Costa Rican Coffee

Costa Rican Coffee: History and background of this fine coffee

Here you will discover the history, the growing regions, and the background of this fine Costa Rican coffee range.

Costa Rican coffees have the reputation of being some of the best coffees in the world. The coffee beans are grown in this Central American country — and the resulting coffee beverages made from them — are noted for their aroma, flavor, body, and acidity. But what exactly is the story of Costa Rican coffee? This article will explore the history, growing regions, and bean types of Costa Rican coffee and touch on the variety of flavors that make this nation’s coffee so popular. 

The History of Costa Rican Coffee

The history of Costa Rican coffee can be roughly divided into six periods — examined in closer detail below.

The Colonial Period

Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica, a Spanish colony, in the late 18th century. Under the economic reforms of Costa Rican governor Tomas de Acosta, coffee cultivation was encouraged in 1808. 

This was to diversify the colony’s economy (which previously had been a tobacco monopoly). Taxes on coffee production were lifted, and the crop thrived in the country’s fertile, volcanic soils — in addition to its steady climate and reliable dry and rainy seasons. 

The Early Independence Period

By 1820, Costa Rica was exporting coffee commercially. In 1821 Costa Rica and other Central American colonies declared their independence from Spain. Soon afterward, regional authorities sought to develop the new country’s economy.

They decided to grow the coffee trade by giving land grants to small coffee farmers. Municipalities like Tres Rios and Cartagos developed coffee production at this time. By 1829, the crop’s exports surpassed revenues of sugar, tobacco, and cacao. 

In 1843, Guernsey sea captain named William Le Lacheur brought Costa Rican coffee to England, establishing a coffee trade with the English and Costa Rica’s west coast. 

The Modernization Period

With British patronage, Costa Rica’s coffee trade flourished. This was also assisted by a cross-country road built to the western port town of Puntarenas in 1846. It allowed coffee transport on ox-driven carts instead of on mules. 

Coffee remained the chief export product of Costa Rica until 1890. With the coffee economy, a wealthy class of “Coffee Barons” developed — but so did the country’s roads, cities, and railroads. 

For example, a railroad from the centrally-located capital of San Jose to the Caribbean port of Limon was completed in 1890. 

The Early 20th Century

Though Costa Rican coffee had brought wealth to the country, the World Wars and competition from Brazilian coffee growers contributed to a slowdown in coffee exports. 

This was especially the case with Britain, which largely stopped purchasing Costa Rican coffee during World War II. Growers would have to export their coffee elsewhere.

The Post-War Period

In 1955, an export tax was placed on Costa Rican coffee. High post-war coffee prices assisted with the postwar economy, but a 1983 blight brought down coffee prices once again.

In 1989, Costa Rica joined other Central American coffee-producing countries in a trade agreement to stabilize the markets. 

The Modern Period 

Though Costa Rican coffee exports were valued at $314.2 million in 2017-2018, coffee production has generally experienced small fluctuations over the years. 

This has been in part because of competition from other markets and industrial development. Once the cornerstone of the Costa Rican economy is being sold to real estate and tourism entities, small coffee farms are being sold to real estate and tourism entities. Still, Costa Rican coffee remains a multimillion-dollar industry.  

Coffee Growing Regions in Costa Rica

Here is a look at the eight coffee-growing regions of Costa Rica.

Central Valley Region

This area includes the capital San Jose and has a temperate climate with temperatures ranging from 59 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With a clearly defined wet and dry season, the region produces balanced coffees with hints of chocolate, honey, and fruit. 

Tres Rios Region

The “Three-Rivers” region, just east of Central Valley, is known as the “Bordeaux” of Costa Rica. It produces high but fine, acidic coffee with a delicious aroma and full body.

Brunca Region

So named after the Brunca or Boruca, indigenous people, Brunca is located in southwestern Costa Rica along the Pacific Coast. At a relatively low elevation, Brunca has a tropical climate that produces coffee with citrus flavors. 

West Valley Region

This is the western part of Central Valley and the second-largest coffee-producing area in Costa Rica. It produces coffee with orange, peach, vanilla, and honey flavors.

Tarrrazu Region

Tarrazu is located in the uplands of center-west Costa Rica. It is the largest coffee-producing area in the country, producing coffees with hints of vanilla, chocolate, orange, and fruit — with good body and aroma. 

Orosi Region

Orosi is a lowland area in central Costa Rica. It has a humid climate and produces smooth, balanced coffees. 

Turrialba Region

Turrialba is a district in center-east Costa Rica. Its crops benefit from the soils produced by the nearby active Turrialba volcano — the result is a soft, light, mildly acidic coffee.

Guanacaste Region

Guanacaste is located on Costa Rica’s northwestern Pacific coast. It is a mountainous but relatively dry region that produces smooth, light coffees. 

Costa Rican coffee growing season details:

RegionAltitudeHarvest SeasonCup
WEST VALLEY1200-1650 MeterNov.- Marchhigh fine acidity, very, good body, very good aroma
CENTRAL VALLEY1200-1600 MeterNov.- Marchhigh fine acidity, good body, good aroma
TARRAZU1200-1700 MeterDec.- Marchhigh fine acidity, very good body, very good aroma 
TRES RIOS1200-1650 MeterDec.- Marchhigh fine acidity, very good body, very good aroma
OROSI900-1200 MeterSep.- Februarygood acidity, good body, good aroma
BRUNCA800-1200 MeterAugust – Januarynormal acidity, normal body, normal aroma
TURRIALBA600-900 MeterJuly – Decembernormal acidity, little body, good aroma

Coffee Bean Types

Costa Rican coffee bean types include the following:

  • Bourbon – a sweet, complex, and delicate bean, produces a solid, lush coffee cup.
  • Catuai – a bean that comes from red and yellow cherries. Has a chocolate-like, spicy, nutty, caramel flavor. 
  • Caturra – a descendant of Bourbon, but less sweet. Has a low, at times, medium body.
  • Villa Sarchi – A Bourbon variant that was first grown in Sarchi, Costa Rica. Fruity, sweet, and acidic. 
  • Villa Lobos – A flowery, delicate-tasting bean with hints of fruit and citrus. 
  • SL-28 – Developed by Scott Laboratories (SL) in the 1930s, the bean has a sweet, citrus flavor. 
  • Gesha – An Ethiopian coffee reminiscent of black tea, with notes of honey and flowers. 

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Costa Rican coffee has a rich history and an expansive variety of cultivars with distinct growing regions. It is for these reasons that Costa Rican coffee remains unique among coffees worldwide. Indeed, coffee production can and does thrive in Costa Rica’s volcanic, high-altitude, temperate, and fertile soils. 

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