Origin Trip – Costa Rica
The Central American Republic of Costa Rica is a remarkable country; pristine Caribbean beaches, lush verdant volcanoes and diverse and unique wildlife are among the highlights. During my trip I saw none of these. I did however get to partake in one of the country’s other big drawcards, coffee production. This might sound a bit anti-climactic, especially when you factor in the two days of travel time to get to Central America from Australia but hear me out.
Costa Rica is a pioneering country in the coffee world, particularly in the area of honey processing (which it is credited with inventing). My job for seven days was to build relationships, source coffee and participate in the annual Costa Rica Cup of Excellence competition.
For the uninitiated, the Cup of Excellence competition (CoE) is a non-profit organisation that assists with the development of specialty coffee in developing countries. There are currently twelve countries that participate in CoE with two more beginning in 2020. Each country runs their own competition where farmers submit their coffee to be scored by an international panel of judges (of which I am a part).
The coffee is tasted (cupped) blind and the scores are averaged out. The top scoring coffees go to an exclusive online auction where they can fetch extremely high prices (which gets paid directly to the farmer). In 2018 the top scoring coffee from Costa Rica sold for in excess of US$300/lb, setting the record for the most expensive CoE coffee ever sold! Needless to say, I was very excited to judge these coffees.
My first few days in San José were spent visiting producers and cupping potential micro lots to purchase. I was lucky enough to be taken out to Naranjo in the West Valley region where I visited a number of farms and wet mills including Vista Al Valle. A few years ago we purchased a winning Cup of Excellence lot from Vista Al Valle producers Oldemar and Marlene and subsequently visited them the following year; it was a unique pleasure to see a bag of Dimattina coffee taking pride of place on their mantlepiece.
My final task before delving into the CoE cupping was to select a micro lot for our single origin offering. I was hosted by exporting company STC (Sustainable Trading Company) in San José where we cupped a range of potential coffees. There were some great coffees on the table, notably from well-known producer Las Lajas, but in the end, I opted for a black honey processed micro lot from Asoproaaa, an up-and-coming micro mill that focuses on quality above all else. With the buying part of my trip concluded, I was now ready to get stuck into the intensive tasting for the CoE.
It may sound glamourous but tasting coffee can be very hard work. The CoE competition consists of four days of tasting. Each round we blind sample (we’re not told what the coffees are) around ten different coffees and score them based on various qualities such as sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel etc. After each round there is a general discussion amongst the judges and we’re given a rough idea of how each coffee placed in that round.
We do this several times each day until the top ten coffees are ranked, we then conduct a final round in which the winning coffee is determined. Throughout the competition there were some truly amazing coffees, some polarised the jury, others were smash hits across the board.
Unsurprisingly six of the top ten were the coveted Gesha variety (30% of the coffees we cupped were Gesha’s). My personal favourite of the competition was a natural processed Gesha from producer Teneria Pirro Antonio Gomez which came 25th (a lot of the jury disagreed with me on this one).
A controversial entry was an anaerobic fermentation blend of Villa Sarchi and Caturra varieties which may or may not have had cinnamon added to the fermentation tank (technically not allowed but impossible to prove). I was in the ‘cinnamon added’ camp and scored it harshly, but a good portion of the jury sung its praises; ultimately it placed 8th. If you’re lucky enough to attend a cupping with this coffee I encourage you to taste it and form your own opinion on this divisive coffee.
With the competition concluded it was time to celebrate another successful year of Costa Rican coffee production. The awards ceremony recognised the hard work of all the producers involved and the volunteers that made everything possible. Dinner, drinks and dancing (attempted dancing on my part) ensued and the night came to close along with my time in this wonderful and colourful country.
My trip to Costa Rica was a whirlwind. I got to see some amazing sights and taste some amazing coffees but, as with all my previous trips to coffee producing countries, it’s the people that make it so special. I think the best way to sum up the people of Costa Rica is in their trademark greeting/farewell/high-five saying: Pura Vita! (Pure Life)