Coffees from the Americas : Costa Rica

The coffees of central Costa Rica comprise one of those classic origins that is respected but not fawned over. Although Costa Rica produces a variety of coffees, those that reach American specialty coffee menus usually are very high-grown Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) coffees from regions near the capital of San Jose in the central part of the country: Tarrazu, Herediá, Tres Rios, Volcan Poas. At best Costa Rica coffees from these regions are distinctive in a way that defies simple, romantic description. When good they are clean, balanced, and resonantly powerful. When ordinary they are clean, balanced, and rather inert.

The relative lack of innuendo in Costa Rica coffees ironically may be owing to the advanced state of the Costa Rican coffee industry. They tend to come from trees of relatively recently developed cultivars of arabica like caturra or catuai, and usually are impeccably wet-processed using technically advanced techniques that eliminate the oddities of flavor that derive from traditional or regional variations in processing.

Unlike many coffees of the world, Costa Ricas generally are identified either by the estate or farm (finca) on which they were grown, or by cooperative or processing facility (beneficio) where they were processed. This piece of information, which is often available to the roaster or importer, is seldom passed on to the consumer except in the case of well-known estates like Bella Vista or La Minita.

La Minita Farm has become particularly prominent owing to the quality of its almost fanatically prepared coffee and the skillful publicity efforts of its owner, William McAlpin. The La Minita coffee appearing in specialty stores is likely to be so labeled: Costa Rica La Minita, La Minita Tarrazu, etc. Bella Vista can be almost as remarkable, although recently it has been available only from Starbucks.

Coffees from the Dota area of Tarrazu are the exact opposite of the classic-at-best, boring-at-worst Costa Ricas. Apparently owing to a local variation in fermenting technique, Dotas walk a thin, wild edge between disturbing overripeness and exciting fruit and chocolate, and are a good choice for those who prefer romantic risk to perfection.