Costa Rica is kind of a high cost country these days, and to make it sustainable we believe it’s important to pay fair and good prices to the producers as they have to make a living out of this. But we are also aware that for the prices the producers ask, the coffees have to be exceptional. And they can be! The cool thing is that they have the climate, knowhow and education it takes to produce some of the best coffees worldwide.
Even if the coffees can be expensive due to cost of production we totally find it worth it. The micro lots are commonly used for filters and single origin espressos. Our bigger lots are often used in blends. The flavor ranges from all kind of berries, plums, citrus, stone fruit, florals, jam and dried fruits.
We are currently sourcing coffees there based on a new project that we started in 2015. It’s generally micro lots undergoing improved preparations by small producers with 3-6 hectares each and a micro mill. We are gathering coffee producers, mainly in the higher altitudes in Terrazu, to establish producer relations and a group that are interested in working with us over time. Hopefully we can contribute to increase their quality and the premiums they receive. We hired Marianela Montero, daughter of a local coffee producer. She is a cupper and now a q-grader that are coordinating our buying operations there and are representing us on the ground. We have a local cupping lab where farmers can get feedback on their products, they can cup with us, as well as we have an agronomical engineer joining the team part time to support the farmers and quality control in their production.
Sourcing guidelines for Costa Rica
- The prices we pay to producers for micro lots scoring above 86 points is more than 2 times the current C-market price and/or the Fairtrade minimum prices.
- We are always paying premiums directly to the farmers and producers when the coffee is delivered to the exporter and before the coffee is shipped
- The coffees are always trace able back to a specific block/farm and cultivar.
- We are visiting the producers and the farms 2 times or more per year.
- We give producers the option to pre-contract coffees and volumes up front of the season.
- We always cup and do pre-selection in origin to calibrate and give feedback to producers, and to have firsthand information of what we are tasting and buying.
- All coffees are cupped blindly, and properly scored and evaluated in our lab in Oslo before purchase.
- Our selection is based on a scoring system, where the general cut of is at a minimum of 86 points.
- We have ground staff to obtain and monitor full traceability on stock lots.
- The producers have their own storage facilities and can freely choose where to dry mill their coffees.
- The exporters are fully open and transparent and work on a fixed fee. They pay the producers in advance of shipment on Nordic Approach behalf.
We buy our coffees at fixed prices without looking at the C- market and daily coffee prices. We try to pre-contract coffees to help the producers to budget and get finance up front of the harvesting season. When we pay premiums to the growers we want to follow up and ideally see that they invest in quality and improve the conditions for their workers. In the end we see the producers as our business partners. As for any lasting business relationship everyone in the supply chain have to make their fair share. The producers and workers too. What we want is to come back year after year and buy the same or better qualities.
Even if we have been buying Costa Ricans in the past we decided to start this challenging project in Costa Rica 2015 together with Marianela Montero, a coffee producer and now our green coffee buyer/sourcer for Costa Rica. Marianela is 22 years old, born and raised at her family’s farm, Don Eli, and have just decided to stay in coffee and try to make a difference.
We visited Marianela and Don Eli in Terrazu for the the first time in January 2016, and later on in March. At that point we started to discuss the idea of a more sustainable purchasing and quality program in Costa Rica. It's a about getting closer to the producers and focus on quality, transparency and improved quality control. This should be followed up before, under and after the preparation and processing. During our first visit in January we cupped some great coffees, that Marianela collected from producers in her surroundings, and started to identify coffees and meet growers. The potential we found was great and at that point we started to discuss and look into how to systematically work over time and get closer to the local producers. We decided to get Marianela onboard full time as part of the Nordic Approach team.
Most of the producers we are working with are small farmers (average 5 hectares per producer) all of them have been working in coffee farming for most of their life. These producers owe their own farms and most of them have their own washing station (micro mill). The micro-mills in Costa Rica have become a family business and are based on family work. Usually producer families are relatively big, and they all help out during the harvesting season with the mill and farm work. Some of these producers have around 8 years experience processing their own coffees at their micro mills. Some other farmers are very new and have in between 1 and 3 years experience processing their own coffee.
The goal is to work together with the producers for many years, if/when they have the mindset and ability to be consistent and hopefully improve year by year. The importance is to get the growers to increase the quality and to think of this partnership as a mid-long term project. In coffee you need to be patient and besides getting great coffees out of it, we want to help these producers to maximize the potential, get better premiums through cup quality and consistency. By adding on Marianela to the team, we believe we can work more closely together with the farmers and "guide" them to get a more customized product.
One of the keys to make this project successful is to work in a transparent way. Both upstream and downstream in the supply chain. We need everyone from the roasters to consumer to understand how much resources it actually takes to produce a great cup of coffee, and how much every part of the supply chain is earning. Costa Rica is a high cost country. The production is expensive compared to other places, and to make it sustainable we believe it’s important to pay fair and good prices to the producers. We need to motivate them to keep up the good work. The good thing is that the coffees can be amazingly good when grown and prepared well.
Many of our producers are part of the Nama Café program. "The NAMA-Café is an initiative aimed at mitigation and adaptation to climate change in the coffee sector, promotes low emissions of greenhouse gases, aims to reduce environmental damage caused in coffee production by encouraging the adoption of new technologies, and improved production practices, aims to increase the efficiency of small farmers in Costa Rica. It contributes to improving the quality of life of producers and their families across the competitiveness of the coffee sector. " According to this in 2020 all the countries willing to sell coffee to Europe will need this certification.
The main cultivars used for our producers is different types of dwarf Bourbons dominated by Catuai. Caturra is pretty common too. Many are experimenting with small amounts of different cultivars like Venecia, Villa Sarchi, Geisha, Sl28 among many others. We are currently buying a good range of tiny amounts from these experiments, and more to come in the next few years.
As most of the mills are owned by the relatively small producers, or a small group, the mills are called “Micro Beneficios”. This means the have a relatively small pulping machine, normally with capacity of 800 – 1500 kg of cherry per hour. In the mill they will normally also have some small tanks for washing and potential fermentation, as well as most have drying tables rather than patios. A typical mill from the producers we work with can have a production of 100 – 300 bags of specialty. But then you have both smaller ones as well as larger.
The washed and honey coffees we are doing is processed by eco pulpers. This is good for the environment as they save a lot of water. They can adjust the amount of mucilage to be removed mechanically, and they can keep all the honey (mucilage) if they prefer. The regular process is based on maximum mucilage removal. This will take out about 80-90% mucilage before they dry them. Some will refer to this as washed and others will call it white honey. In some cases they will soak the coffees to remove the rest of the mucilage by wet fermentation. Then they will wash it before they bring them out to the drying tables. This can also be referred to as the “Kenyano” process.
Even if we do some “fully” washed coffees most of our Costa Ricans are honey’s with different degree on mucilage. White Honey (10-30% mucilage), Yellow Honey (30-60 % mucilage), Red Honey (60-90 % mucilage) and Black Honey (100% mucilage) is the general terms for these products. The coffees will be depulped by the eco pulper, partially mechanically demucilaged or by-passed if it is a black honey. It’s then directly taken to the drying tables. The way they build up the layers the first days, and later on how often they move the coffees will generally determine the color and flavor attributes.
There is a pretty big confusion regarding the “names” of the different honeys. The color of the parchment are affected by both the level of mucilage, but also on how slowly it is dried the first days, the amount of shade and thickness of the layers during drying. This will also affect the flavor and amount of “funk” and fruit. Some producers will give the name according to the color of the parchment after it is dried. But others will give them these names according to how much mucilage they initially left on the parchment during processing, no matter the color. We have experienced that the color does not necessarily reflect the amount of fruitiness in the cup.
We are doing some limited amounts of naturals from Costa Rica. As for honeys the majority is dried on raised beds in sun or shade. As for honeys the flavor will be affected by the way they build up the layers the first days, and later on how often they move the coffees. And sorting the cherries before and during the drying is key.