Water Street Coffee’s Roastmaster, Seth Chapman, visited Costa Rica this past March to meet some of our suppliers and learn more about the region. Read on to hear about his trip, and the future of Water Street’s Costa Rican coffee offerings…
I arrived in sunny San Jose, Costa Rica on Monday, March 19th. I was on my second mission to a coffee-producing country, aiming to expand my knowledge in a country well-known for its exceptional coffees. During my seven days in Costa Rica’s West Valley and Tarrazu regions I learned and experienced far more than I could have hoped for, and the experience proved invaluable on both a personal and professional level.
Carlos Pira of La Pira de Dota after being given a bag of Water Street Coffee
This time around I joined forces with some great folks on the Café Imports team: Matt Brown and Omar Herrera, our sales representatives, and Luis Aroca, green buyer for Café Imports, who works out of their office located in San José. I was also joined by seven other coffee professionals from the U.S. Together we visited five individual coffee farms, met producers, cupped 40 different coffees from the surrounding area, and marked the beginning of some wonderful relationships.
The 2017/2018 harvest in Costa Rica was just wrapping up around the time of our arrival. Producers faced particularly adverse weather conditions this past January with unusually high levels of rainfall. Not only did the increased rainfall make this year’s harvest more difficult, it also increased the price of coffee from Costa Rica since less is available, and it has also cast a degree of uncertainty onto next year’s harvest. Being so close to the equator, Costa Rica does not experience the four seasons many of us in the U.S. are accustomed to. Instead, they have a dry season and a rainy season. This year the rainy season hit late and heavy, with precipitation for weeks on end. This heavy rain made production difficult in many ways.
Natural coffees drying at La Chumeca
Drying beds at La Chumeca
Drying times for natural coffees doubled in some areas, increasing from the usual 18 to 20 day period to as many as 40 days. This slow drying time not only increased the risk of possible mold and other taints, but it also took up space—space that many micromills can’t afford. Thankfully, many micromills have large mechanical dryers to dry the coffee beans when the weather does not cooperate.
Excess rain also causes coffee cherries to swell and pop, breaking the skin of the cherry and compromising quality. Heavy rain and wind also breaks cherries free from the plant itself, causing both ripe and under-ripe fruit to fall to the ground. Lastly, the late, heavy rains also caused the coffee plants to flower much earlier than usual, creating uncertainty about next years’ harvest. An early bloom means an early harvest. How exactly the situation will play out remains yet to be seen.
Another game changer that I hear about often and actually got to experience on this trip was climate change. With quite a gloomy outlook forecasted by many scientists and coffee professionals alike, coffee farms are essentially moving up mountainsides as temperatures rise, in order to find the most suitable climate for coffee production. Our visit to one particular farm solidified this reality. Just seven short years ago Beneficio MonteBrisas was too cold to grow coffee plants. Doña María Elena used to run a pasture on this same land, but she made the switch in 2010 and hasn’t looked back. In this case, climate change has worked in favor of coffee production, but it’s not clear what the future holds.
Doña María Elena of Beneficio MonteBrisas discussing her method of drying coffee
Although faced with challenging weather, things were clearly still in good shape, despite concerns. I had the opportunity to cup 40 different coffees from farms in the West Valley and was not disappointed. The current state of the Costa Rican coffee industry reminded me of my trip to Mexico last year, where the farmers were still recovering from coffee leaf rust. Similarly, Sumatra has been dealing with heavy rain as of late, causing drastic price hikes for Sumatran coffees. There’s always something, somewhere, that calls for innovation or adaptation in order to produce quality coffee year after year, and seeing producers in Costa Rica persevere was reassuring.
The Wet Mill, Warehouse, and Drying Patios at Aguilera Brothers
Generally, Ticos (native Costa Ricans) are extremely environmentally conscious, and this is especially true of the country’s coffee farmers. Nothing goes to waste on a Costa Rican coffee farm and everything is done to minimize the use of water. Coffee pulp and parchment are used as fuel for cooking and for mechanical dryers, and also as a fertilizer. Water usage is minimized due to water restrictions put in effect by the government. Water that is used to wash coffees becomes toxic after removing the pulp from around the coffee beans, so in order to avoid contaminated runoff, restrictions were placed on this method of processing coffee. As a result, you will not see any fermentation tanks in Costa Rica (except for a few larger mills that have the proper water filtration equipment), a sight so common on farms around the world.
Edgar of El Pilon
Fully washed microlots are very difficult to come by in Costa Rica; the farms almost exclusively produce natural or honey-processed coffees. This eco-friendly mindset has a huge effect on coffee production and quality. While it is fairly easy to get from place to place, especially in comparison to traveling in Mexico, there is also a wonderful sense of cohabitation between humans and nature. Noticing how each individual producer harnesses this relationship and uses it to produce finer coffees or begin new experiments was exciting!
The experimentation and innovation on the farm level leads to some very interesting, unique coffees. Each farm has a different microclimate, different varietals of coffee plants, and unique processing methods that all lend different qualities to the final cup. The Aguilera Brothers’ micromill is located just 25 kilometers from MonteBrisas, yet MonteBrisas is 300 meters higher. We were comfortable in t-shirts while visiting the Aguilera Brothers, but air got chilly up higher at MonteBrisas. The Aguilera Brothers dry their coffees on a covered patio, called a parabolic dryer, while Elena relies on a series of raised beds for drying. The folks at El Pilon and La Chumeca only produce natural coffees and are also experimenting with anaerobic fermentation in large stainless steel drums. And over at La Pira de Dota, Carlos Pira has developed a clever system that allows the mountain winds to cool the water used to carry the coffee in the wet mill. Carlos uses the analogy of peeling a mango to stripping the skin off the coffee cherries. He says that peeling a warm mango will remove some of the pulp as well, promoting quicker oxidation, whereas peeling a cool mango keeps the pulp intact, slowing oxidation. He believes keeping the fruit cool will lead to a better, sweeter cup. Pira is also experimenting with new, unique methods of processing coffee, including using anaerobic fermentation with the addition of spices such as cinnamon.
Felipe of Aguilera Brothers explaining his Wet-Milling Process
While experimentation and executing new processes and ideas can be risky, especially since a mistake or an unfortunate event could seriously reduce income, Ticos continue to lead the way. Costa Rica proved to be a beautiful country with much hope for the future in terms of producing exciting, exceptional coffees. An abundance of micromills gives each producer complete control over their product from beginning to end, and all the more opportunity to innovate and experiment with processes that pique their interest.