Clear Lake Coffee Roasters Presents: Explorer Series, History Edition - Costa Rican Coffee: A Look Back at Its Rich History- January 26th, 2021

While the history of Costa rican coffee  is the subject of some debate, it is generally estimated that coffee came to Costa Rica as early as 1779. Within 50 years, Costa Rican coffee beans were generating more revenue than any other crop, and by the 1830s, the country was growing more coffee than the ships heading south could take. 

Back then, virtually no infrastructure existed for transporting even a small amount of green coffee to the east coast of Costa Rica. But by 1850, almost all green Costa Rican coffee was being shipped to London through an exclusive arrangement with a single shipping company. This arrangement brought back advanced technologies of the time, which is one of the reasons why Costa Rica was an early adopter of advances in coffee production.

Costa Rican Coffee: Challenges of the Times

As the commercialization of coffee growing began to take hold in Costa Rica, producers struggled to find markets. For a time, most Costa Rican green coffee beans were being exported to Chile, where it would be re-exported to Europe as a Chilean product, “Café Chileno de Valparaíso,” named after the port town from which it shipped. 

It might be difficult for us to understand this nearly 200 years later, but imagine you lived in Costa Rica in the early 19th century and you decided to grow coffee. Once you have coffee, what will you do with it? Bring it to the nearest port and sell it. Sell it to who? Someone with a ship. Where will they take it? You don’t know. You sold your coffee, that’s what you know. If there are better prices to be had by shipping the coffee elsewhere, how would you know this? You wouldn’t. 

As a grower and seller of Costa Rican coffee in the 1830s, you would have no idea what your coffee was actually worth to the end user and thus no way to reverse engineer the value of your coffee on the dock. And if there are only one or two buyers on the dock, it doesn’t matter anyway. Reality is defined by your options — in this case, the empty ships waiting in the harbor at Puntarenas inside the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific coast. 

It may have been worthwhile to bring Costa Rican coffee beans 9,000 nautical miles from Valparaíso, Chile, to London, but sailing to Costa Rica added an additional 2,500 miles and 22 days to the trip. It appears that the added expense was greater than simply purchasing the coffee in Chile, which arrived on ships that worked the west coast ports of the Americas.  

 Costa Rican Coffee Beans

The Distribution of Costa Rican Coffee Beans

Apparently, the distribution woes of Costa Rican coffee producers were known in the region, as far as Mexicali, where news met the ears of an up-and-coming shipping magnate named William Le Lacheur in 1841. Le Lacheur was owner and captain of the three-mast barque ship, Monarch, which had just been launched in February of that year. With this new and large ship, he sailed to Texas, Brazil, around Cape Horn, Chile, and Mexico, where he learned about Costa Rican coffee growers hoping to trade directly with Europe. On Christmas day, 1841, he sailed into port at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, and thus began a long and mutually beneficial relationship. On one voyage to London in late 1843, the Monarch carried more than half a million pounds of Costa Rican coffee beans.  

Wisely, the Costa Rican government set aside some of the profit from coffee sales to purchase technology, which Le Lacheur brought back on his return voyages. In the cargo hold there sewing machines sitting next to the latest farm and coffee milling machinery. Although Le Lacheur & Co. had shipping business in other places, a virtual monopoly on shipping Costa Rican green coffee beans built the company. In 1846, Le Lacheur built a home in San Jose and in 1850 he launched another three-mast ship, the Costa Rica, which was designed specifically for transporting coffee.  

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In 1861 — four years after William retired from the sea and his son, John, had taken over operations in Costa Rica — Le Lacheur & Co. launched a ship more than twice the size of the Monarch named the Costa Rica Packet. The ship was the largest to ever be used in the coffee trade and could sail from Costa Rica to London without making port anywhere else. 

Most Costa Rican coffee would be shipped to London for 100 years after William Le Lacheur first sailed into the Gulf of Nicoya, until World War II, when shipping to Europe was disrupted and the coffee had to find another destination. As celebrated as Le Lacheur is in Costa Rica (ships of Le Lacheur & Co. have, at times, appeared on Costa Rican money), it was the determination of Costa Rican coffee producers that brought Le Lacheur to their port, the idea that there was a better way and they wouldn’t settle for being “coffee from Chile.” This attitude also led to Costa Rica remaining at the cutting edge of coffee processing technology and agronomic practices. For this reason, Costa Rican coffee was celebrated as special even before special was a coffee word. 

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FAQ: Everything You Need to Know About Costa Rican Coffee 

There’s a lot one might want to know about Costa Rican coffee — how it tastes, where it comes from, how it’s processed, and more. Here’s the breakdown: 

How does Costa Rican coffee taste? 

Costa Rican coffee can exhibit a wide range of flavor characteristics but is often sweet and savory, like dark chocolate or fudge, with citrus and berry notes.    

Where do Costa Rican coffee beans grow? 

There are many regions throughout Costa Rica where coffee grows. They include:

  • Central Valley - Surrounded by San Jose, Heredia and Alajuela.  
  • Tres Ríos - Just a few kilometers east of the capital, the lush soil of Tres Rios is enriched by the nearby Irazu Volcano. 
  • Turrialba – Part of the central highlands the flavors of this region are heavily influenced by the active Turriabla volcano. 
  • Brunca - A humid, tropical climate in southern Costa Rica. 
  • Guanacaste – The highland region in northern Costa Rica. 
  • Tarrazú - The most famous region of Costa Rica in the central highlands.  
  • Orosi - The humid climate paired with lush greenery in the central highlands. 
  • West valley – West of Central Valley this region enjoys a pleasant climate year round with distinct wet and dry seasons.  

At what elevation does Costa Rican coffee grow? 

In the central and northern highlands where most specialty coffee is found, coffee grows from 1200-1700 meters. 

Who grows 

Costa Rican coffee? 

Ninety percent of Costa Rican coffee is grown by 50,000 farmers on less than five hectares.   

How is Costa Rican coffee processed? 

Although nearly all Costa Rican coffee is wet milled the country produces a wide variety of honey processed coffee. Coffee is dried using both patios and mechanical dryers. Most Costa Rican coffee is produced using the traditional wet method which includes depulping, fermentation, washing, grading, drying, rest, milling, and sorting. In black honey processing, as much mucilage as possible is left on the bean during shaded drying. With Yellow honey processing, approximately half of the mucilage remains during partially shaded drying. With white and red honey processing, over 80% of the mucilage remains, but white honey is dried under direct sunlight while red honey is dried under shade conditions.   

What types of coffee plants are found in Costa Rica? 

Costa Rica grows Typica, Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchi, Bourbon, and Gesha coffee plants. 

How is Costa Rican coffee graded? 

Specialty coffee is Strictly High Grown (SHG) meaning above 1,200 meters.

Whilst you're here are 6 reasons for making Clear Lake Coffee Roasters - CLCR - your go-to coffee roaster:

☕️ We are a local family-run business located in the heart of Clear Lake, Iowa.

☕️ We go to great lengths to find only the finest and ethically sourced coffee around, from the top 2% of coffee beans in the world.

☕️ We only source 100% certified Arabica coffee beans, carefully hand-selecting each coffee based on specific quality and taste attributes.

☕️ Our roasting process has been refined over the years and each roast profile is individually designed to complement the nuances of the coffee we source, from Cup of Excellence (COE) award-winning producers.

☕️ By roasting in smaller batches, we can ensure our coffee is ALWAYS fresh, in fact, we roast your coffee only after you place an order - the same day your order ships out.

☕️ At CLCR, we are dedicated to a single mission: the unyielding pursuit of coffee perfection in every cup.

We would give you more reasons, but rather than reading it's better if you visit our website, purchase a bag or two, and experience a unique caffeinated or half-caff journey for yourself 😊!
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