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Coffee Revisited

When I wrote the first article about coffee for this blog, I had no idea that soon I would be spending many hours of the week working in a coffee shop.  Our friend Eloisa opened Café TIco at the end of June, and we have been minding the shop for the past few weeks while she visits her family in Italy.   Now my days are spent making cappuccinos, mochaccinos and lattes and telling people about the coffee we sell in the shop.  Here are some of the surprising new things I have learned about Costa Rican coffee.

Costa Rica produces 3% of the coffee grown in the world.  Coffee was first planted in Costa Rica in 1779.  By the time that Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the country was shipping beans to Chile where they were re-bagged and shipped to England under the brand of “Café Chileno de Valparaiso”.  In 1843, William Le Lacheur Lyon made the first direct shipment from Costa Rica to England, and soon coffee was the country’s principal export.  The revenue from coffee funded the first railroad, built the National Theater and helped San Jose become the third city in the world (in 1884) to generate public electricity  (Paris was first  and New York second).

By the way, the world’s biggest coffee producers are Brazil with 40% of the world market and Vietnam.

All coffee grown in Costa Rica is Arabica coffee.  In 1982, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to issue an executive order banning the production of any variety of coffee other than Arabica, even though the inferior Robusta plant produces 50% more volume. The Central Valley is an ideal region for growing Arabica coffee, which thrives at altitudes between 2,400 and 4,500 feet (800m-1500m). The volcanic soil with high acidity, temperate climate and rainy and dry seasons gives Costa Rican coffee its rich flavor.

Dark roast has less caffeine than light roast.  During the coffee roasting process, some of the caffeine is sweated out of the bean, so the longer the bean is roasted, the less caffeine remains.

What exactly does roasting do? The sugars, fats and starches that are within the bean are emulsified, caramelized and released. This creates the delicate coffee oil. This oil is what gives coffee its distinctive aroma and taste.

The roast alone doesn’t determine the resulting coffee taste or quality. The origin of the beans makes a big difference, as does the grade of the bean. The first step in processing coffee is winnowing.  The harvested fruit is sorted and cleaned, to separate the unripe, overripe and damaged fruit and to remove dirt, soil, twigs and leaves.  On small farms, winnowing is done by hand, and the fruit is separated into grades.   There are four grades of coffee, based on size, with the top grade known as Peaberry.

Normally each coffee berry contains two beans, but sometimes the berries form with a single bean. This is called peaberry coffee. As the sole bean in a fruit, peaberries grow larger than other coffee beans, and the bigger the bean, the better the flavor and the higher the grade.  Peaberries are a natural yet rare variation of coffee beans – they account for only 3% to 5% of the entire Costa Rican Coffee crop.

Shade grown coffee is prized because it is environmentally friendly.  The original coffee trees were brought to the Americas from Europe, and would burn in the tropical sun without shade.  Over the past 30 years new sun-tolerant trees have been developed to yield higher production rates. As a result, sun tolerant trees can produce three times more coffee in a year than a shade grown tree.

The traditional shade-grown coffee farm resembles a forest because it consists of several layers of trees, some used for wind breaks, others, such as banana trees release water to the coffee crop during the dry season. (Bananas store between 30-40 liters of water each year.)  As many as 40 species of trees can be found on a shade grown coffee farm, contributing to the maintenance of the soil quality and biodiversity.  In contrast, sun-grown coffee requires chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides to be added to promote growth, contributing to toxic water runoff and the lack of habitat for many animal species, especially birds.

Coffee grows on trees, not bushes.  The tree produces its first berries in its fourth year.  Years 5 – 20 of the tree’s life are when the best quality fruit is produced.  Coffee trees can live to 80, but after 20 years, the tree is removed and its wood is used for roasting coffee, cooking food and for furniture.  Coffee trees flower after the first rains in March then again in April and again in May.  The white flowers look and smell like jasmine.  (At Café Tico, we sell Eco Miel honey from coffee flowers.)  Coffee berries begin developing as early as April with harvesting beginning in November and lasting until March.

Is decaffeinated coffee safe to drink?  Caffeine is an alkaloid and a stimulant for the nervous system.  It is also slightly addictive. In order to avoid the negative effects of caffeine, many people drink decaf, which has 97% of the caffeine removed.  But did you know that there are two methods of extracting caffeine from coffee – the acetone method and the Swiss process?  The Swiss method uses boiling water to sweat the caffeine out of the beans.  If the decaffeinated coffee label states it is “naturally decaffeinated” or “Swiss water processed” it means no harmful chemicals are used in the caffeine removal process.  The problem with using acetone to decaffeinate coffee is that the beans can retain some of the toxic acetone.

Coffee beans lose some of their flavor in the decaffeinating process, so they are often roasted with pulverized chicory root to add flavor.

The history of coffee shops.  I would like to end this article with an homage to coffee houses.  Throughout their noble history, coffee houses have been a center for intellectual and political ferment.  In his book, Mon Journal, the social critic and historian Jules Michelet attributes the birth of an enlightened Western civilization to Europe’s transformation into a coffee-drinking society: “For this sparkling outburst of creative thought there is no doubt that the honor should be ascribed in part to the great event which created new customs and even changed the human temperament—the advent of coffee.”  Coffee houses served  as the first men’s clubs, newspaper reading rooms, penny universities, and sites of organizing political parties as well as precursors to such central capitalist institutions as the stock exchange and with Lloyd’s coffee house in London, the insurance business.


Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.

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