Costa Rica Just Does Everything Right

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By Bethany Haye

Costa Rica just does everything right – and has the coffee to prove it.

Costa Rica is a tiny Central American country bordering Nicaragua and Panama, with a temperate tropical climate, lush mountains, and a string of volcanoes. The first coffee beans were introduced in the 18th century, and coffee became a major export in the early 20th century — which makes it a lot like other Central American countries, except that it is economically and politically stable, its 5 million inhabitants have a literacy rate of 96% and a life expectancy of 80 years, one of the highest in the southern hemisphere. Costa Rican coffee production is less than 1% of world total. So why is Costa Rican coffee so well-known?

Costa Rica won independence from Spain in 1821 and has pulled off some surprisingly audacious acts since then, including abolishing its military in 1948 and declaring itself neutral country and stopping all petroleum extraction between 2011 and 2014. In 1999, the Costa Rican ambassador to the UN claimed that, “Juan Valdez drinks Costa Rican coffee” (and is now being sued by Colombia’s FNC). Costa Rica has even managed to reverse deforestation, returning to 50% forest cover of the country’s 19,700 sq mi (15,100 sq km) from a low point of only 26% in 1985 (compared to 75% in 1950). It has stood out from other Latin American countries by prioritizing education, health, and ecology as the foundation of its economic and social development, along with universal health care.  Since 2015, it has obtained nearly all of its energy from renewable sources, essentially hydraulic, geothermic, and wind. In 2010, it was also recognized by the UNPD as the most gender-equal country in Latin America.

It is not surprising, then, that Costa Rica’s coffee sector is unusually healthy and strong, despite the many problems that plague other coffee-producing countries.

Some of the reason is historical. The large, elite-landowner plantations seen in neighboring countries did not develop in Costa Rica. Encouraged by the land laws for outward frontier expansion, a profusion of smaller farms grew up, remaining small largely due to a lack of available labor. Tax incentives encouraged the development of certain crops, prime among them, coffee. At independence, the country had 17,000 coffee bushes that produced enough to export 2 quintals (1 quintal = 100 lbs) of beans to Panama. The new government decreed that anyone who grew coffee on fallow land for five years could claim ownership of the land, while authorities in some districts actually required inhabitants to own a minimum number of coffee trees.

With high altitude and volcanic soils creating an exceptional micro-climate, coffee quickly became a major source of revenue, overtaking cacao, tobacco, and sugar by 1829.

By 1839, exports reached 90,000 quintals. In 1843, William Le Lacheur of the Channel Islands set up a direct commercial route to Europe for Costa Rica’s coffee growers, enormously helping expand the commercial potential. Fun fact: Although this coffee was bound for England, it transited through Chile where it was re-packaged and renamed  “Café Chileno de Valparaíso.” Subsequent completion of a main road to Puntarenas in 1846 again boosted output, as farmers could more easily transport coffee to market.

The predominance of small and medium-sized farms created three coffee-production systems: the initial agroforestry coffee system, the poly-culture system, and the regulated shade system. On most of these farms, coffee was the dominant crop, coexisting with other crops that were staples of the peasant diet (fruits, legumes, Musaceae). The decision, in 1933, by the Instituto de Defensa del Café (now the Costa Rica Coffee Institute or ICAFE) to defend coffee shade trees, and its policy of selling and distributing shade tree seedlings, favored the regulated shade coffee system. 

ICAFE has a wide-ranging involvement in the coffee industry, running experimental research farms and promoting the quality of Costa Rican coffee worldwide. It is funded by a 1.5% tax on all coffee exports.

But, in keeping with contemporaneous notions of agricultural modernization, the social-democratic governments of the 1950s and 60s implemented practices such as abandoning fallow periods, establishing permanent prairies, the introduction of hybrid coffee, adjusting the acid content of the soil and the use of chemical fertilizers. Output increased, and several times during the 1970s, the country recorded the highest yield per hectare in the world, though an emphasis on sun-grown coffee had a devastating effect on the ecosystem.

The situation began to shift in the second half of the 20th century, with the second modernization, started in 1980, which promoted the enforcement of the UN’s Green Revolution technical package (mainly irrigation or controlled water supply and improved moisture utilization, better fertilizers and pesticides and associated management skills).

A ban on growing robusta was initiated in 1988 to protect the Costa Rican coffee brand internationally. Several attempts to repeal the ban have failed, and a debate about favoring quality over quantity still rages.

Today, about 40,000 Costa Rican families are engaged in coffee growing, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG). They cultivate just over 85,000 hectares. ICAFE continues to defend those in the coffee sector, right down to the largely immigrant, largely Nicaraguan coffee pickers, creating temporary and long-term health and accident insurance for them in November 2019.

With proactive government support, Costa Rica’s coffee achieved good prices for half a century and a high standard of living for its producers. But some would say that, despite advances in agronomy and commercial methods, there was not a lot of experimentation with new varieties or flavors, with many growers more interested in higher-yielding varieties like the dwarf Caturra and then late-Caturra. Some in the industry, particularly in the specialty sector, felt that cup quality suffered as yields increased, that Costa Rican coffees are a “safe bet” — clean and pleasant but not exciting. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, some growers ventured into Geisha (also spelled Gesha), with the Tarrazú region’s coffee becoming Starbucks’ most expensive variety in 48 of its US shops. In 2019, the top five Costa Rica Cup of Excellence winners were all Geishas from Tarrazú.

With the support of ICAFE and the Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica (SCA) the country’s specialty brands are now firmly on the international map. It is hard to list leading brands because there are thousands of excellent producers in Costa Rica, and Europeans and North Americans continue to join the industry as growers and exporters. However, by far the biggest name and a vertical presence from growing and processing to roasting, packaging and retail is Café Britt. Started in 1985 by native New Yorker Steve Aronson to make great coffee available within the country, the company currently employs around 450 people and operates coffee roasteries, chocolate factories and retail outlets in Costa Rica, Peru, and Colombia. Aronson was instrumental in the creation of the SCA of Costa Rica and is a proactive defender of high-quality coffee consumption -as well as social welfare and cultural development- inside Costa Rica.

Another big name is Café Rey, which has been providing good quality coffee to the internal market for 65 years. It is the most ubiquitous brand in Costa Rica supermarkets.

Small high-quality brands first claimed spots on supermarket shelves in the mid-1990s. Among the standouts are:

  • Doka. from Alajuela province
  • Café Naranjo.
  • Volio. Founded in 1938 in Curridabat, San José.
  • Volcania. Strictly Hard Bean from Tarrazu
  • Out of the Grey Strictly Hard Bean from the La Minita estate in Tarrazu
  • J & B Café, San José. Exporters and activists for sustainable café throughout the value chain.

Internal Consumption

It’s been a long road since the 1840s when women of the plantations toasted their beans in earthenware pans and ground them with a mortar and pestle. Soon, small grocery shops called pulperías started offering brewed coffee for on-site consumption. As demand grew, grocery and general stores started selling whole beans, while pulperías provided roasting and grinding services.

But with the frantic rush to export a maximum, there was little left for the internal market. The government intervened again in the 1950s, requiring coffee farmers to sell 9 percent of their crop to domestic outlets at a quarter of the international price. ICAFE even dyed these beans blue to prevent them from being exported. Café Britt president Steve Aronson has said that the old system incentivized farmers to dump their worst coffee on the domestic market. This continued right up to the 1990s, when the first gourmet coffee shop opened in the capital San José and other growers followed Aronson’s specialty coffee lead — also as a way to counter the pricing crisis.

Coffee has been vital to Costa Rica’s evolution contributing directly to the culture and well-being of the population at large.  Besides helping finance infrastructure such as the Ferrocarril al Atlántico railroad (completed in 1890) which linked the country to the Atlantic, wealthy growers and growers’ associations funded the first post office and the first government printing office, the San Juan de Dios Hospital, and the National Theater, as well as the first libraries and Santo Tomás University.

However, not all of the land in the country is suitable for growing coffee, something that still checks the growth of the industry to date. And Costa Rica’s joining CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Association) in 2004 has brought more neoliberal policies that have affected government support of coffee as well as other sectors.

Still, the independent-minded and educated population has a true soft spot for its coffee sector. Fair-traded and sustainable coffee is the norm not the exception in Costa Rica.

Growers have a sense of belonging to an elite. This gratifying image makes the grower receptive to going the extra mile to improve quality. Coffee confers on them and, indeed, on the whole village, social status, like a wine-grower in other regions of the world.

The world has taken notice, production has increased, and the future looks excellent for Costa Rican coffee. 

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