Though a multitude of things may come to mind, Costa Rican coffee can be best described in three words — quality, bright and delicious. Sure, these words could be used to describe a number of different coffee growing origins throughout the world, but Costa Rican coffee really lives up to these descriptors perfectly.
Besides, where else on the planet is the planting and harvesting of the lower quality Robusta coffee, made practically illegal? Let’s put Costa Rican coffee under the microscope and learn exactly why it is considered among the best in the world.
What Is Costa Rican Coffee
Costa Rican coffee refers to coffee that was grown in the lush, mountainous country of Costa Rica, in Central America. When one buys a bag of Costa Rican coffee, you might be getting one of two things.
You may be purchasing a bag that is a blend of coffees from one or more of Costa Rica’s 8 growing regions. You may also be buying coffee that came from one single producer, on one single lot. One of the ways Costa Rica has made itself stand out is this very reason — traceability.
Generally, the higher the quality of coffee you get, the more traceable that coffee will be. For example, a bag of pre-ground Costa Rican coffee from the supermarket might be a blend of different coffees from around the country.
This is compared to a freshly roasted bag of Costa Rican coffee purchased from a specialty coffee roaster, which will most likely be from a single growing region at the very least, but more likely from a single washing station (where coffee cherries are brought to be processed and have their fruits removed, etc.) or even a single coffee producer.
Benefits of Drinking a Costa Rican Coffee
Why all the praise for Costa Rican coffee? Is it really as good as everyone says? The short answer is yes. It absolutely can be. Let’s take a look at a few different factors that influence coffee and make it the wonder that it is.
Certain places are just ripe for growing beautiful, juicy coffee cherries. Costa Rica is one of those places. Terroir is a fancy French term often used in the world of fine wine and increasingly used in specialty coffee to describe the environmental factors that affect the way a crop grows. In this case, we’re talking about the coffee crop — Coffea Arabica, or Arabica coffee.
For coffee, we’re mainly looking at the soil, the climate, and the altitude at which the crop grows. So these are our three terroir checkboxes. But why these three? What does each element do?
Let’s start with the soil. Many a coffee plantation in Costa Rica sits at the foothills or on the slopes of volcanoes. Proximity to volcanoes means volcanic soil. Volcanic soil means the coffee will be provided with ample minerals and deep drainage. All good things for growing any crop, let alone some of the world’s best coffee.
Next, let’s talk about the climate. Coffee loves a mild climate of around 16-25 degrees celsius, with very little variation from day to day and day to night. Temperatures too high or too low, or with large variations between day time and night time temperatures can negatively affect the plant’s growth, and therefore affect the way the coffee will eventually taste in the cup. Many of Costa Rica’s coffee farms sit nicely at an altitude where the climate is within these ranges.
Last but certainly not least, we have altitude. You might have noticed while browsing some of the more expensive coffees — the heirloom coffees from Ethiopia, the Bourbons from Rwanda, or the Caturras from Costa Rica — that they were all grown at high altitudes of around 1800 meters above sea level.
But why does the altitude matter? Well, the higher you go up, two things happen. First, it gets cooler. As we learned in the previous checkbox, a mild climate is what we want. Second, there is less available oxygen at higher altitudes.
The lower level of oxygen is good when we’re talking coffee because it slows the growth of the coffee cherries. And the slower a coffee cherry develops, the more complex sugars it will contain. This translates to a sweeter coffee in the cup — and sweetness is always the goal!
From planting interesting and desirable varieties such as SL-28, typically found in Kenya, and the highly prized Gesha, to harvesting by hand and processing locally at a micro-mill. These are just a few of the many ways Costa Rican coffee producers have found to make themselves stand out in today’s competitive coffee market.
And the reason these things make a producer stand out is all down to final cup quality. The results of a prized coffee variety, picked at the perfect time when the cherry is at peak ripeness, then processing these cherries alone without mixing them up with other coffees — all of these efforts can produce superb results.
Many coffees coming from Costa Rica are also organic. With no chemicals used, the coffee uses only the nutrient-rich soil to grow, meaning organic beans produce tastier coffee.
One of the biggest things Costa Rican coffee may be known for is the honey processing method. We’ll get into this a little further in the article, but in short, honey processing is a method in which a certain percentage of the sticky sweet mucilage, the ‘honey,’ is left attached to the seed during drying.
This is unique because most coffee-producing countries would usually go with either washed coffee, where all of the fruit and mucilage is removed and washed from the seed, or naturally processed coffee, during which the cherry remains intact as the coffee dries, fruit and all.
The resulting coffee produced by the honey processing will often be described as the best of both worlds. The clean taste of a washed coffee, with the added sweetness and fruity punch of a natural coffee. Delicious!
How Is Costa Rican Coffee Grown
There are four main stages of growing coffee: growing, harvesting, processing and drying.
Most of the high-quality coffee coming from Costa Rica is grown at relatively high altitudes of between 1200-1700 meters above sea level. Depending on the region, one will find a number of coffee varieties growing, including well-known favourites Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, SL-28, and Gesha, along with local varieties like Villa Sarchi and Villa Lobos.
When the cherries are nearly bursting, perfectly ripe with juicy flavor, the harvesting begins! Coffee is harvested by hand in Costa Rica, which means that the population of many growing regions across the country during the harvesting season, between December and April, increases dramatically.
One of the things that really makes Costa Rican coffee stand out is the producers’ use of the honey processing method. That’s not to say that the honey processing method is all you’ll find here. More traditional methods such as washing and natural, as well as more experimental processes, can be found in Costa Rica, too.
Much of the coffee in Costa Rica is sun-dried on raised drying beds or on concrete or brick patios. Honey processed coffees need to be spread out and raked often in order to achieve even drying.
Short History of Costa Rican Coffee
Here’s a fun fact: Even though Costa Rica makes up a very small amount of the world’s total coffee production, less than 1%, it was actually the first Central American country to have a fully established coffee industry.
Coffee was planted here in the late 1700s and, by 1820, coffee had become one of the countries main exports and a big booster of the economy, not to mention being the lifeblood of many families growing and processing the coffee.
Since the beginnings of coffee in Costa Rica, many improvements have been made to aid the industry. From initiatives started by the Costa Rican national coffee association to the building of roads to better and more efficiently transport the coffee, the national output of coffee has increased greatly.
Costa Rica is split up into approximately 8 growing regions running through the center and in the more southern parts of the country. Each growing region produces it’s own unique coffee, with Tarrazú, and the West Valley, being the most famous thanks to their combined number of Cup of Excellence winning coffees they have produced over the years.
Pros and Cons of Costa Rican Coffee
- Much of the coffee coming from Costa Rica is incredibly delicious and is of very high quality.
- Many Costa Rican coffees have a bright, sparkling acidity that most coffee lovers consider highly desirable.
- Thanks to micro-mils, much of the high-quality coffee coming from Costa Rica is either from a single producer or a single very small area. This will mean a more uniform coffee with very specific tasting notes.
- Some of Costa Rica’s higher altitude coffees may not be the best choice for those with sensitive tummies — many of Costa Ricas most famous coffees are well known specifically for their bright, crisp acidity. For the best low acid coffee, try buying coffee from one of the lower altitude regions like Orosi or Brunca.
- Costa Rican coffee can be expensive. This, of course, depends entirely on the particular coffee in question.
Types of Costa Rican Coffee
In general, the higher a coffee is grown, the more dense the seed will be. Coffee grown at 1700masl will be denser and harder than a coffee grown at 1000masl. Costa Rican coffee is graded on this density, being given a rank of either ‘strictly hard bean,’ ‘good hard bean,’ or ‘medium-hard bean,’ abbreviated to SHB, GHB, and MHB, respectively.
Because of the flavour characteristics associated with high altitude coffees, the harder the beans, and the higher on the grading system they are, the more desirable the coffee.
Strictly Hard Bean (SHB)
Coffees falling under the SHB category are those that are grown at an elevation of over 1200 meters above sea level. These beans will be the densest of the three and will most likely contain the highest levels of sugars and refined acidity. With a little luck and a lot of skill on the roasters end, this will translate to a delicious coffee in the cup. 95% of the coffee coming from the Tarrazú region is SHB.
Good Hard Bean (GHB)
Good hard beans, or GHB, refers to coffees that are grown between 1000 and 1200 meters above sea level. Because the region sit’s at around this altitude, most coffees in the Central Valley are of GHB grade.
Medium Hard Bean (MHB)
Any coffee is grown in Costa Rica that falls below the 1000 meters mark is ranked as MHB or medium-hard bean. Most of the coffees grown in the Guanacaste, Orosi, and Turrialba regions are classified as MHB.
Processing Methods of Costa Rican Coffee
Costa Rica is well known for its development of the honey processing method. But honey processing isn’t all that Costa Rica has to offer. Let’s take a good look at the main three processing methods and what’s involved in each.
After the coffee cherries have been harvested and sorted, the flesh of the cherry is removed. Once this is done, some of the flesh and mucilage (the sticky, honey-like stuff) remain on the seed. To remove the rest of the fruit and the mucilage, the seeds are transferred into a water tank where they will be left for about a day to ferment slightly. This very light fermenting helps remove anything remaining and leaves the seeds completely clean, ready to be dried.
With no outside forces such as the fruit or the mucilage acting on the seeds, and with very little fermentation occurring, washed coffee tastes very clean. When drinking a washed coffee, we are tasting the seed and the roast only — no fruit and no mucilage.
If you’ve ever had a cup of coffee that tastes like wine, pineapple, or jackfruit, there’s a pretty high chance that that coffee was naturally processed. Why are these flavors so common to naturally processed coffees, regardless of their origin? The flavors just described are the impact of the fruit, the mucilage, and fermentation.
The picking and sorting of natural coffee happen in the same way as with washed coffee, but next, instead of removing the fruit, the coffee, cherries intact, is laid out on either raised drying beds or concrete patios and left to dry in the sun. The coffee is raked often to ensure uniform and even drying. The drying of natural coffees can take up to a month.
Honey processed coffees are like the gorgeous mid-way point between washed and natural coffees. The fruity punch of a natural coffee, without the boozy, winey flavors that often along with it (though some people love these flavors!)
Costa Rican producers were the pioneers of the honey processing method, which goes a little something like this: The coffee cherries are picked and sorted like normal. Next, the fruit is removed, leaving only the sticky honey-like mucilage coating the seeds. The amount of this ‘honey’ left on the seeds will determine what level of honey processing the coffee will be.
There are 4 levels of the honey processing method: white, yellow, red, and black. A white honey processed coffee will be the closest in flavor to a washed coffee, while black honey processed one will be closest to a natural.
On the low end, we have white honey processing, in which 80-90% of the mucilage is removed. Yellow honey processing has 50% removed, followed by red honey, which removes only 10-20%. Finally, we have black honey processing, in which the mucilage is left as intact as possible.
Methods to Brew Costa Rican Coffee
Costa Rican coffee really runs the gamut as far a flavor is concerned, offering coffees with notes of stone fruits and brown sugar, all the way through to caramel and granola. And one of the best things is, Costa Rican coffee will taste amazing almost any way you brew it!
Coffee from a percolator has a richer taste and aroma but can often taste a little muddy and over-extracted. A French press provides that same rich, full-bodied coffee, but without the negative qualities.
There are many excellent ways of using a French press, but the classic, standard, 4 minute brew using 1 part coffee to 15 parts water will do the trick just nicely. Details on this brew method are below!
The best way to experience all of the juicy stone fruit flavours of a coffee from Tarrazú is undoubtedly by brewing it as a pour-over. Whether it’s with a V60, an Origami, a Kalita Wave or the Fellow Stag, the pour-over brewing method can perfectly extract the delicate flavours locked within the coffee bean.
The classic cafe late is smooth and creamy and works excellently with a Costa Rican coffee proving the espresso backbone of the drink. But maybe the creamy, milky coffee thing isn’t for you — maybe you prefer the richness of an espresso? Either way, you can’t go wrong, inviting a Costa Rican coffee to the party!
Coffee Growing Regions of Costa Rica
While most diehard coffee lovers will likely have heard of Costa Rica’s most famous regions, Tarrazú and the West Valley, there are actually eight main coffee growing regions in Costa Rica. Each region is different from one another, providing vastly different coffee flavors and cup qualities. This is also true of the coffees within a single region — varying greatly from one micro-climate to the next.
Just like how coffee mugs have different features, shapes, and designs, coffee growing areas to have different shapes, altitudes, climates, soil composition, and plant variety — all of which can drastically alter what we, as the consumers, taste in our morning coffee.
Let’s take a look at each of Costa Rica’s growing regions and see what we might expect of the coffee coming from each.
Tarrazú producest the largest amount of coffee out of all eight regions, making up about 35% of the countries production. Tarrazú lies near the center of the country at an altitude of between 1200 and 1700 meters above sea level.
Almost all of the coffee coming out of Tarrazú is SHB grade, thanks to the high altitudes at which it is grown. With coffees coming from this area, we can expect a bright, well-defined acidity with stone fruit flavors.
The West Valley growing region is now famous for having a high number of cup of excellence winners — that is to say that some of the coffee coming out of the area is fantastic. Making up around 25% of production, the area sits at an elevation of between 1200 and 1700 masl and is comprised mostly of small producers with small lots of coffee.
The West Valley produces some of the best coffee in the country. Coffees are grown in the West Valley often have a lemon-like acidity, backed up by cocoa, vanilla, peach and honey-like flavors.
Just north-east of Tarrazú, we reach the Central Valley. The Central Valley region is the fourth largest producing region in the country, making up approximately 15% of the countries production. At an altitude of between 1000 and 1200 meters, the Central Valley enjoys a well defined dry season, which aids in the harvesting and drying of the coffee. The area produces a well-balanced coffee with notes of honey, chocolate, and fruit.
Sitting between 800 and 1200 masl, the Brunca region makes up around 20% of Costa Rican coffee production. While the majority of coffees coming from this area are graded as GHB (good hard bean), there is a small amount of high quality, SHB, specialty grade coffee being grown at the highest altitudes of Brunca. In the cup, we can expect a large variety of flavors ranging from sweet and complex to very mild.
The region of Tres Ríos was developed in 1820 as the Central Valley expanded into the surrounding provinces. Tres Ríos produces around 2% of total production, but, due to it’s close proximity to the city of San José, the land is quickly being sold to developers — rapidly reducing the amount of coffee being produced in the region. Tres Ríos produces some high-quality SHB coffees with refined acidity, vibrant flavors and are well-balanced and sweet in the cup.
The final 5% of total production is split between the remaining coffee producing areas of Costa Rica— Guanacaste, Turrialba, and Orosi. Coffees are grown in Guanacaste, the North’s most growing region of the country, are done so at lower elevations and warmer climates. Guanacaste coffee can be characterized by its low levels of acidity, bitter and sometimes salty notes.
Coffees are grown in the region of Turrialba at an altitude of up to 1400 meters above sea level. This high altitude aids the area in producing delicious coffee that has a mild acidity, a light body, and a delicate aroma. The area receives the most rainfall out of any coffee growing region in the country. This high rainfall will no doubt have an effect on the way the coffee grows and the final flavour of the coffee in the cup.
The growing region of Orosi lies smack bang in between Tarrazú and Turribala and is one of the oldest regions in the country. Thanks to the high altitudes, the coffee is grown — between 1000 and 1400masl, and the high-quality volcanic soil, the coffee coming out of Orosi, is sweet and bright with notes of cocoa.
How to Make a Costa Rican Coffee
Making a delicious cup of coffee using beans from Costa Rica is incredibly easy. When your ingredients are this good, how could you mess it up, right?
One of the best (and easiest!) ways of brewing delicious coffee is with the use of a French press. So let’s get to it! How to brew Costa Rican coffee using a French press.
For this recipe, we’re going to be brewing a big 600ml batch of coffee for two people (or one very sleepy one).
Note: If you plan on brewing Costa Rican coffee using a Keurig coffee maker with a removable water reservoir and want the coffee to taste its best, be sure that the reservoir is clean and free of limescale. Be sure to follow the instructions when using K-cups and to clean Keurig machines.
- 40g of Costa Rican coffee
- French Press
- Boiling water
- Scales (optional)
- Grinder (optional)
Step 1 — Preheat the French Press
First, we need to get the French press nice and hot. If we skip this step, the material of the French press may sap away too much heat from the brew. And we need that heat for our coffee! Half fill the French press with boiling water and place it in the French press.
Step 2 — Grind the coffee
While we’re waiting for the French press to heat up, let’s grind our coffee. Weigh out 40g of coffee (if you don’t have a scale, use around 8 tablespoons of coffee) and add it to your grinder. Grind at a course setting.
Step 3 — Add the coffee
Discard the pre-heat water. Place the French press on the scale, add the ground coffee, and press tare. Get the timer ready to go.
Step 4 — Brew
Press start on the timer as you pour 600g (600ml) of boiling water over the coffee. Remove the French press from the scales, give the coffee a quick stir and let it sit for 4 minutes.
Step 5 — Plunge
Once 4 minutes have passed, give the coffee another stir. Place the plunger in the French press and plunge it down to the bottom.
Step 6 — Serve
Pour your delicious Costa Rican coffee into your favorite mugs and enjoy!
Does More Spending Mean More Quality
Will spending more money buy you a better coffee? Well, yes and no.
If you have a local coffee roaster who chooses and roasts coffee that you adore, the chances are that their pricier coffees will have more unique, exciting, and delicious flavor profiles.
On the flip side, there are some very low-quality, not so delicious coffees sold by huge coffee chains with high price tags— but those high price tags are almost always thanks to the brand that is selling the coffee, not because the coffee is of a higher value.
Choosing a good coffee is pretty easy. Generally speaking, a bag of coffee that contains more information — information about what the coffee is, who, when, and where the coffee was grown, and about the conditions in which the coffee was produced, will give you a leg up in choosing a tasty coffee. Why do you knowing these things help? Because it takes a lot of work for a coffee to be that traceable.
Why go to all the effort for a poor quality coffee? Having said that, there are, of course, coffee companies that lie about where their coffee is from or embellish its greatness — but that’s a different subject entirely!
Do’s and Don’ts With a Costa Rican Coffee
- Do explore the different coffee regions of Costa Rica. It’s amazing to see the variety of different coffees available in one country.
- Do store your fresh bag of Costa Rican in the world’s best coffee canister. Coffee does eventually lose flavor and go stale — keeping coffee in a good container does wonders keeping it fresh.
- Do use a manual coffee grinding method. Pre-ground coffee is convenient but doesn’t taste or smell nearly as good as freshly ground coffee does.
- Do play with different brew recipes. Costa Rican coffee is known for its delicious acidity. Bring the acidity out by trying different brew methods.
- Don’t forget to keep your brewing equipment clean. Clean gear is essential to making a delicious cup of coffee.
- Don’t be afraid to try Costa Rican coffee if you have a sensitive stomach. The lower altitude areas of Costa Rica produce some very mid, low acidity coffees that are still delicious.
Where to Buy Costa Rican Coffee
Costa Rican coffee is pretty high on most coffee roasters’ wish list. And that’s good news for us as coffee lovers because it makes Costa Rican coffee relatively easy to find!
There are thousands of coffee roasters out there — both online and with physical stores. The list below is a nice starting point — a number of well-known roasters that often select some tasty Costa Rican coffees. Get out there and try different roasters — see what you like. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try roasting your own with some raw, unroasted Costa Rican coffee that can be found over at Sweet Maria’s!
If you plan on buying your Costa Rican coffee in large amounts, always check how long the coffee lasts.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters
Stumptown offers a direct trade Costa Rican grown in the Tarrazú region.
Muttley and Jacks
Muttley and Jacks’ coffee roasters out in Stockholm offer a delicious naturally processed Caturra from the Central Valley of Costa Rica.
The Volcanica Coffee Company
The Volcanica Coffee Company is currently offering a Costa Rican Peaberry coffee grown in the Tres Rios region.
La Colombe has a couple of Costa Rican offerings, including a light roasted black honey and naturally processed coffee from the Central Valley region.
FAQ About Costa Rican Coffees
Why is Costa Rican coffee so good?
Costa Rican coffee — the coffee so good you can even eat the coffee beans!
A coffee bean, as we know it, is actually the seed of a cherry-like fruit. When a tree that produces fruit, like a coffee tree, is planted in a country like Costa Rica, with its high altitudes, mild climate, and nutrient-rich volcanic soil — magic happens. Now combine these natural elements with educated producers who are excellent at what they do, harvesters who are motivated to pick only the ripe cherries, and a high level of traceability, and you end up with incredibly tasty coffee.
How much coffee does Costa Rica export?
Costa Rica is currently the world’s 14th largest coffee exporter, shipping out around 1,237,000 60kg sacks of coffee per year. This means that Costa Rica makes up approximately 1% of the world coffee market.
How is coffee grown in Costa Rica?
The coffee in Costa Rica is spread across eight growing regions. While the geography of each growing region is different, most of the coffee is grown in nutrient-rich, volcanic soil, at an altitude of between 1000 and 1700 meters above sea level.
What is Tarazzu coffee?
Tarrazú is possibly the most famous, and certainly the highest producing, of the eight coffee growing regions in Costa Rica. The coffees coming from the region are well known for their well-defined acidity and stone fruit flavors. Tarrazú produces mostly Caturra coffee over multiple small coffee farms, producing a total of around 537,000 60kg bags of coffee annually.
Exploring the different places around the globe through coffee is a wonderful and delicious thing to do. And there really isn’t any better origin to do it than Costa Rica. With eight growing regions, each with their own distinct landscape, terrior, and cup profile, there truly is a Costa Rican coffee for everyone. So pick yourself up a bag and enjoy!
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