With pen and paper in hand and an abundance of cameras in tow, a group of coffee connoisseurs, mostly from Europe, has been making its way through Costa Rica this week. Their goal is to examine every detail of the Costa Rican coffee making process, from the moment a bean picker grabs the fruit to the instant it’s dropped off at the mills to be weighed, peeled, washed, dried and placed in storage.
The group is part of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE), whose members are coffee roasters, buyers and distributors from throughout the world.
The trip was organized by the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE) to promote the consumption of Tico brands, particularly within the small specialty coffee sector.
Jorge Hidalgo, an administrator at the coffee cooperative Coopeatenas , said visits from groups such as SCAE could facilitate a possible direct contact with European buyers.
“This could help our ability to expand our market over there,” said Hidalgo, a lifelong coffee producer. “Any (dealings) that could take place between the real buyer and the producer could be beneficial.”
The visitors, coming from places such as the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine, England, Hungary, Sweden and South Korea are in search of quality coffee, but they are also interested in environmentally friendly coffee processes, fair-trade regulations and fair working conditions for the crop pickers.
“I have learned today that Costa Rica has a high level of social responsibility in the way they process their coffee,” said Andreas Merchant, a roaster based in Munich, Germany, whose company sells about 50 tons of coffee per year. “My customers want good coffee and they want to know that children are not working and picking the beans.
We want to know that the growers are getting fair wages too.”
Europe is the second largest coffee market for Costa Rica, after the United States, taking in almost 27 percent of Tico coffee exports.
Enabling direct dealings between small European roasters and small specialty coffee farmers might increase demand, helping to reverse the recent fall in prices, Hidalgo said.Recently, coffee prices have dropped from about $150 per quintal (46 kilograms) to $115 – little when compared to the estimated $3,000 that a quintal of Costa Rican coffee can fetch after it is processed, roasted and ground, according to ICAFE.
Coffee producers face a host of difficulties, Hidalgo said, citing of bad weather conditions, worker shortages and high-priced land as examples.
These factors, Hidalgo said, have been driving coffee producers away from the business for a long time.
Twenty years ago, there were about 150,000 coffee producers. Today, there are about 60,000 to 70,000.
Other cooperatives also see the potential in creating ties with small coffee roasting companies in Europe and the rest of the world.
“Europe was the birthplace of specialty coffee,” said José Angel Vásquez, general manager at COOPEPALMARES, which currently has about 1,250 member producers.
“However, with the financial crisis and the increment of the Euro, we have had a sort of contraction from that market.”
Vásquez said they hope to regain European market share in the near future by continuing to pursue small roasters and small distributors directly.
Today, COOPEPALMARES sells 80 percent of its coffee directly to companies worldwide.
Coffee producers in the Palmares canton are for the most part small producers with farms averaging three hectares.
“Coffee land distribution in this area is the best in the world, and it allowed growers for a long time to live comfortably, to support their families, and send their children to school,” Vásquez said. “However, coffee profitability currently has dropped a great deal, making it impossible for producers to live the same way anymore.”
As a result, Vásquez said, coffee producers are turning to small roasters and niche markets that request specialty coffee and fair-trade regulation such as SCAE.
Roy Grey, another European coffee roaster visiting this week, said that although his company currently buys some Costa Rican coffee, availability is an issue.
“We would like to buy more specialty coffee from here. Yet, to buy a container of the specialty coffee is too much for us,” said Grey, whose London-based company sells about 150 tons of specialty coffee per year.
“We need the availability where we can buy 10, 20, 50 bags.”
Having the opportunity to see in person the whole coffee-making process is something Grey said is significant for the potential buyer.
“The market is told that the poor coffee producers get no money at all and that they’re persecuted,” said Grey, whose company, Capital Coffee Roasters, employs about 10 people. “Being able to see first hand and go back and explain to my customers the actual numbers and percentages and how well the coffee cooperatives work is very important.”
Grey said he will share the information he learned this week with other companies and likely customers through his Web site, brochures and coffee exhibitions.
“We will tell a story that benefits Costa Rica and coffee growers in general,” Grey explained. “We will be happy to pay a better price for better coffee.”
Marcelo Castillo, a lifelong coffee grower, owns Finca Barilla, an eight-hectare coffee plantation located in Palmares where he employs three to four workers during every harvest, depending on the amount of crop work available.
He said the current economic crisis has slowed down the market and how much coffee he is able to sell through the cooperative.
“This year, the harvest has not gone well,” Castillo said. “Last year, the harvest blossomed very early. Usually we pick up about (about 1,250 kilograms) per manzana. This year we’re picking up about (750 kilograms).”
Consequently, Castillo has taken drastic measures to deal with the crisis. He sold part of his land to pay his workers and to finance his two sons’ college education.
Castillo, who for the most part grows specialty coffee beans, said the potential of a growing European market can only help the local growers, who see specialty coffee as a way to improve their profits.
“If they are willing to give us a good price for our specialty coffee, then I think it is a good thing they are visiting,” Castillo said.
“We are also at the mercy of the market. If the cooperative is able to sell our coffee, then we are in good standing. But if they can’t, then we’re in a tight spot.”