NARANJO – The rainy sky accentuates the dark greens and browns of the plants and the mud. Fog obstructs the view, but for a fleeting moment, it dissipates to reveal Naranjo, a cluster of dots around a double-towered white church in the Central Valley hundreds of meters below.
Then a new cloud curtain drops, limiting the vista again to the bushy, waist-high foliage that crowds this steep hillside, which produces the best coffee in Costa Rica.
The Cup of Excellence competition earlier this year awarded that honor to Daisy Rodríguez, who owns and operates a farm here that starts at 1,550 meters in elevation and climbs to 1,700.
Rodríguez’s winning lot sold for $1,510 per quintal (about 100 pounds) in an international auction. She sold about 23 quintals for a grand total of $34,455.
More importantly, the award launched her product into the international specialty coffee niche market. In 2005, Rodríguez, following a trend that has successfully transformed her small-production coffee contemporaries from bulk suppliers to independent producers, invested in a micro mill and began processing her own fruit.
But on the eve of the 2008-09 coffee harvest, roughly 74 percent of last year’s Cup of Excellence-winning crop sits in storage, unsold.
Apart from the auction, she is yet to tap into the above-market prices that the sought-after, high-quality specialty coffees command.
Her asking price of $300 per quintal, more than twice the price of 2008-09 Arabica coffee futures traded currently on the New York Board of Trade, is higher than most brokers are willing to pay.
While she has simultaneously been unable to span the gap between producer and consumer, a handful of the brokers, importers and retailers that fill this space are striving to help growers like Rodríguez.
Today, Monmouth Coffee Co., London’s premier specialty coffee roaster and retailer, sells Rodríguez’s coffee to connoisseurs for 18 British pounds (about $33) per kilo at its retail café.
Monmouth buys Rodríguez’s coffee from Mercanta, a London-based European specialty coffee importer called The Coffee Hunters. Flori Marin, the partner at Mercanta, found Rodríguez after she won the Cup of Excellence award. Mercanta purchased 75 quintals of her 2007-08 harvest, and they have already placed a futures order for the upcoming harvest.
“The growers are essential and treated as partners in our venture to bring the finest coffees in the world to the attention of discerning customers,” says Marin.
She compares the grower’s role in the specialty coffee industry with the vintner’s role in the wine industry.
“We source our coffee from individual farmers who each produce their own distinctive coffees. In this market … it is the individual farmer who grows (the coffee) that is key. Our goal is to make consumers more aware of this method of sourcing.”
Rodríguez’s coffee, she says, is the best seller at Monmouth.
François Castells, owner of Café Noble, a Tico coffee brokerage firm, acts as an intermediary between Mercanta and Rodríguez.
“He is the only one who asks a grower, ‘How much do you want to sell your coffee for?’” says Rodríguez.
“By working directly with the growers, I’m much closer to the reality of the land,” he says.
“When clients visit, they meet the producers.”
On a recent trip, a buyer from Monmouth met Rodríguez and visited her farm.
He says he understands the obstacles that growers face to produce specialty coffees.
Investment costs for a micro mill are substantial, and many growers have little or no experience in operating a mill. The price of land has also risen. It can be more profitable to sell a coffee farm to a real estate developer than to continue harvesting. And some older growers cannot find successors. The new generation is uninterested in the agrarian life of their parents. All three of Rodríguez’s children, for instance, are practicing doctors.
But more than ever, the specialty coffee industry offers a sustainable marketplace for producers committed to quality. “Consumers will always expect to pay a decent price for a good, quality coffee,” Marin says. “It operates as a luxury good. Commodity coffee exists in a different market, a market strongly affected by currency value, current prices and speculation.… The future of coffee is in the quality, not the quantity, of the beans produced.”
Just after winning the Cup of Excellence, which began in 1999 and now operates in eight countries, Rodríguez opened a retail store and café in Naranjo. There, on a damp, dark road framed by the misty hills responsible for her coffee’s success, coffeephiles can sample a cup. “Imagine what it would be like for me to be able to sell my coffee directly to supermarkets for $20 a kilo,” she says, quoting the price she sells her award-winning coffee for in her store.
She acknowledges, however, that the store is barely surviving. It’s a long way from London.
Coffee Confab To Focus on Sustainability
Hundreds of coffee professionals from 21 countries will meet at the InterContinental Hotel in San José next week for the 22nd annual Sintercafe Convention & Exhibition.
The conference serves as a bridge between coffee buyers and producers, said Sasha Morales, executive director of Sintercafé. “It is the most important coffee convention in Latin America.”
The event will also celebrate 200 years of coffee history in Costa Rica and focus on environmentally sustainable production and the impact of today’s global economic climate on the coffee industry.
From Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 16, industry leaders will give presentations on a range of subjects.
Tensie Whelan, executive director of Rainforest Alliance and the event’s keynote speaker, will discuss the sustainable coffee path from farm to cup.
The event costs $650 for foreigners and $300 for nationals. For more information, go to www.sintercafe. com.
• Costa Rica has 53,414 coffee producers.
• Eighty percent of them are small or medium sized.
• 118 coffee mills operate in Costa Rica.
• The international 2007-08 coffee harvest produced 118.14 million 60-kilo bags of coffee, of which Costa Rica produced 1.63 million, or 1.38 percent of the total.
Sources: The Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE); the International Coffee Organization.