Costa Ri-ca-ca


I’ve just returned from visiting producers and cooperatives in Costa Rica with our import partner DR Wakefield Coffee. Those of you that have been hanging around Crankhouse a while will possibly remember that I visited this country back in 2018 and was blown away by the beauty of the farms and mills visited back then. That meant that this time around I had expectations for the trip, and we all know that invariably reality doesn’t quite match expectation. Wrong ! This was a fabulous trip showing the diversity of coffee farming and processing within this small Central American country.

My ‘guides’ for the trip were Jamie Treby and Priscilla Daniel, both of whom I’ve known for some time. Between them they’d have over 35 years experience in the industry, with friendly and entertaining personalities, and a pleasure to be around. Our fourth musketeer was Nolwenn from a French coffee roaster and bean-to-bar chocolate company Le Cafe Qui Fume. During the front end of the trip we were shown around by Nanci from Sustainable Trading company (STC) who are the direct connection between export and import for many of the producers and mills we visited.

Costa Rica sits in the lower third of Central America with Nicaragua to the north and Panama the south and has both Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, mostly divided by mountains running through its spine known as the Cordillera Volcánica. A quick google search on its geography shows this “Costa Rica geographical features include over 200 active and extinct volcanoes, steep mountain slopes, endless tropical beaches with sands ranging in colours from sparkling white and pale rose to black. There are acres of primary and secondary rainforests, dry forests, mangroves and cloud forests, swamps, wetlands, raging rivers, lakes and thunderous waterfalls”. I can’t comment on the beaches, swamps or thunderous waterfalls but what I did witness was the diversity of it’s coffee growing regions and cup profiles.

Our trip covered the three main growing regions, Leon Cortes, Tarrazu and Dota as well as a diversion a little further south to San Isidro de El General. I can't remember who said this but it stuck in my mind "Dota makes the money, Tarrazu invests the money, Leon Cortez spends the money". Seemed to fit the theme of the nice wall art we found quite nicely.

Our first visit was to see Cordillera De Fuego (Mountain of Fire) in the Alejuela region. We’ve had this coffee on our offer list for the last three years and always included it as the last big-hitter in the Twelve Days of Crankhouse advent box. The mill (beneficio) is owned by two families and headed by their patrons Don Luis Campos (R in pic below) and Don Jose Fransisco de Jesus Fernandez Arias (Coco for short) with over 100 years of family history in coffee production between them. Their ‘signature’ coffee is the Anaerobic Natural that we buy, but of course that’s not all they do. They have another more intense fermentation they call ‘Thermic’ as well as washed, naturals and honeys that go to different market-places. An early lesson learned which re-enforced knowledge from previous trips is that every coffee has a home: the high quality, high scoring lots, the ‘good’ standard coffees and the not so good stuff. At its core, coffee production is agriculture and everything that gets harvested has a market. 10% of their production goes to the speciality market, the remainder is washed and goes to the commercial market.

Don Luis is the fermentation expert, having started experimenting back in 2006 with Anaerobics and then Carbonic Maceration in 2012. Measuring CO2, brix, pressure, pH, and temperature and then they built their own ‘fermentation machine’ (which we were not allowed to see). As well as production from their own farm, they buy cherry from 200 producers. For their signature anaerobic and thermic coffees they buy Caturra-Catuai from 6 high altitude (over 1600m) high quality farms in the Tarrazu region . They are processed as separate lots, but the really clever thing is that they use a mix of mucilage from all 6 farms to add to each fermentation for each lot. This means that micro-organisms on the skin and in the mucilage across the 6 farms creates a homogenised fermentation pot of goodness.

Our first cupping of the trip was a table of the 6 different Anaerobic lots. Having only recently finished our Anaerobic Natural that went in the advent box I had a pretty decent recollection of the taste profile and BOOM, there it was. I described one of the coffees on the table as the ‘signature’ CdF Anaerobic profile, but that’s when it got interesting. The other 5 lots were different, some with more balance of sweetness with the intense acidity of the process, some with even higher intensity of acidity. There was an underlying similarity, but they were all different, which goes to show that it’s not ‘just’ process flavour we’re tasting. If it was they’d all be the same and we wouldn’t be able to tell one lot from another.

A little tour of the mill and their own farm then the second table was their washed coffees and the ‘Thermics’. The latter were so incredibly boozy and intense. Too much for me, but a couple of people liked them. Another affirmation that we’re all different and like different things. During the tour Coco offered us a smell of a liquid agent used to add to water to spray over the drying cherry skin (removed during the pulping stage) to assist in breaking it down. A mix of microbes smelling like something you should definitely not ingest (although Jamie looked a little thirsty).

I’d taken a bag of our Anaerobic (stored in the freezer) with me and when I presented it to Luis, a huge smile appeared on his face. He passed it around his family and to Coco and his family (yes they were all there to greet and host us on Sunday and normally their family day). They loved the packaging and were incredibly thankful of the gift. For me, it was only a small effort to take a bag with me to give to them, but it was clear to see how much this meant to them all. Very humbling and quite a special way to start the trip.

A focus of many of the discussions during this first visit was how the climate had been changing and its effects on production. The main message was that the rains were coming earlier and earlier and causing the trees to flower which kickstarts the fruit development, but this has happened whilst the developing fruit is still on the tree from the current harvest. The result is that the trees divert energy from the fruit to the flower and quality is reduced, as well as the fruit on the trees absorbing water and falling off or going mouldy. In addition, we were shown trees with every stage of development, flowers, buds, new leaves, green and ripe cherries. Climate change has got the trees very confused, negatively effecting yield, quality and making picking more difficult. It was a theme that continued throughout our visits for the rest of the week.

Our 2nd visit was to La Chumeca, one of my favourite stops on my trip back in 2018. I'd felt a connection with them, their philosophy and was struck by the beauty of the place back then, and I was keen to see what changes had been made for the better or worse. We were greeted at the front of the new QC and cupping lab by the 3 amigos.. Pacho, Don Martin, and Emilio (L-R below).

They own four farms and process everything as naturals and are fully focused on a small but speciality grade output, no commercial coffee here. First things first, whilst Pacho told us about the harvest, Emilio brewed up some of their '777' anaerobic natural in both Chemex and a ceramic pot called a Bandolo (for which he is the reigning Costa Rican champion)! Side by side brewing of the same coffee is always interesting and for me there was a clear winner. The magical Bandola pot made the coffee taste sweeter and more balanced.

We've had the '777' Anaerobic Natural for the last few years and at the time of typing still have a little left of this stunning coffee. We were all eager to learn about this signature process and where the name came from. Apparantely it was named after a Mexican film starring Mario Moreno Cantineflas called 'El Patrullero 777' that says a lot and yet nothing at the same time. Very random, but nice to know it's nothing to do with something tangible or measurable as is the industry norm. They have two main processes which differ by the order and amount of the various fermentations:

For '777', the first phase is oxidation in open orange bags, then into sealed stainless steel containers for the anaerobic part.

For Capul Inero there are three distinct phases, anaerobic, oxidation then the final anaerobic phase.

The steel tanks were made for them in Taiwan and they spent a whole year deciding where to put them to best suit the controlled fermentation conditions. High and open to the winds but covered by numerous shade trees with incredibly stable temperatures during the season.

Spread across the four farms at different altitudes are a number of varieties including the traditional Caturra-Catuai, Montana H17 (a cross between Catuai and Ethiopian landrace e521), Costa Rica 95, and Geisha. They also plant a variety of fruit trees across the various altitudes to attract a mix of birds, which helps maintain pest predation. Currently they process a total of 25 different lots of farms, varieties and processes, all sun-dried in the most beautiful of settings.


I mentioned to Pacho that I had a strong feeling again of calm and tranquility that I experienced the last time I visited and he smiled. It's by design of course - there's an energy that seeps through your clothes and into your skin and it feels special. It's no wonder their coffees taste so good. We were treated to a mix of processes, farms and varieties on the cupping table amongst them some incredible coffees. Some of my tasting notes were: Banana, red apple, floral, yellow fruits, raspberry, super fruits, red plum, boozy, tropical, pineapple, complex, honeysuckle. Tasty eh !


I'd taken a bag of their 777 Catuai with me to give to them as a gift and it was another humbling moment seeing their eyes light up. Don Martin (papa) said something when he received the bag that re-enforced what this 'business' is all about - it's the connections you make: "In this moment with this beautiful gift I am very happy and I can forget the hardships of the season".


Our next stop couldn't have been more different in terms of focus and scale. CoopeTarrazu is Costa Rica's largest cooperative with 5000 members and an output of 250,000 bags per annum which is more than 15% of the countries total production. It's by far the biggest employer in the Tarrazu region. with two (huge) mills, petrol stations, supermarkets, a roastery, schools and so much more. Their reach and importance is clear to see. The cooperative members get access to all these resources, and there's a clear focus on social projects and community support. 

Deliveries can either be made by members directly, or if far away they can deliver to 'collection' stations and trucked in together. Once sorted for 'first' quality (approx 85%), and 'second' quality, they are combined together based on the region and altitude they originate from eg San Lorenzo, San Francisco etc, before processing in the huge array of  pulping machines, mechanical demucilaginators, pre-drying silos and guardiolas (our tour of the mill took almost 2hrs it was so vast).

At the collection points and the mill itself any Fair-Trade coffees and microlots are separated, such as a coffee we've had on our list Tirra Estate F1 Hybrid. I'd taken a bag of this coffee to give to the mill manager and it opened up the discussion about the name. There is no Tirra Estate ! They took us to see the 200 year old Tirra tree for which the small 3.5 hectare plot surrounding it gives us the name but it's a plot, not a farm, and definitely not an estate. It's part of the overall Coope Tarrazu farm lands. I'll be making a little change to the labelling and coffee description on the site to reflect this little revelation.


During our stay we were introduced to a couple of their most significant community projects. The first was the Casa de la Alegria (house of happiness) centres for the children of employees, cooperative members and pickers. Most of the pickers come from Panama and Nicaragua and bring their children across the border with them. They currently have 13 centres across the communities, run by volunteers. The second project is another that all producers face, large or small. ie. how to treat, dispose or re-use the waste products of the pulping process (both skin and juice). They use a centrifuge to spin the skin/pulp and separate the 'honey water'. The dried skin is then laid in piles, sprayed with a microbial mix of goodies,  and once decomposed to a certain degree is made available to any community members as compost. The honey water, rich in sugars, is mixed with a microbial mix and sprayed over a dedicated grass field (with a particular strain of grass developed for the purpose), which acts as a natural filter.


Next up was a small and specialised mill, Asopro AAA and another beautiful setting to be a coffee bean. They process honeys and naturals but have made the 'Black Honey' process their signature and buy cherry from a number of farms in the region. For the Black Honey, the cherries are initially fermented anaerobically in bags for 48hrs, then depulped in the wet-mill and then back in the bags for another 24hrs before going to the african raised beds for 8-10 days. Some of the coffees are combined and others kept as microlots based on variety and quality.


The coffees looked and smelled incredibe and we were treated to a very tasty table of mixed varieties and processes.


Aproa AAA opened up their own cafe in the local town a couple of years ago to try and showcase their products to the locals and tourists. They named it Black Honey and you've guessed it, it's the clear theme of the cafe. We were served by Javier who was also the roaster and QC manager and of course had just come 4th in the Costa Rica barista championships. Javier told me that he didn't use their own coffee for the champs but a special coffee that his friend Pacho from La Chumeca had selected for him. Turns out everyone knows everyone in Costa Rican coffee. The Black Honey gelato was a nice way to finish our visit.

Our next stop was down to Santa Maria de Dota and the Coope Dota cooperative offices and mill. In terms of scale this is a 'medium' coop (approx 1700 members), but they're definitely punching above their weight in terms of the technology they are employing and the sustainability initiatives they're undertaking. We were hosted by the General Manager Christian Chinchilla and his talented and knowledgable team (inc Monserrate and Walter), and first things first was a coffee in their fabulous cafe built around the mill (with one of the silo's a feature inside the cafe). They said that at the weekends the cafe has queues out of the door which is a source of immense pride for them.

Then Christian and Monsy presented their latest projects to us (in English of course), including a system using probes to remotely collect soil health and climate data from their member farmers, a 'honey water' fertiliser created by cleaning the waste product of the pulping process, and a clean air station that takes in polluted air and outputs clean air using the same technology ! This was all very WOW to be honest and they're very aware of the significance of these projects. They've got pending patents, but have already been approached by the heavies (starbucks etc) to share the technology. In addition to this they have a coffee education centre which offers a seed to cup program for 17/18 year old students from the local high schools, with some of the students working in their own coffee shop and recent graduates sought after by some of Costa Rica's best speciality shops.

We were taken to three of their member farms and at each we heard the same message, that the rains had come early and the crop was likely to be small this year. There's a sense of eternal hope which must be common amongst famers the world over.. hope that next year is going to be better. Our first visit was to Punto Rojo Puerto Rico, a Rainforest Alliance certified farm owned by 78 year old Luis Enrique Aguerro Elisson and his son Albacore. We followed as Don Luis lead us down the 45deg slopes at the higher elevations at over 1900m. It was a struggle keeping up with the spritely 78 year old in his wellies.

Don Luis showed us the oldest coffee tree on the farm which he remembers planting with his brother some 50 years ago. Like most places we visited on the trip, the mainstay varieties were Catuai and Caturra. There were still pickers in the fields at this elevation and plenty of ripe cherry to harvest. Tasting a red (rojo) and yellow (amaerllo) Catuai cherry side by side was very interesting. The yellow was sweeter with a distinct honey like finish, compared to the red with it's higher acidity and more red fruit flavours.

Our second Dota farm was another RFA farm Finca San Rafeal owned by Jorge Arturo Chacon, who claimed he was relatively new to coffee coming from a dairy background, with just 18 years as in coffee after having tried and failed with Apples and Grenadilla before that. He said that coffee is easier than Apples but the profits are less and more difficult to manage. His take on climate change was that the coffee plants have cycles of 2-3 years and next year promises to be a good one. He's been a Coope Dota member since he started.

Our final Coope Dota farm visit was to Mauricio's place for a quick tour, including showing us the pickers hut that he built and then a traditional farmers lunch al-fresco, a mix of chicken, beans, rice, tortilla and salad all wrapped in a Banana leaf. It reminded me a little of a Cornish Pastie - except way healthier and tastier. Maricio is focused on regenerative agriculture and wants to maintain and improve the health of the soil he inherited from his grandparents so he can pass it on to his children. Mauricio is part of the Coope MicroDota program (microlots) since his coffees are some of the best from any of their 1700 members).

Back to the Coope Dota offices for a cupping setup by their QC team and there were some very tasty treats on the table including a delicious single bag lot of a natural Gesha which I've obviously put my name against 😉. That was Dota done and another super interesting visit. Next stop was a 3 hr drive up and over the highest road in Costa Rica, known as Buena Vista (or road of death by the locals). 70K's up from the northern side, 50k's down to San Isidro de El General on the southern side and topping out at just under 3500m, mostly single lane with some overtaking zones. All very interesting in the dark and fog.

Our final full day was with Jonathan Duran of CoopAgri and what a day. We started with a visit to one of their lower elevation member farms (designated HB if under 1200m), which at only 640m was the lowest farm I'd ever visited. This is Brazil type elevations and no surprises that the main varieties on Paolo Morales's farm originated in Brazil. ie. Obata and Marsellesas. The leaves on the Obata trees were huge and in the intense heat of the sun droop down to protect themselves from scorching. Paolo is an agronomical engineer and took the farm over from his father and grandfather before. He has removed the traditional Caturra-Catuai trees since they were too susceptible to Roya (leaf rust). He now exclusively plants these more hardy low altitude varieties and his yield of 60 fenegas per hectare was the biggest we'd come across on our trip. Another unusual site was Paolo's seed nursery which had 15000 seeds in various stages of development.

Paolo mentioned the danger of the Broca beetle and that a single beetle can lay 900 eggs, which meant very careful picking and cleaning around the trees was essential to avoid an infestation and potential catastrophe. With the assistance of CoopeAgri they're investigating using mechanical harvesting which might help. Of course the conversation turned to climate change and Paolo mentioned that in his opinion the biggest threat to coffee production in Costa Rica right now is the currency exchange. The government has intentionally devalued the CR Colón by over 25% against the US$ since July 2022. Since coffee is traded in US$ that means exporters, mills and farmers are being paid 25% less for the same product.

With two more farm visits on the agenda, I was particularly looking forward to getting to CoopeAgri's own Cocao farm, which is certified Fair Trade along with their entire coffee production. I've been interested in understanding more about Cocoa production and processing since I visited a speciality Cocao shop in Bogota a couple of years ago, and had numerous chats with a friend and local Chocolatier (Chocolate Ollie). Some similarities with coffee but also many differences. There are different varieties with different qualities and yields and the fruit grows on trees, and once picked is split open to get access to the beans which need to be fermented to remove the sticky slimy fruit pulp (which is delicious btw and tasted of lychee and pineapple).

The fermentation is pretty basic compared to the recent advancements in coffee processing, with the sticky beans put into a series of open (ie aerobic fermentation) wooden boxes for a fixed time, then moved to another box, then another. At the end of the 12 hrs in the third tier, a sample is taken and a 'cut' test is performed on 100 beans. By checking the colour (a visual only inspection) of the cut beans, a decision is made if the beans are 'ready' (min 80 out of 100 are the right colour) to go to the drying beds OR they require a stage 4 final fermentation.

The drying area was like many coffee drying stations I've seen in the past with covered African raised beds, where the beans are moved every couple of hours until the moisture content reduces to 11% (all sounding very familiar). My fellow traveller Nolween was particularly excited by this visit since she's been buying Cocoa beans from this farm and turning them into delicious chocolate bars.

One final farm visit in the Perez Zeledon region with Jonathan and the CoopeAgri team and this time to one of their highest elevation members Jason and his story was a different one. He went to work in the US to earn enough money to return home and buy his own farm. It is situated at one of the higher elevations in the area up at 1600m and the track up to the farm was incredibly steep, so much so that our leather seated Land Rover 4WD struggled. Jason's old Toyota Landcruiser seemed to take it in it's stride. Once on top the views were stunning. 

At these higher elevations there's still cherry on the trees and they're healthy and ripe and look tasty. Jonathan mentioned that Jason was one of the Coop's top producers in terms of quality and his coffees were separated as a single-famer microlot. Looking at the quality of the trees and the cherry just picked I'd be keen to explore bringing Jason's coffees onto the Crankhouse lineup if at all possible. Since the slopes are so steep it's not practical to get the pickers to carry their full baskets back up the slopes. Instead they employ a neat system of pipes (almost like drain pipes) which they pour the cherry down into a small collection system on or near a road. Quite ingenious.

We headed back to the CoopeAgri mill and into a facility that they had purpose built for a new product line called NOAX (Natural Anti-Oxident), a joint development between Agri and Sanam technologies (AgriSanam). They've developed a clever system to extract the fruit pulp juice (which they call honey water), then create a concentrate from it to be used in drinks and cosmetics. We were given samples of their RTD (Ready to Drink) tins and sachets and they were delicious. The claim is that NOAX is packed full of the natural polyphenols and antioxidants present in the fruit pulp of the coffee cherry. They've has numerous chemical analyses performed and are currently undergoing a series of Randomised Controlled Trials to assess the measurable health benefits of this novel product.

This was definitely a clean and hygienic food production site than anything resembling the dusty world of coffee with Stainless Steel tanks and pipes carrying the pulp-juice in various stages of production. Jamie from DR Wakefield explained that they'd spent last year jumping through food safety registration hoops in to get to a point they're able to bring this product into the UK. As soon as these products become available in UK market I'll be sure to get some in and make available to our regular customers. We were given  a little tea spoon to sample to raw concentrate and within a few minutes we all agreed we were looking ten years younger 😉.

By the time we left the facility it was late (9pm) and trucks were still arriving at the wet mill for processing. At the height of the season the bays would be full and waiting to unload, with the mill at full capacity running through the night, but this was near the end and the volume and quality significantly reduced. The final pass of the pickers needs to completely strip off all the cherries off all the trees. This does mean that a lower percentage of ripe cherries is delivered, more unripes, more overripes and this will go into the low grade commercial coffees for the local market. Every coffee has a home.

For our last night in San Isidro de El General, Jonathan suggested taking us to his favourite little spot. A small casual place with a nice relaxed atmosphere and then BOOM. It felt and sounded like a truck had veered off the road and into the side of the building. Everything shook for a split second. Jonathan saw the look on our faces and smiled - some of us (incl me) had just experienced our first Earthquake !

Before heading back to San Jose to finish the trip we had one final cupping at the CoopeAgri offices. What an incredible place to go to work every day. It's the site of their old mill (they moved the majority of the functions to the new site some 20 years ago), and they still maintain the final hulling and bagging for export at this site.


On the table were their HB (low altitude) washed and natural coffees of various grades (brands), and SHB (higher altitude) as well as a couple of potential entrants for the FT (CoopeAgri is all Fair-trade) Golden Cup competition (akin to the CoE but for FT only). They’ve won this prestigious comp 3 times before and there was a natural Melinium variety (F1 cross Sudan-Rume and Ethiopian Landrace). It was a standout on the table for sure.

Discussing each coffee in detail with Jonathan, their head of QC Ruben (Spoon) and Eliecer (medium spoon) was a treat. Having a speciality roaster, importer, exporter and coop representing 3500 members discussing consumer preferences, roasting styles, variety profiles and selections was a great way to finish a great trip.

I had to take this picture as an homage to my cycling passion. As mentioned before, the main route back from San Isidro to San Jose went back over the ‘Bella Vista’ (aka road of death). Topping out at nearly 3400m and a 50k climb from San Isidro and 70k decent down the other side. Apparently it’s the ‘queen stage’ of the Tour de Costa Rica and they climb it from each side finishing in San Isidro. Ouch.

A fabulous trip with fabulous people. The diversity of landscapes, varieties, processing and scale in such a small country was something I'd not appreciated on my previous trip in 2018 (I was a pretty green green buyer then). A trip is made by the people you are with and this one was special. 


If you have any questions about how we source our coffees then please drop us a line.

Pura vida.





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