Costa Rica Coffee, History
1720 is the probable date that coffee was introduced to the Americas, when the first seeds of the Arabican variety reached the island of Martinique, Antilles. They were later sown in the Costa Rica Province at the end of the 18th century. At that time our country was a small farming economy. Then in 1808, under Governor Tomás de Acosta, the cultivation of coffee began to take root in our soil, which has penetrated deep into the Costa Rican culture.
Costa Rica was the first Central American country to establish this flourishing industry. The first coffee plantation was a hundred meters north of the Metropolitan Cathedral, at the junction of Central Avenue and Main Street in what is now downtown San Jose. Several factors helped to establish the ‘Golden Grain’: extremely fertile volcanic soil; both a rainy and a dry season; and consistently favorable temperatures throughout the year.
After Costa Rican Independence, in 1821, the municipal governments were the first to encourage coffee cultivation with generous plant delivery policies and land grants. The Heads of State, Juan Mora Fernández and Don Braulio Carrillo, supported this activity and envisioned a great benefit to the Costa Rican economy which would allow for the economic and social development of the country.
The export of the coffee
Some decades passed between the introduction of coffee and its consolidation as an export product. The Costa Rican authorities took a series of measures to boost the coffee industry.
The export of coffee was developed in 1832 when George Stiepel, who traded with England, made his first sale through Chile. Coffee trade with Europe was consolidated in the 1840s after Englishman William Lacheur arrived on the ship ‘The Monarc’ to Caldera and visited San José to negotiate the purchase of the harvest of Don Santiago Fernández Hidalgo, one of the main coffee farmers.
The flourishing coffee business led to the rapid establishment of commercial companies that exported coffee to Europe and at the same time imported manufactured goods from the old continent. Most of the members of these consortiums were young people with an entrepreneurial spirit who, although they did not have much capital, were willing to give more stability to the companies with their farms, which became part of their fund. A perfect example was the association of Juan Rafael Mora and Vicente Aguilar.
The construction of the road to Puntarenas in 1846 revolutionized the coffee trade by allowing the replacement of mules with carts. Coffee was Costa Rica’s only export product until 1890, and the economy relied on it. Soon new names were added to the coffee lineage, among which there were foreigners: Hipolite Tournon, Emilio Challe, the Lindo brothers, Jorge Seevers, Max Koberg, the Rohrmoser brothers, von Schroter family, Castro brothers, Wilhelm Peters, etc. Nor should we forget the Creole coffee growers: Florentino Castro, Los Montealegre, Ortuño, Bonilla and González Flores.
Costa Rican coffee was exported with reputable brands that created their own product according to their taste. The coffee beans were of such quality that they did not need much promoting to succeed in the markets.
At the beginning each producer dried the coffee in his yard, peeled it manually with ‘pylons’ and used it for family consumption. At the end of the 1830s the industry took a radical turn when Don Buenaventura Espinach Gaul, a Catalan with mining experience, built a paved patio and began the first wet method south of Cartago, on the ‘El Molino' farm. One of the main innovations of the wet method was the fermentation of the fruit during its processing, since it improved the flavor of the coffee.
In the first decades of the 20th century there were many inventions introduced to reduce the time of coffee processing and to increase the quality. As not all producers had the economic capacity to invest in the installation of wet mills, cooperatives were formed that could receive the harvest of many small producers.
With the colonization of the southern, north and northwest regions of the Central Tectonic Depression, the trading houses established coffee receivers and processing plants on the colonization fronts, which, although in the first decades of the 20th century, were pioneers in those regions, in time they found competitors in other companies or in the same producers organized in cooperatives.
Types of Coffee trees
The coffee plantations established in the mid-nineteenth century were basically of the Typica or Creole variety of the Arabica species. This type was characterized by its high number of berries. However, shade-grown coffee has also been grown from the nineteenth century until now. At first, Typica plants continued to be used. Since the bushes were tall and leafy, they needed an adequate distance between them, which in most cases was three rods in a square; this meant that the density per productive unit was relatively low.
The producers carried out a series of activities aimed at achieving greater productivity. Since the mid-twentieth century, the Costa Rican coffee industry has undergone a new production modification derived from the diffusion of high-yield agricultural techniques within the framework of the "Green Revolution". Among its results, the change in the variety of cultivated coffee stands out; low-bearing hybrids, Caturra and Catuaí varieties were adopted.
Although the typical plant was characterized by the excellent quality of the fruit and a uniform maturation, the low density required replacing it with a coffee tree of greater production. The production technology went from an extensive to an intensive form, which generated higher productivity per cultivated unit. The genetic improvement was completed with the use of fertilizers and supplements to combat pests and diseases and to bring the nutrition of the plant to a healthy level.
Costa Rica’s 2017-18 coffee harvest was 2,103,656 bushels of fruit, each one corresponding to 46 kilos of beans, according to the latest estimate from the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (Icafé).