Americas Beans series 2– Costa Rican Coffee Story

Eduardo Matos History

Costa Rica is a country located aside Panama, its position in the central region of America, in the bridge between the north and the south made this zone part of an interesting trading dynamics among the native populations. When the foreigners arrive from the old continent, they found a high diversity of edible plants that were adapted by the newcomers as part of their diets and costumes. After earning the heart of European society, it was manner of time before the arrival of coffee to new places and the environmental conditions from Costa Rica were more than ideal to grow the economy around coffee: Soil originated from volcanic activity, a marked rainy season and uniform temperatures, 800-1.600 meters high.

It was 1720, more or less, the year when coffee was introduced from the Caribbean Islands, till then, agriculture in Costa Rica were mostly self-subsistence.

Coffee cultivation started slowly, but constantly due to no major occurrence of huge conflicts till the independence movements, which weren’t as violent of brutal as other similar events happening in other regions, as Colombia and Venezuela. After achieved independence in 1821, the country was counting with small plantations around, many of them promoted by religious groups that also were responsible for bringing seeds and knowledge useful to cultivate Typica or Criollo varieties, all Arabica.

The government took the drive in the promotion of coffee cultivation by giving land and releasing of taxes or payment quotes those who were willing to grow coffee, also referenced as “grano de oro” or the golden grain. Despite gain independence from Spain, it was until 1838 that by decision of Braulio Carrillo, chief of state at the time, that Costa Rica became a sovereign state. This man proposed a solid agricultural plan having coffee as the center of economy profit for the country and started the building of a road to the Atlantic, to deliver quickly merchandise to Europe and the north, this road would be finished after 50 years. Meanwhile, some family names started to appeared and gain influences over the society, one of them is “Don Santiago Fernández Hidalgo”, the owner of the “the Labyrinth”, one of the first that were able of export a considerable amount of sacs by the time, also was responsible of participate in the first efforts of improving methods and tools of processing of the cherries and beans. One of the innovations was the fermentation of the cherries, new varieties were introduced, as Bourbon.

Coffee cultivation started slowly, but constantly due to no major occurrence of huge conflicts till the independence movements, which weren’t as violent of brutal as other similar events happening in other regions, as Colombia and Venezuela. After achieved independence in 1821, the country was counting with small plantations around, many of them promoted by religious groups that also were responsible for bringing seeds and knowledge useful to cultivate Typica or Criollo varieties, all Arabica.

For some time the economy kept growing and promise an everlasting stability, till the a the period of 1870 – 1890 where a mix between social discontent with salaries, labor conditions, a drop of international prices and high public debts due to the work of building the train road to the Atlantic made realize to Costa Rican society that improvement in social equality, education, industry and diversification of source of income were needed or otherwise they would face an economic breakdown.

With the arrival of the XX century, mules where substituted by chariots and trains, finally the road to the Atlantic was finished and modern machinery for processing was available, since driers, pulper, that weren’t affordable for most small farmers, so the organization of farmers to pay for processing services was needed. Those offering these services created regulations and norms for the reception of the beans to guaranty the quality of the product to exportation. The mechanization and standardization of the coffee industry was cemented, varieties Caturra and Catuai were used in more areas. But at the same time the coffee wasn’t anymore the only relevant crop in the agenda of Costa Rica, investment in banana, cocoa, sugarcane along the extraction of minerals were made.

I must talk about the influence of the business man from USA, Minor C. Keith, who proposed to “fix” the debt that the government have with England in the last decade because incapability of finishing the train. Keith earned the right of using of using the train for 99 years and obtained vast extension of land (800.000 acres). He grew banana with intensive methods, depredating the land and exhausting the soil, moving to new lands after to repeat the process, using the train to export the banana and other fruits to USA, funding the “United Fruit Company”, paying low taxes (what a deal, right?). Even the banana disease “the mal de Panama” (Caused by Fusarium) wasn’t an obstacle for the United Fruit Company, since they used the affected lands to grow cocoa, allowing to control big part of the national production. By current environmental standards this sort of practices are deployable, but placed the banano as valuable as coffee, especially because the start of the first global war, affecting the European market, the principal consumer.

In a similar way as Colombia, appeared institutions dedicated to spread technical knowledge and tuition about modern method and techniques for coffee cultivation and research of varieties, “el instituto de cafè de Costa Rica” (Icafe) was funded in 1933.
Actually, there are 8 areas marked for coffee cultivation: la Brunca, Tres Ríos, Orosi, Turrialba, Valle Central, Valle Occidental, Tarrazú y Guanacaste. By collective agreement amount these areas, coffee is picked by hand and selecting mature cherries for processing, to preserve the quality of the cup.
Coffee in Costa Rica is organic, it have the seals that certified the respect for the biodiversity, the farmers and the costumer, coffee is the third crop produced for exportation, behind banana and pineapple.

Coffee and tourism

Being a country that historically relayed on agriculture has tough its people to appreciate the field and the preservation of resources. For that reason, it is common find tour agencies that offer visits to coffee areas. One of the most requested places are those with rooms in “Haciendas” (Farms), where visitants can enjoy spa, gourmet restaurants where the tourist can experience the expertise of baristas and also, camping with all services nearby coffee plantations are just nice experiences that are available for those that enjoy fresh air and share with the locals.

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