As we’re making final selections on Costa Rican coffees and waiting for the shipments to arrive, Ian recaps his sourcing trip to Costa Rica and the takeaways from the different farms and regions in this month's edition of "The Source."
While I would love nothing more than for my list on a trip to Costa Rica to include nothing but various tropical fruits I will add to my guaro from atop my beachside perch, while wearing the Little City hat on sourcing trips (literally, actually, check out the photos. I love that hat) I got food poisoning the moment I got to the beach. So instead of rehashing my romantic relationship with the toilet at my Airbnb, I’m sharing a little more about the coffee sourcing part of the trip to Costa Rica and various coffee producing regions I visited in January.
The first context of Single Origin coffee for me was Juan Valdez himself. For any of you who don’t remember the legend of the man, check this out. While Juan is obviously the national coffee hero of Colombia, I was informed that he drinks Costa Rican coffee. Some Costa Ricans actually had a bumper sticker created, resulting in a lawsuit between Colombian and Costa Rican coffee. The lawsuit was settled after finding a Costa Rican named Juan Valdez, who did in fact drink Costa Rican coffee.
Broad generalizations of coffee from one country to another are just as silly as that bumper sticker. Coffee quality varies drastically from origin to origin and region to region. We visited farms from the West Valley, Central Valley, and the Tarrazu Region, each with its own historic, socioeconomic, cultural, landscape, and flavor profile differences.
All in all, Costa Rica has eight main growing regions:
- The Central Valley
- Tres Rios
- West Valley
In all honesty, I haven't been to all of them. Though I have been to three of the better known areas. During my last trip in January, I visited and cupped coffees from the Central Valley, West Valley, and Tarrazu regions. By the end of it, flavor attributes from each region started to present themselves in the cup. But that’s not the point… we were on a mission. (I tend to get side tracked, so bear with me.)
Without spending too much time droning on about the specific criteria we use when sourcing (if you’re interested, take a look at our sourcing outline), this particular trip was intended to identify a coffee profile that can replace our current Peruvian blend component. A washed coffee with mellow acidity, full body, and notes of milk chocolate. It’s a relatively easy profile to identify, in all honesty; the hard part is the quality threshold. Let’s say you want a nice lager beer. If the criterion is just lager, a Lone Star tall boy works just fine, but if you want exceptional quality, nothing comes close to the St. Augesteiner Helles Lager (IMO). Trouble is, that damn St. Augustiner can’t be found anywhere outside of Bavaria. Our blend components are no different (they actually stand up quite well on their own as a single origin). To get the quality we are looking for, going to source is the only way.
In addition to the blend profile, we want some coffee to nerd out on. Last year we featured coffees from El Cedral farm in Dota Tarrazu, Costa Rica. Personally, this was one of my favorite coffees of all time. A well rounded, natural processed, Yellow and Red Catuai, full bodied, strong notes of stone fruit, milk chocolate and an after taste that doesn’t disappoint. Naturally (Pun intended), I had to visit to see what made El cedral so exceptional last year.
Sitting at 1,900–2,000 masl, it was one of the highest farms in the Dota, Tarrazu region. Generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the longer the maturation period (due to a milder climate). From my experience this increases the chances of an amazing cup of coffee. While most of the coffees in this valley had been harvested already or were in the middle of picking, El Cedral was just beginning to reach full maturity. This coffee wouldn’t be picked until a few weeks after I left, so unfortunately we have not yet tasted it. (Samples will be arriving in Austin in the next few weeks).
From the picture above you can see the small town of Dota; located at the center is Coopodota, a cooperative processing mill that all the growers in this region are a part of. While the smallholder growers may not have the resources independently, as a group they are capable of some pretty incredible things. The mill was one of the most sustainable and organized mills I’ve seen. Sustainably speaking, all of the coffee pulp is composted and used to fertilize the crops. The water from the mill is either sprayed into grazing fields or star grass for purification. Most of the electricity is generated from the nearby river and the dryers are heated using only coffee parchment.
Overall, the co-op administration has most of the control to decide which lots get picked on which days and to determine how they will be processed. The two receiving stations are the larger more industrious station and then the microlot receiving station.
Stopping by one co-op to find the perfect coffees for our blends isn’t enough, though. Another great example with its own nuances would be La Candelaria. We would be meeting Coricafes Green Coffee Manager, Stefan Wille, at the farm. Stefan had actually been to Little City’s roasting facility to visit months beforehand.
After the 1.5-hour car ride to the West Valley, just northwest of San Jose, we arrived at the Candalaria Estate, Stefan waiting patiently at the gate. Funny enough, Stefan did not realize it was the coffee roaster he had visited in Austin, TX coming to visit until he saw my face. The coffee industry has had of way of making the world feel like a small place. The potential to run into someone you met in a completely different country is very real.
Candelaria Estate was founded in 1965 by Otto Kloeti. Otto, Uwe Thormaehlen, and Klaus Ronning founded Coricafe, the independent coffee exporter, the same year. Candalaria was purchased from producers in the province of Alajela, 40 km northwest of San Jose. Like most coffee growing regions in Costa Rica, the road to Candelaria was winding, steep, and only sometimes paved. Once inside the farm you immediately see the recently harvest coffee shrubs from the lower altitude lots of the farm. At the time, Candelaria was in full swing of harvest, though at 10 a.m., most the action is still happening in the fields. Stefan showed us the newly updated washing station and also showed off some of the old ox-powered equipment.
After touring the washing station and mill, we moved on to the highest lot on the property. The views were fantastic, though most of the coffee at even its highest lot had been picked already. It’s great for tasting but not so great for photos. Hence the non-coffee-oriented landscape photo.
One of the fascinating things I learned while at Candelaria was how they processed the waste water from the washing station. Otto Kloeti took steps toward sustainable clean water years ago at the washing station. Otto hypothesized that by sprinkling the waste water over star grass, it would filter the water enough to rejoin the rivers. After testing, his hypothesis was proven true, and it is now used by many other farmers in the region.