By Sofía González
To some, coffee is what you drink to keep themselves awake. The need for caffeine is so great that it no longer matters where coffee comes from. But to Costa Ricans, coffee is an experience that is deeply embedded in our identity. Coffee has always occupied an important place in the country’s history, economy and society.
Depending on the area the Costa Rican you’re talking to is from, that person will tell you a great assortment of stories about their childhood. You’ll often hear stories about having coffee in family reunions are a very common denominator or people describing what it’s like living next or nearby a coffee plantation (this used to be extremely common in San José, even in the nineties).
So, if you want to drink coffee like a Costa Rican, here are some very important facts you need to know about Costa Rica coffee.
The Beginnings of Costa Rica Coffee
Coffee came to Costa Rica from the island of Martinique in the year 1791. Records say that the first plants were cultivated by a priest called Felix Valverde in 1809. Nowadays, this plot of land is located between what is now Central Avenue and Zero Street. Wait! That’s in the heart of downtown San José! If you look closely, there’s even a plaque commemorating where the farm used to be.
Exporting Becomes a Reality
In 1819, the government decided to promote the coffee industry as an opportunity for growth and to help Costa Rica transform from a small, Central American province to a fully developed nation. The first export was to Panamá in 1820 (and there’s even a coffee brand under that name). Around 2 quintals, roughly 2 100-pound sacks) were sent to our neighbors.
However, the first direct export was made by coffee grower Santiago Fernández Hildago, with the collaboration of William Lacheur, in 1841. This English merchant brought our coffee to Europe for the first time.
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Oxcarts Are Part of This Story
Oxcarts are a very important character in this story. The boyeros, who we spoke about in an earlier post, were in charge of taking the coffee to the export points. In 1840 the coffee had to be taken from San José to Puntarenas. It was a 5-day journey. It is believed that between 5,000 and 10,000 transported the “grano de oro” (roughly translated as “golden grain”) throughout the XIX century.
Becoming a Monoculture
Between 1846 and 1890, Costa Rica only exported coffee. Nothing else. Why? Well, in order to stimulate the creation of plantations, the government began giving out the grain for free to anyone who owned a plot of land and wanted to plant coffee. This gave rise to wealth and power to a handful of families, and such last names are still well-known today.
Processing Costa Rica Coffee
With exports, the coffee processors and their techniques improved. In 1830 Buenaventura Espinach built a paved patio and the first wet mill was established. It was south of Cartago, in the El Molino estate.
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The Building Coffee Made
The first printing press, the Post Office, the road to Puntarenas, the first University, the railroad to the Atlantic and the Pacific, the National Theater... all of these buildings were financed by coffee sales.
No More Robusta for You!
The variety to arrive in the country was Coffea Arabica. And that’s basically the main variety cultivated today. Also, a group of farmers decided to prohibit the cultivation of Robusta coffee, or Coffea Canéphora, which is more productive but yielded a mediocre cup of coffee.
In terms of laws, Costa Rica has created very unique scenarios. For example, it is the only country to regulate how much it’s paid to the coffee producer. This is known legally as liquidation.
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It’s All Over!
The Central Valley was one of the first regions where coffee was grown. But then it spread to other parts of the country. The experience left us with 8 different regions, with different flavor characteristics. Among the best is Tarrazú, where it’s fertile and mineral-rich land produces a very flavorful cup of coffee.
The Future Innovates
Today coffee is not the only crop, and it continues to face many market and agricultural challenges. But our producers today continue to innovate. The number of micro-beneficiaries (small producers who cultivate, benefit, roast and sell their coffee) is growing.
As pioneers in processing, a lot of small farms have perfected their techniques, and now commercialize honey and wet processed coffees which are recognized worldwide.
Source: Icafé and Patricia Vega
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