If there is a problem with Costa Rica coffee, it's the fact that it can lack distinction; it is straightforward, clean, softly acidic, mild. It has lots of "coffee flavor." The trend in Costa Rica was to create large volumes of moderately good "specialty" coffee. There was a push toward high-yield coffee shrubs that lacked the clarity in cup flavor of the older types. They also required a lot of fertilizer input to maintain their bountiful yields. The large mills mixed all the small-farm coffee cherries that were delivered, the high-grown and low-grown, the ripe fruits and the not-so-ripe. The result was mediocrity.
For me, the main issue with Costa Rica had been the marketing model: big mills creating their own brands, not small farms with their own tree-to-bag processing. Since we are small and can handle small lots in a way that is not economical for a larger coffee company, we changed the way we sourced Costa Rican coffees in 2008 to offer coffees from the emerging movement of micro mill coffee production.
This new quality initiative is coming from smaller mills, low-volume, farm-specific coffee producers who now keep their lots separate, mill it themselves, gaining control of the process, and fine-tuning it to yield the best possible flavors (and the best price). This change in processing is possible due to new environmentally-friendly small milling equipment, and fueled by the dissatisfaction of small producers who sell coffee at market prices, only to see it blended with average, carelessly-harvested lots.
With an independent family mill, a farmer can become a true craftsperson, maximize the cup quality of their coffee, divide lots by elevation or cultivar, and receive the highest prices for their coffees. In turn, we get unique and diverse micro-lots, and long-term relationship with the small farmer. Some call it Direct Trade, but we call it our Farm Gate program, where we can be assured of exactly what the farmer received. And in these cases they yield 40%-100%+ more than Fair Trade prices.
The range of flavors that result from Costa Rican coffees has expanded due to the new relationships we are forming, ranging from traditional wet-processed lots with vivid brightness and clean fruit notes, to ... well, radically different dry-processed coffees as well as pulped natural "honey" coffees. Some of these experiments have crossed a threshold into ill-advised procedures that result in curious, yet unstable flavor attributes. We are not big fans of producing dry-process coffees in areas that can't dry them well. The flavors may be outlandish, but the coffees tend to fade quickly, turning from fruit toward ferment, and from rustic sweetness to woody age notes.
Costa Rica can still produce great clean wet-processed type coffees, but lately we have found that competition from buyers, high internal coffee cherry prices, and lack of commitment on the part of farmers to long-term relationships have made these coffees unattractive. On top of that, we can put together a table of blind samples from other Central American producing countries and find more clarity in the brightness and sweetness of the coffees. I would never say the Costa Rica highlands can't produce world-class lots, but there aren't as many as there are buyers, some tossing inflated prices at coffee lots that are of dubious cup character.
Is the problem of Costa Rica's success its accessibility, and its downfall part of the constraints of other economic pressures, from the unchecked growth of San Jose and its suburbs, tourism and expatriate retirees, its educated and demanding work force, and their over-connectedness to the markets they sell into? It's the success of development, and yet in crops like coffee it seems oddly off base. I mean, I don't want the farms I work with to come up in Google with their own Flash-animated web sites. I want them to grown good coffee, that's all. Call me an imperialist. I have been to Costa Rica now many times. It's a five hour flight, after all. For more information check out the photos in the travelogue section of the Coffee Library page.