The traditional cafe society in Costa Rica has reached a cultural crossroads. Older generations of coffee drinking traditionalists are crossing paths with a newer wave of coffee drinkers who are embracing modern technologies and brewing styles making the traditional robust cup of Costa Rican coffee a thing of the past.
Coffee is currently the second-largest export from Costa Rica, boasting a rich history from when the first coffee trees were planted in the early 1800s. In less than 50 years, coffee became the number one export.
Like the grape growing regions of Napa Valley, Costa Rica is made up of several different growing zones, each boasting beans that produce a rich, robust cup with differing flavor profiles. The different elevations and microclimates produce flavors that may range from a very distinct lemon-orange, citrus component, to deep dark chocolate with creamy vanilla undertones.
Despite government initiatives to incentivize Costa Rican citizens to cultivate coffee, it was never intended to be for Costa Rican consumption. While coffee is a wildly popular beverage, it is traditionally brewed utilizing the traditional chorreador method.
This method uses lower quality beans that are not of a high enough standard to qualify for export sale, and are brewed and filtered through a fine cloth and often heavily soaked in sugar. This is the ubiquitous coffee that is served around the nation in the sodas– most similar to a traditional, no-frills diner in the United States.
Throughout the different regions of Costa Rica, the sodas serve the chorreador in different styles; stronger in the Guanacaste region, sweeter, and hotter in the Cartago region. This coffee is similar to the standard percolated “drip” style favored by United States diners and gas stations. It is coffee meant to be consumed, but not savored.
The reason for this is simple economics. At approximately .75 cents (USD) a cup, it is inexpensive and easy to serve in bulk. It is often made well in advance. With the better quality beans commanding staggering prices abroad, there has been very little reason to use the better beans for this method of brewing.
Some of the single origin coffees from the most prized fincas – or coffee-growing farms- such as Finca Palmilera command upwards of $70 USD per pound, and are currently featured at only a select number of Starbucks cafes around the world.
A New Way of Thinking about Coffee
There has been a seismic change among the newer generation of Costa Rican coffee aficionados. The way of drinking coffee itself is being viewed with a newfound perspective. Younger generations no longer want to sit in the spartan sodas drinking chorreador. They want an experience, but they want something that is still wholly unique to Costa Rica. The idea of growing Costa Rican coffee for the Costa Rican Ticos– or locals, has been driving that new wave of thinking.
Costa Rican coffee culture has seen a significant rise over the last decade. Hip cafes, like the ones that are ubiquitous in hipster enclaves like Brooklyn, are steadily popping up in the cities and suburban neighborhoods. The patrons supporting these cafes don’t want their father’s chorreador.
Brewed cups of region-specific Costa Rican coffees command upward of $3.50, which is expensive by Costa Rican standards. Some cafes now offer over 30 different selections of single-origin Costa Rican coffee. But it goes well beyond the simple drip coffees. Expensive Italian espresso machines by La Marzocco are becoming ever-present as are finely frothed cups of cappuccinos (made with Costa Rican beans) featuring the smooth artistry that only a true barista can achieve.
Because the generations of coffee growing and exporting runs deep in many families, often the baristas and owners of these new cafes are often the next generations from families whose livelihoods revolved around the coffee industry. The baristas are uniquely proud of the Costa Rican heritage and focus on embracing Costa Rican coffees, especially those from the smallest, independent fincas.
Cafes have made arrangements with some of the estimated 3000 micro-producers for custom blends or single origin coffees specific to individual cafes, and the prices they pay are commensurate with prices that can be received exporting out of Costa Rica. The new generation of coffee drinkers doesn’t seem to mind paying the premium price.
Embracing the Latest Coffee Technology
It’s not just about supporting the Costa Rican coffee industry and bringing it to the locals. It’s about embracing the latest in coffee brewing technology. Chemex brewed coffee is popular in the United States for producing a pure cup of coffee that is said to be the best reflection of the coffee bean that is used. The coffee is brewed through a sophisticated glass pot fastened with a wooden collar and leather tie piece.
Other methods such as the La Marzocco espresso machines are favored by a Tico clientele that has become more knowledgeable – and demanding. In addition to the requests for more Costa Rican micro-producers and brewing styles, entrepreneurial baristas and coffee aficionados are taking it to the next level.
Uniquely Costa Rica
The Vandola is a uniquely Costa Rican coffee industry invention. On a coffee plant, a vandola is a heavy branch that is loaded with ripe coffee cherries. In the cafe world of Costa Rica, it is a brewing method that is a wholly unique interpretation of the Chemex system.
Adding a large pouring spout and handle so it is more suitable for professional use, it is also made entirely out of Costa Rican clay, and not glass. This infuses the finished product with a slightly earthier taste that adds another depth of flavor. A taste that is wholly unique to Costa Rica.
The hip cafes that are sprouting up throughout suburban neighborhoods are part of the urbanization and transition that has been commonplace in the United States. Microbreweries serving craft beers and restaurants dedicated to the ideals of “farm to table” service are experiencing a surge of popularity.
Everything is about bringing a level of authenticity and a Costa Rican uniqueness to the experiences. The traditional sodas still vastly outnumber the cafes. The dawning realization that coffee is something meant to be savored and enjoyed is being widely accepted.
Friends are more likely to gather in spaces that are well lit and spacious, or with a homey vibe featuring lighting and tables made by Costa Rican craftspeople as opposed to a “rushed, wake up and run approach” in spartan, dingy sodas.
Costa Rica coffee and cafe culture is at the crossroads of tradition and innovation. It is being driven by a hyper knowledgeable crowd, and visionaries who come from a distinguished coffee-growing heritage.
Having the luxury of some of the greatest coffee growing regions in the world, and being able to deliver it to Costa Ricans, is the mantra of the new wave of baristas and coffee growers. “By Costa Ricans, for Costa Ricans” is the rallying cry echoed in cafes from The Western Valley to Guanacaste.