europe, sold by dealers who Mercanta carefully says have “overstated” the origin of their coffee - and yet the Costa Ricans hold good enough records to trace what is, and what is not, true Tarrazu.

The Valle Central benefits from the volcanic slopes, and has a chocolate-like flavor. The west valley has a five-month harvesting season, and produces coffee with a peach or apricot flavour.

At the Cafetalera Tirra plantation in the west valley, the British researchers discovered a rare gem of a human kind. The grower Otto Klotti is a legend among local coffee farmers - he arrived in the area over 50 years ago, but still speaks in his native Swiss-German accent as he describes the care with which his mill processes beans.

“The reason for our success has been in the careful separation of the various qualities, and in our own fermentation process - this is critical, in that it is long enough to wash off the mucilage, but not so long as to affect the taste of the bean.

“Some people will tell you that you make the quality in your fermentation - I don’t think so, but I believe that this is certainly where you can destroy it! And I also believe that many mills also destroy quality in either their washing or their drying.

“We have found that very good machine-drying will give the same quality as good sun-drying, but many mills dry too hot, burst the cells of the bean, and the coffee deteriorates as the oxygen gets in.

“We can do it. We even have one customer who stipulates a certain level of machine-drying followed by a certain level of sun-drying - and we can do it!”

This is the kind of individual skill within one small country that too many buyers miss, said the Coffee Hunter. It proves, he said, that no buyer can claim to know what generic coffee a country produces. “Countries don’t grow coffee - farmers do. That’s why cupping by people like us has become so important, to show the varieties that are being produced within one small country.

“We have now proved that Costa Rica offers everything in coffee from very high acidity to very low, from mild to zesty. People have got to start tasting the variety in Costa Rican coffees!”

Ian Boughton is editor of Boughton's Coffee House, the magazine for the British retail coffee trade. Its daily-update news service can be found at www.coffee-house.org.uk.

Tea & Coffee - May/June, 2004

Theta Ridge Coffee

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