Courtesy of Kenneth Davids, 21st Century Coffee: A Guide
The traditional Costa Rica cup profile is classic, admired for its consistency, balance and immaculate freedom from taint — and often patronized for that same clean balance. One finds it accused of an absence of surprise, a lack of idiosyncrasy and nuance. For many coffee insiders, the traditional Costa Rica cup is the Honda of coffees, reliable but neither fancy nor flashy.
Justification for this reputation probably can be found in the respectable yet plain-tasting tree varieties dominating Costa Rican fields, particularly the compact Caturra variety. Plus there is the well-developed, sophisticated Costa Rica coffee infrastructure that performs consistent, centralized fruit removal, drying and grading without provoking taint, but without introducing the nuance often generated by small variations in processing or terroir. Traditionally Costa Rica coffee from various small-holding producers is bulked together by large mills, often owned by multinational trading companies.
Micro-Mills and Change
The classic world of Costa Rica coffee is changing, however, and rather radically. A newer generation of Costa Rican specialty producers has successfully injected variety into the predictable Costa Rica cup, often through unorthodox processing methods. If the traditional Costa Rica cup errs in the direction of predictability, some of the recent micro-milled Costa Ricas seem intent on almost recklessly asserting their unpredictability. Meanwhile, response to the epidemic of leaf rust beginning in 2012 is not clear. It conceivably could end by even further simplifying the basic Costa Rica cup through widespread planting of disease-resistant hybrids.
Costa Rica Varieties
Costa Rica grows Caturra and more Caturra, with some Catuaí and Typica, plus a little of the early-generation disease-resistant hybrid Catimor. Some Bourbon is also grown, as well as a spontaneous mutant variety of Bourbon called Villa Sarchi, a compact-growing variety that was first selected in Costa Rica’s West Valley. Given the recent interest in coffee variety at the high end of the market, Villa Sarchi is sometimes sold in separate, single-variety lots rather than mixed in with other varieties. Although the 100% Villa Sarchis I have tested can be pleasant coffees, they do not appear to propose anything much different than the standard range of cup profile displayed by Caturra and Pacas, two rather similar mutant selections of Bourbon that are compact and grow well in sun.
Newly Introduced Varieties.
Costa Rican farmers are beginning to experiment with differentiating cup profile through planting new, distinctive-tasting tree varieties, including the celebrated Geisha/ Gesha, although at this writing these experiments still appear to be modest in scale compared to neighboring Panama, for example. On the other hand, at least until the recent attacks of leaf rust, Costa Rica has not given way to planting more neutral-tasting, disease-resistant hybrids either.
Until recently, Costa Rica has been strongly associated with meticulously wet-processed coffees using the traditional ferment-and-wash method.
Newer Non-Traditional Methods.
However, the ferment-and-wash method has now given way to shortcut mechanical demucilaging, in which the fruit flesh or mucilage is squeezed/scrubbed off the beans rather than first loosened by fermentation and then washed off. The transition was prompted by environmental concerns, since the traditional ferment-and-wash method pollutes water, and cleaning that water raises costs.
Mechanical demucilaging offers other advantages to producers: It is more efficient, more predictable and requires less labor than traditional ferment-and-wash methods. These are all advantages that would seem to resonate with the Costa Rican predilection for efficiency and consistency, not to mention the need to reduce high labor costs.
Nevertheless, the shift to mechanical demucilaging in Costa Rica offered a window for product differentiation as well as product homogenization. The equipment manufacturers Penagos (Colombia) and Pinhalense (Brazil) both introduced compact wet mills using efficient versions of mechanical demucilaging. These mills use very little water, can be set up virtually anywhere and have generated a new chapter in Costa Rica coffee.
The Costa Rica Micro-Mill Revolution.
These compact demucilaging mills opened the way for farmers and coffee entrepreneurs who previously sold their coffee fruit to large mills to begin processing their own coffee and their neighbors’ coffees, along the way creating new cup profiles through experimenting with processing method. By skillfully managing the mucilage-removal step with the new machines, some of the mucilage can be removed but not all. Although this possibility was first exploited by Brazilian coffee growers, the Costa Rican micro-millers elaborated the process and gave it a name that has stuck: honey processing.
If only the skin of the fruit is removed and the coffee is dried with all of the mucilage adhering to the bean, Costa Ricans call it red honey. If part but not all of the mucilage is removed along with the skin, the coffee becomes yellow honey. Micro-millers also dry coffee inside the entire fruit, including skin, producing still another product, dry- or natural-processed coffee. Slow drying of red honey coffee results in a product called black honey. All of these variations have significant impact on cup profile, of course; how successful the impact is depends on the savvy and skill of the micro-miller.
Costa Rican micro-millers also have attempted to play the variety card by selecting lots from a single variety for their differentiated processing methods. Given that the varieties traditionally grown in Costa Rica are not particularly distinctive in cup profile even when processed and sold separately, producers associated with micro-mills have begun to plant other varieties with more impact on cup profile, like Geisha/Gesha and Kenya’s SL28.
Costa Rica Growing Regions
The coffee-growing regions of Costa Rica are concentrated in the mountain valleys of central Costa Rica, extending southeast along the Central Cordillera to the Panama border. The Costa Rican Institute of Coffee (Instituto del Café de Costa Rica, or ICAFE) has meticulously defined eight Costa Rica coffee-growing regions.
However, as is typical when such efforts are extended to defining cup character, any terroir-driven coherence of cup within regions tends to be blurred on one hand by sameness of variety and processing method among all regions, and on the other by subtle differences in microclimate, crop-year variation and variety mix within each region. Throw in efforts at deliberately transcending uniformity by the latest micro-mill experiments, and the effort to define cup profile by region seems increasingly irrelevant.
Tarrazú, Central Valley, West Valley, Tres Ríos.
Given that caveat, Tarrazú, south of the capital of San José, on average has the highest growing elevations and arguably the most prestigious regional name. Central Valley, West Valley and Tres Ríos, all closer to San José, are deservedly admired classic, and now rather dynamic, regions. All of these four regions tend to have clearly defined wet and dry seasons that promote a predictable harvest and uniform, sweet ripening of the fruit. Less predictable but sometimes quite interesting coffees are produced in a string of growing districts stretching from southeast of the capital to the border with Panama, collectively making up a large growing region ICAFE labels Brunca.
The Traditional Costa Rica Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
Balanced, resonant, clean, straightforward; complete and classic in structure, though seldom striking or surprising in aromatics.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
The traditional Costa Rica cup may prompt descriptors that are more generic than specific. General floral notes, for example, rather than floral notes that in their nuance might provoke more specific associations. We may taste roasted nut generally, rather than hazelnut or walnut or pecan. Given that caveat, traditional Costa Ricas are likely to display nut, ripe citrus, chocolate and stone-fruit notes.
The Micro-Mill Cup.
Costa Rican micro-mills apply an impressive range of processing methods to a coffee. It is difficult to generalize on cup profile, given the range of these practices and their variations. The popular honey- process coffees can cup from musty and rustically rough on one extreme (some red and particularly black honeys) to delicate and fl oral, with (yes) honey-like tendencies.
Costa Rica Coffee Ratings and Reviews
Click here to view ratings and reviews of coffees from Costa Rica.