Costa Rica

If there is a problem with Costa Rica coffee, it's the fact that it can lack distinction; it is straightforward, clean, softly acidic, mild. It has lots of "coffee flavor." The trend in Costa Rica was to create large volumes of moderately good "specialty" coffee. There was a push toward high-yield coffee shrubs that lacked the clarity in cup flavor of the older types. They also required a lot of fertilizer input to maintain their bountiful yields. The large mills mixed all the small-farm coffee cherries that were delivered, the high-grown and low-grown, the ripe fruits and the not-so-ripe. The result was mediocrity.

For me, the main issue with Costa Rica had been the marketing model: big mills creating their own brands, not small farms with their own tree-to-bag processing. Since we are small and can handle small lots in a way that is not economical for a larger coffee company, we changed the way we sourced Costa Rican coffees in 2008 to offer coffees from the emerging movement of micro mill coffee production.
This new quality initiative is coming from smaller mills, low-volume, farm-specific coffee producers who now keep their lots separate, mill it themselves, gaining control of the process, and fine-tuning it to yield the best possible flavors (and the best price). This change in processing is possible due to new environmentally-friendly small milling equipment, and fueled by the dissatisfaction of small producers who sell coffee at market prices, only to see it blended with average, carelessly-harvested lots.

With an independent family mill, a farmer can become a true craftsperson, maximize the cup quality of their coffee, divide lots by elevation or cultivar, and receive the highest prices for their coffees. In turn, we get unique and diverse micro-lots, and long-term relationship with the small farmer. Some call it Direct Trade, but we call it our Farm Gate program, where we can be assured of exactly what the farmer received. And in these cases they yield 40%-100%+ more than Fair Trade prices.

The range of flavors that result from Costa Rican coffees has expanded due to the new relationships we are forming, ranging from traditional wet-processed lots with vivid brightness and clean fruit notes, to ... well, radically different dry-processed coffees as well as pulped natural "honey" coffees. Some of these experiments have crossed a threshold into ill-advised procedures that result in curious, yet unstable flavor attributes. We are not big fans of producing dry-process coffees in areas that can't dry them well. The flavors may be outlandish, but the coffees tend to fade quickly, turning from fruit toward ferment, and from rustic sweetness to woody age notes.

Costa Rica can still produce great clean wet-processed type coffees, but lately we have found that competition from buyers, high internal coffee cherry prices, and lack of commitment on the part of farmers to long-term relationships have made these coffees unattractive. On top of that, we can put together a table of blind samples from other Central American producing countries and find more clarity in the brightness and sweetness of the coffees. I would never say the Costa Rica highlands can't produce world-class lots, but there aren't as many as there are buyers, some tossing inflated prices at coffee lots that are of dubious cup character.

Is the problem of Costa Rica's success its accessibility, and its downfall part of the constraints of other economic pressures, from the unchecked growth of San Jose and its suburbs, tourism and expatriate retirees, its educated and demanding work force, and their over-connectedness to the markets they sell into? It's the success of development, and yet in crops like coffee it seems oddly off base. I mean, I don't want the farms I work with to come up in Google with their own Flash-animated web sites. I want them to grown good coffee, that's all. Call me an imperialist. I have been to Costa Rica now many times. It's a five hour flight, after all. For more information check out the photos in the travelogue section of the Coffee Library page. -Tom

We currently offer these unroasted coffees:

Costa Rica Helsar - Nancy
Penagos pulper at the Helsar de Zarcero mill
Arrival dateApril 2014
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 17-18 Screen
ProcessingWet Process Style Machine Washed
RegionLlano Bonito de Naranjo, West Valley
Intensity/Prime attributeMild-Medium intensity / Sweet fruits, sugar browning, layered chocolate, bodied
RoastCity+ to Full City+: this coffee does best when taken beyond City level in order to develop the potential sweetness
This coffee, somewhat mysteriously designated "Nancy" is from the area of Llano Bonito de Naranjo, West Valley, Costa Rica. It comes from the Helsar de Zarcero mill, where all the coffee is processed from fruit to green bean form. We have a long relationship with the Helsar mill , which is located on the Santa Lucia farm site, going back 8 years now. I suppose the reason we turn to Helsar for coffee, and the reason the local farmers deliver their coffee fruit there: They are excellent at processing coffee from fruit to dried pergamino to ready-to-export green coffee beans. Each year they refine their process, and under the guidance of Ricardo Perez Barrantes the recent improvements include more raised drying beds, more warehouse space to rest coffee (reposo) and new dry milling equipment. While there are many variations on processing being performed in Costa Rica now, it is the washed style coffees that give the quintessential flavor experience, balanced, restrained, clean taste, sweet finish. Helsar uses a machine-wash method to scrub the fruit layers from the parchment coffee, then sun dries most lots, with supplemental machine drying as well. The result is a style of coffee with great clarity in the cup flavors, like traditional wet-processing, but using much less water, and better recovery and re-use of the byproducts for composting: the skin and pulp of the fruit.
The dry fragrance of this Helsar lot is fruit forward, with a peach butter smell and slight hazelnut note. Dark roasts have baking spices and raisin. Wet aromatics continue this theme, along with berry sweetness and a near floral twist at more developed roast levels. The flavor profile of the cup is front loaded with fruit flavors that are balanced out by cocoa powder taste and mouthfeel, and a honey sweetness. It's a clean cupping Costa, and has a refreshing green apple like brightness - though still relatively lower acidity than our other Costa Rican coffees. Flavors of sugar browning shift throughout the cooling cup, and wind up somewhere in the realm of dark malt syrup. Chocolate notes are also prevalent, and layer from semi-sweet to more high % cacao. Add to this a body with heft, and you have one of our better options for a dual use Costa Rica. At Full City, espresso is so sweet, with tart raspberry and dark chocolate.
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Costa Rica Helsar - Leo Rojas Rola
Harvesting coffee on Leo Rojas farm.
Arrival dateApril 2014
Appearance.0 d/300gr, 17-18 Screen
ProcessingWet Process Style Machine Washed
RegionLlano Bonito de Naranjo, West Valley
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium intensity / A clean and balanced roast taste with fruited accents
RoastCity+ to Full City+: We didn't like City roast here as well as the more developed sweetness that came from more roast development after 1st Crack
This selection is from a single coffee farmer, Leonardo Rojas, who has all his coffee processed at the Helsar de Zarcero's mill. The mill is located in the West Valley region, not far from the town of Naranjo, and Leo's farm is nearby in the area called Llano Bonito de Naranjo. I have visited this farm during harvest, and we have a long buying relationship with the Helsar mill, over 8 years finding wonderful coffees from them. It is run by one of the nicest and most progressive persons in coffee, Ricardo Perez. They are consistently improving their processing, this past year adding more raised beds for drying the parchment coffee, additional warehouse space, and new sorting equipment. I noticed this coffee when cupping in Costa Rica for its clean, classic character. While there are many variations on processing being performed in Costa Rica now, it is the washed style coffees that give the quintessential flavor experience, balanced, restrained, clean taste, sweet finish. The vast majority of Leo's farm is planted in Caturra cultivar, though I have seen small amounts of other types when walking the farm. It is situated at 1600 meters.
The Leo Rojas lot has a pronounced cane sugar and red apple sweetness from the dry fragrance, taking on a chocolate brownie roast accent with a more developed roast level. Adding the hot water, the wet aromatics shift toward a banana fruit scent, and fresh cream sweetness, with the dark roast having molasses and caramelizing sugars as one might expect. The cup has a beautiful combination of fruited sweetness with chocolate bittering qualities. Less developed roast levels have a light malt syrup and almond base tone, with accents of apple juice and white grape. The finish of the lightest roast we did has the drying aspect of almond skins, which is why we preferred the City+ to Full City levels, with further browning after 1st crack ends. These roasts had dark brown sugars and cinnamon stick, baked apple and chocolate almond bark. I wrote "delicious drinking coffee" which perhaps makes little sense, or all the sense in the world. That's what we want from Costa Rica coffee!
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