Date: June 1998

Column/Title: Costa Ricas

Author: Ken Davids

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Costa Rica is one of those classic coffee origins that is respected but generally not fawned over. Although Costa Rica produces a variety of coffees, those that reach American specialty coffee menus typically are high-grown "Strictly Hard Bean" (SHB) coffees from growing regions near the capital of San Jose in the west-central part of the country. At best SHB coffees are distinctive in a way that defies simple, romantic description. When good they are clean, balanced, and resonantly powerful. When they are ordinary they are clean, balanced, not so resonant, and, well, boring.

I often find myself using the adjective "bell-like" when describing the big, ringing profile of a good Costa Rica SHB coffee. Unfortunately, some SHBs don't ring, they just sound off. At worst, they land on the palate with the vibrationless energy of a hammer hitting lead, their considerable power unrelieved by complexity or nuance.

So one question before this cupping is: When North-American coffee drinkers buy a Costa Rica through the mail or at a local specialty coffee store, what can they expect? Deliciously resounding bell clap? Dull thud? Or something in between?

A Costa-Rica cupping also invites testing of the implied assumption that "estate" coffees are superior to coffees that are sold more generically: by mill name, region, or grade. In some parts of the world estate coffees are definitely not superior, simply because there are not enough farms well-organized enough to be called "estates." In Costa Rica, however, the estate concept is well-established and relationships between consumer-country buyers and growing-country farmers well-developed. If there is any general validity to linking quality with marketing by estate, it ought to be reflected in a random sampling of Costa-Rica coffees from American roasters.

So what do we get when we stroll into a store and ask the clerk for a Costa Rica? Remember that the characteristics of a retail coffee are influenced both by the green coffee itself and by how that coffee was roasted. A coffee roasted with tact and attention will taste better and preserve considerably more individuality than the same coffee roasted mindlessly. A coffee brought to a darker roast will differ dramatically from the same coffee brought to a lighter roast. A faster roast at higher temperatures will develop different characteristics from a slower roast at relatively lower temperatures.

So we are not looking only at Costa Ricas, but also at how those Costa Ricas were roasted. Generally, the samples in the cupping display splendid aroma alive with vanilla and nut tones, substantial body, and a clean aftertaste. Their weakness is a sort of stolid inertness at their heart. Many exhibit limited nuance in the cup, a rather narrow range of sensation, and not much development through to finish.

How much these characteristics are owing to roast and how much to the coffee itself is difficult to say. However, an answer is suggested by the generally superior quality and greater distinctiveness of the estate-marked Costa Ricas in the cupping. Of the seven to which I gave the highest ratings, five were estate coffees, including the splendid La Minita from Alpen Sierra Coffee. The estate coffees maintained the classic Costa Rica balance, but simply offered more to balance: more complexity, more nuance, more resonance and dimension.

Generally the coffees in the cupping were clean of flavor defects, as one would expect from one of the world's most technically advanced growing countries. However, slight shadow taints did surface in several of the coffees, and at least two displayed profiles that didn't at all fit the standard expectation for Costa Rica SHB. One tasted more like a Sumatra or Sulawesi, and another (the complex and interesting Steaming Bean Costa Rica) displayed the fruity-chocolaty-edging-on-ferment taste more typical of some dry-processed coffees.

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