Coffee production is the pride of Costa Rica.
Knowing that they can never match the quantity produced by countries such as Brazil and Columbia, emphasis is instead put on the quality of the beans and the harvesting process.
The result is that Costa Rica is one of the foremost produces of gourmet coffee in the world.
To achieve this standard, all coffee plantations in Costa Rica must grow coffea aribaca, which produces a superior quality of bean to that of the coffea canephora, used by most other major commercial producers.
Coffea arabica originally comes from Ethiopia and produces the best harvest when cultivated between 1,300m to 1,500m.
Coffee thrives in temperatures around 20-25°c, so the slopes of Costa Rica’s cordilleras provide the ideal growing conditions.
The plant starts to produce small white flowers after two to four years. These flowers are highly fragrant, with a scent rather like jasmine. The bloom only lasts a few days, leaving behind thick, dark green foliage, through which the berries begin to appear.
The berries are oblong and around 1cm long, and mature to a bright red-purple colour, typically containing two seeds, the coffee ‘bean’.
The berries ripen at different times, so are only picked by hand. Berries picked too early or too late result in an inferior tasting coffee – a problem that befalls plantations that use machines to harvest the beans.
The altitude at which the coffee is grown can also affect the taste. Costa Rica has seven different coffee-growing regions, all of which produce distinctive tasting coffee thanks to the varying altitude, soil type and amount of rainfall.
The coffee produced in the cooler, damp conditions near the cloudforest of Monteverde, for instance, differs considerably from that grown in the rich volcanic soil near Poas.
The coffee growing cycle starts in May and with the end of the rainy season comes the ripening of the Coffee cherries.
The crop cycle ends with the final picking of the fruits from the trees, which usually occurs at the end of February, when both ripe and unripe coffee cherries are removed from the trees, preparing them for the following year’s cycle.
Coffee has been called ¨El Grano de Oro¨ (The Golden Bean) for all the economic prosperity that it has brought to Costa Rica.
Over the last 100 years, coffee has transformed Costa Rica from a colonial backwater, into a relatively affluent and cosmopolitan republic.
Founding families owned the largest plantations producing a coffee oligarchy. Attracted by coffee plantation jobs, hundreds of families from Europe and the Americas moved to Costa Rica between the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s.
These families were given land in exchange for working in the plantations. It was these immigrants who helped create the largest democratic middle class in Central America.
The first coffee export was to Colombia in 1820. In 1842, Costa Rican coffee planters made their first direct shipments of coffee to England.
European coffee connoisseurs soon recognized Costa Rican coffee as one of the world’s finest.
More importantly, Costa Rica now had access to Europe’s wealth. The face of this once sleepy little ‘Rich Coast’ was now changing.
Economic prosperity enabled the country to build most of the nation’s landmarks. For instance, in 1897, the National Theatre was opened.
The project was funded by the coffee and banana farmers who wanted to have the best European opera singers entertain them.
Whilst you will see Café Britt bags lining the shelves almost everywhere ‘especially at the airport’ Doka Estate coffee is widely considered to be the best.
The estate exports around 90% of its beans and have just signed a large contract with Starbucks.
Ironically, you will therefore have more chance of sampling a cup back home than you will while you’re on holiday.
If you do want to visit a coffee plantation during your stay, Doka Estate is probably the best of the larger players. While it is still very much geared up to tourists, it is less commercial and more in-depth than Café Britt.
Alternatively there are plenty of smaller plantations willing to show visitors around in a less theatrical setting.