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Costa Rican Coffee

When Costa Rica is mentioned, people usually conjure up a few things in their mind like waterfalls, exotic animals, sandy beaches, the rainforest, and of course, coffee. You may think that coffee is indigenous to Costa Rica, but it’s not. Actually, it was the Spanish, French, and Portuguese who introduced the coffee bean to the New World from Ethiopia and Arabia. When the first seeds were planted in the early 1800’s, coffee plants were simply used for ornamental reasons, grown to decorate porches and courtyards with their glossy green leaves, seasonal white flowers, and red berries. Worried that they wouldn’t have a national export, the government and to convince, even coerce the Costa Rican people into growing them. Eventually, it was required by law for every Tico family to have at least a couple of bushes in their yard. To further entice the people, the government awarded free plants to the poor as well as grants of land to anyone who was willing to grow coffee on it.

Some of the BEST coffee on the planet is grown in Costa Rica.
Some of the BEST coffee on the planet is grown in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s Central Valley is the perfect location for the production of coffee. The combination of altitude, above 4,000 ft, its temperatures, which are usually between 59 degrees and 84 degrees Fahrenheit, and its soil conditions, make it an ideal location for coffee cultivation. Coffee fincas popped up everywhere and quickly occupied much of the Costa Rican landscape, except for the land needed to raise oxen. By 1840, coffee was the country’s only export, but quickly became big business, so it wasn’t long before Costa Rica’s coffee barons rose to positions of power and wealth.

Although Costa Rica was somewhat fortunate in its early stages of development in regards to the coffee industry; that has not always been the case. At one point in the late 1800’s, the country borrowed 3 million dollars to finance the Atlantic Railroad so coffee could be exported from the Atlantic port of Limon. Before the railroad, coffee was taken through the mountains of Costa Rica by oxcart to the Pacific port of Puntarenas, and from there by ship to Chile from where it was transported to Europe. The railroad would save Costa Rica time and money, but when coffee hit the bottom on the international market in 1900, the result was a severe shortage of basic foods that year since the railroad had eaten away at the country’s reserves.

Costa Rica was learning their economy would sink or swim, solely dependent on the whims of the international coffee market, which they realized was beyond their control. This dependency on the overseas market has left the Costa Ricans vulnerable on many occasions throughout the 20th century, a century when coffee prices fluctuated wildly and the health of the nation’s economy reacted accordingly.

Traditionally, coffee farmers would plant banana, citrus and poro trees in the coffee fields in order to provide the plants some shade. The trees took up precious space, so later, coffee hybrids were developed that did not need shade, thus yielding more coffee per acre. However, these hybrids were found to deplete the soil more quickly and required fertilizer, which added to the cost of production. Today, many coffee farmers around Costa Rica have gone back to the traditional shade-loving plants.

If taken care of properly, a coffee plant will bear harvestable berries for 30 to 40 years. But first, the coffee plant itself is grown in nurseries until it’s a year old, when it is then transplanted into a field but won’t bear harvestable berries for another two years. The coffee is harvested from November to January, which is during school vacation and the Christmas holidays, so it’s common for entire families to pick coffee together.

Traditionally, Costa Rican coffee has been mixed with other coffees to upgrade blends and infuse these blends with liveliness and body to appeal to a more worldwide market. Today, consumer demand is for unadulterated, 100% pure Costa Rican coffee. It is interesting to note that Arabic beans are the only type of coffee beans produced in Costa Rica as mandated by executive order, barring the production of any other type of coffee. Due to the highest quality of coffee bean used in Costa Rica, the highland regions of Poas, Barva de Heredia, Tres Rios, and Tarrazu are rated by many coffee aficionados among the best in the world for the production of coffee.

Fast Facts about Costa Rica coffee

• Coffee is not indigenous to Costa Rica.

• Coffee was first introduced to Costa Rica in 1798.

• Costa Rica was the first Central American country to establish coffee growing as an industry.

• The Arabic coffee bean is the only coffee bean used in the production of coffee, as mandated by an executive order, barring the production of any other type of coffee.

• Coffee is the second largest commodity traded on the international market, second only to oil.

• When the white coffee blossom carpets the fields of the Central Valley, their sweet jasmine-like aroma permeating the air, the Ticos call it “Costa Rican Snow.”