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International Coffee Day and Costa Rica

Every day should be a celebration, and if you’re actively looking for reasons, it isn’t hard to find one quirky way or another to make each day special.  Coffee makes more encore performances across the calendar than other beverages except perhaps for wine, like National Latté Day on February 11th, National Frappuccino Day on October 7th, and National Espresso Day on November 23rd.

But the one festival around which all these other celebrations revolve is International Coffee Day. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been around very long. Considering that coffee was a regional secret for centuries and gourmet coffee snobbery is only slightly older than the Hippies of the 1960’s, we shouldn’t expect otherwise.

The History of International Coffee Day

The United States celebrates International Coffee Day on September 29th. ICD was conceived as a way to take a moment each year to pause and remember the people and places that make our favorite beverage possible.

The celebration as we now observe it was organized by the International Coffee Organization a mere six years ago in 2014 as a way to educate the world about coffee farmers’ lives and livelihoods, as well as coffee roasters, baristas and café owners who are among the millions globally who play a part in putting our favorite drink in our hands.

It would be a mistake to believe this is the first go-around, however. Back in 2009 in the U.S., the inaugural New Orleans Coffee Festival’s backers took up the moniker to promote their event.

It wasn’t meant to be a recurring event. Maybe the oldest use of the name International Coffee Day was promoted in 1983 by the All Japan Coffee Association, but as drinking coffee in Japan was at times equated with being Westernized, it didn’t gain wider acceptance until post-WW2 progressives and then wealthy businessmen adopted it as a sign of their openness to change.

It would be exhausting to research every instance across the globe since the bean’s reputation went global, and the job would be even harder if one researched every National Coffee Day worldwide. But no less than 37 countries celebrate one annual version or another of coffee day. The dates range from early January to October.

Differences Between National and International Coffee Day

While all of the coffee celebrations around the world each year pay tribute to the ubiquitous caffeinated bean, and cafés dole out freebies to customers, the broader circumstances vary from country to country.

The equatorial belt in which mountainous coffee growing regions exist are home to a wide variety of countries, cultures, governments, and ways of life. Almost all of them have been influenced by the West, as that is where most of the coffee beans produced there wind up.

Such celebrations are usually held in export countries, in other words, in the places where the beans are consumed, and not so much in their countries of origin. The lion’s share of product is shipped overseas after being harvested and processed. You might think that coffee producing countries get to enjoy the fruit of their labors, but that largely isn’t the case. Not until Steve Aronson, an American expat, got involved in Costa Rica, that is.

Costa Rica’s Unique Coffee Culture

According to the Café Britt website, “Don Steve” as the Costa Rican locals affectionately call him, was so passionate about reserving a portion of gourmet quality Costa Rican coffee beans for consumption in its country of origin, he pressed the government to overturn a law that forbade it. And he won.

What started as a “garage startup” where he peddled his coffees with an edgy looking golf cart/coffee kiosk hybrid, he was soon supplying theaters, restaurants and upscale hotels with the best of Costa Rican beans.

With the basics out of the way, however, Don Steve set his sights a bit higher. He wanted to help the coffee industry workers and shine a spotlight on the joys and sorrows of their daily lives. In a competitive global market, the buyers normally set the price for goods produced for mass consumption.

Coffee, the second most traded commodity in the world after oil, is no exception. In many places where coffee is grown, traditionally the workers are not paid well, and as a result, they don’t always have access to education, health care, or a modest retirement.

Don Steve had a vision to conduct “The Coffee Tour” in which he and his employees took tourists and visitors on guided tours that showed how the farmers and workers harvested, processed, and roasted their coffee. The tours were chock full of stories on coffee’s history, and its importance to Costa Rica. Combined with cupping of local varietals, word began to spread that something special was going on.

Costa Rica celebrates ICD on the second Friday in September, in conjunction with their national holiday. Coffee has become such an important part of Costa Rican cultural identity that it is equated with democracy and their increasingly important role in the export markets.

Good for Us and Good for Workers

Such increasing interest in how coffee gets from the bush to the barista’s portafilter has improved coffee workers’ standards of living as more connoisseurs demand sustainably grown and fairly traded beans.

So, when you go out this September 29th for your free cup of joe on International Coffee Day, don’t hesitate to ask for a large cup of single origin coffee from Costa Rica. Oh, and thank your barista for being a link in that long chain that ties our favorite mountain shrub to your double walled paper cup.

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