Coffee Origins: Costa Rica

Vietnamese Coffee Exporter
Coffee Origins: Costa Rica

Coffee Origins: Costa Rica – Costa Rica has been producing coffee since the early 1800s. When Costa Rica achieved independence from Spain in 1821, the municipal government distributed free coffee seedlings to boost production, and records show that there were approximately seventeen thousand trees in the country at the time.

The government continued to promote coffee by exempting it from certain taxes in 1825, and in 1831, it decided that anyone who planted coffee on fallow ground for five years may claim ownership of it.

Although a tiny amount of coffee was sold to Panama in 1820, the first significant exports did not occur until 1832. Although this coffee was intended for England, it first made its way to Chile, where it was rebagged and renamed ‘Café Chileno de Valparaso.’

Direct export to the United Kingdom began in 1843, not long after the English began to invest heavily in Costa Rica. This eventually led to the founding of the Anglo-Costa Rican Bank in 1863, which provided funding to help the sector expand.

Direct export to the United Kingdom began in 1843, not long after the English began to invest heavily in Costa Rica. This eventually led to the founding of the Anglo-Costa Rican Bank in 1863, which provided funding to help the sector expand.

Coffee was the country’s sole export for nearly fifty years, from 1846 to 1890. Coffee was responsible for the development of infrastructure such as the first railroads connecting the island to the Atlantic, as well as the funding of the San Juan de Dios Hospital, the first post office, and the first government printing office. It would also have an impact on culture, as the National Theater, as well as the first libraries and the Santo Tomás University, are all products of the early coffee industry.

Costa Rica’s coffee infrastructure has long given it an advantage in obtaining a higher price on the international market. The wet process was started in 1830, and there were 200 wet mills in the country by 1905. Washed coffees were more expensive, and at the time, this method of processing coffee added to its perceived quality.

The coffee industry continued to expand until its geographical boundaries were reached. Farmers were looking for fresh land on which to cultivate crops as the population extended from San José to the rest of the country.

However, not all of the country’s land was ideal for growing coffee, which has hampered the industry’s expansion to this point.

Costa Rican coffee has an unquestionable reputation and has commanded high prices for a long time, despite the fact that the coffees it produces are often clean and pleasant rather than interesting or uncommon.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, there was a push to move away from heirloom varieties and toward high-yielding types. While increased yields are cost-effective, many in the specialty coffee market believe that cup quality has deteriorated and has become even less intriguing. Recent developments, however, have reignited interest in the country’s higher-quality coffees.

The government’s role

Right from the start, coffee production was strongly encouraged in Costa Rica, with land being given away to those who wished to grow the crop on it.

In 1933 the government, under pressure from the coffee-growing community, created the rather bombastically titled Institute for the Defence of Coffee.

Initially, the institute was to play a role in trying to prevent small coffee growers from being exploited by those who bought their coffee cherry cheaply, processed it, and sold it for a much greater profit. They did this by setting a limit on the profits that could be made by larger processors.

In 1948 the government body for coffee became the Oficina del Café, though some of the responsibilities for a coffee went to the Department of Agriculture.

This organization became the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica (ICAFE), which still exists today. 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 percent tax on all exports of coffee from Costa Rica. 

The micro-mill revolution

Costa Rican coffee has a long history of high quality, and as a result, it commands a premium price in the commodity market. As the specialty coffee business matured, it lacked much in the way of traceable coffee.

Around the turn of the millennium, most coffees shipped from Costa Rica had marks that were effectively brands developed by the major mills or beneficios. These labels made it difficult to tell where the coffee was grown and what terroir or attributes it possessed. There was little in the processing chain to distinguish the different lots.

Micro mills, on the other hand, exploded in popularity in the mid-to-late-2000s. Farmers began to invest in their own small-scale post-harvest equipment and began to process more of their own produce.

As a result, they were able to gain more control over their coffee, and the variety of styles and coffees from all across Costa Rica rose considerably. Previously, a distinctive and peculiar coffee would have been blended in with coffees from nearby farms, but this is no longer the case.

This makes Costa Rican coffees intriguing to learn about because it’s now easier than ever to taste several different coffees from a single region side by side and observe how location affects flavor.

Coffee and tourism

Costa Rica is the most developed of the Central American countries, as well as the safest. As a result, it is a very popular tourist site, particularly among North Americans.

Tourism has not only supplanted coffee as the principal source of foreign revenue, but it has also collided and merged with it.

Costa Rica is a popular destination for ecotourism, and numerous coffee farms may be visited and tours have taken there. Larger farms are more likely to give tours, with less emphasis on exact quality, but it is still fascinating to watch how coffee farming works up close.


Currently, land ownership is extremely common in Costa Rica, with ninety percent of coffee producers there owning small- to medium-sized farms. As such it is possible to find coffees traceable to an individual farm or a particular cooperative.

Taste profile

Costa Rican coffees are typically very clean and sweet, though often very light-bodied. However, recently micro mills are producing a wider range of flavors and styles.

Growing regions

Population: 4,586,000
Number of 60kg (132lb) bags in 2016: 1,486,000 Costa Rica has been successful in the past in marketing its coffees under the names of the regions that produce them. However, there is a wide diversity of āavours within each region, so it is well worth exploring each of the different regions to see what they can produce.

Central valley

With the capital city of San José at its center, this is Costa Rica’s most populous zone and the one where coffee has been grown for the longest. The sub-regions of San José, Heredia, and Alajuela are the most common divisions. The topography and soil are influenced by three major volcanoes in the area: Irazu, Barva, and Poas.

Altitude: 900–1,600m (3,000–5,200ft)

Harvest: November–Marc

West valley

During the nineteenth century, the first farmers arrived in the West Valley region, bringing coffee with them. San Ramón, Palmares, Naranjo, Grecia, Sarchi, and Atenas are the cities that make up the region’s six sub-regions.

Villa Sarchi is a specialty coffee type named after the city of Sarchi. Around Naranjo, the region’s highest altitudes are situated, and some of the region’s best coffees may be found here.

Altitude: 700–1,600m (2,300–5,200ft)

Harvest: October–FebruaryTarrazu


Taraz has a long history of producing high-quality coffee, and for many years, the coffee from this region could virtually be considered a premium grade. That coffee was most likely a mill grade gathered from many farms and blended together to form a huge batch.

However, the Taraz brand grew so strong over time that coffee from outside the region began to be marketed as Tarraz to boost its value. This region has the biggest concentration of coffee fields in the country, and it, like many other locations, benefits from a unique dry season during harvest.

Altitude: 1,200–1,900m (3,900–6,200ft)

Harvest:  November–March

Tres Rios

A small region just to the east of San José, Tres Rios also beneĀts from the effects of the Irazu volcano.

This area was considered relatively remote until recently, but now the greatest challenge to the coffee-growing industry is no longer gaining access to power or infrastructure, but the threat from urban development.

More land is required for housing, and Tres Rios is producing less and less coffee each year, as land is sold for property development.

Altitude: 1,200–1,650m (3,900–5,400ft)

Harvest: November–March


Another small region but further east from San José, Orosi has over a century of coffee production in its history. The region is essentially a long valley, compromising the three subregions of Orosi, Cachí, and Paraíso.

Altitude: 1,000–1,400m (3,300–4,600ft)

Harvest: November–March


Zeledón. Coto Brus, out of the two, is more reliant on coffee as a source of income. Following WWII, Italian settlers landed in the area and established coffee farms with Costa Ricans.

Pérez Zeledón’s coffee was first cultivated and harvested by settlers from the country’s Central Valley near the end of the nineteenth century. The majority of the coffee farmed in this area is Caturra or Catuai.

Altitude: 600–1,700m (2,000–5,600ft)
Harvest: August–February


The harvest in this region is earlier than most, due to the weather and particularly the rainfall in the area. With less deĀned wet and dry seasons, it isn’t unusual to see multiple āowerings on coffee trees here.

The weather may present something of a challenge for coffee production, as coffees of very high quality are relatively scarce.

Altitude: 500–1,400m (1,600–4,600ft)

Harvest: July–March


This western region is large but there are only relatively small areas of it under coffee. The area is more dependent on beef ranching and rice than on coffee. There is still a sizeable production, though much of it is grown at lower altitudes making stunning coffees less common here.

Altitude: 600–1,300m (2,000–4,300ft)
Harvest: July–February


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