Costa Rica Cup of Excellence

The beginning of May saw me head out to San Jose to take part in the 2013 Cup of Excellence programme for Costa Rica. It’s always a pleasure to spend an intensive period cupping coffee from one producing country because it allows you to focus in on what makes that producing unique, both in terms of terroir and also processing methodology.   Plus there’s a chance to meet up with old friends from around the world. 

For those of you not so familiar with the programme it is a highly prestigious award given to gourmet coffees in ten producing countries.  To get the award coffees are cupped at least five times by a group of selected professional cuppers and winning coffees are sold on an internet auction.  It gives fantastic visibility to quality minded coffee growers and rewards them with prices deserving of the coffee they produce.  If you want to find out more please visit Cup of Excellence


Checking the roasts before cupping


The programme in Costa Rica offers very different coffees from those of it’s neighbours. This is because the country is becoming quite unique in terms of the way it processes coffee in Central America and this change has really happened mostly in the last decade. If I cast my mind back to my first experiences of Costa Rican coffee it was all washed process, big regional bulked lots which didn’t very easily allow traceability back to farms. Wet mills and dry mills were large semi-industrial affairs and they very consistent produced bright, acidic clean coffees. Then the micro mill revolution hit, and combined with stricter laws from the government on water use small producers increasingly took control over their production and experimented in honey process methodology (basically this is a variation and expansion of the pulped natural process developed in Brazil where the mucilage from the coffee fruit is left on the coffee as it dries).

The result now is an astonishing range of different cup profiles where the honey process can be picked up in the cup in varying amounts, inter-playing with the farms terroir. A quick 101 of the honey variations is:

Yellow Honey

Approximately 50% mucilage removed and dried without any ferment.  These coffees have increased sweetness from the mucilage and also have flavours derived as a result of the coffee terroir more present than other methods

Red Honey

100% mucilage retained and dried without ferment.  These coffees are very sweet, caramel like and when done well can exhibit excellent characteristics, though the uniqueness of the coffee is muted in the cup more than a washed coffee
Black Honey

100% mucilage retained, moved to lower altitude (hence warmer temps), coffee covered for 24 hours to ferment a little and then dried on raised beds.  These coffees have a distinct coffee fruit/pulp character and process is the dominant characteristic
Gold Honey

100% mucilage retained, dried on raised beds at high altitudes for low temperatures and extended drying times (look out for a Malawi coffee on limited release where I trialled this process with a co-operative).  Terroir is a little muted but these coffees can be very refined in the cup with a syrupy sweetness

Black honey parchment 

With honeyed coffees the balance of process and character as a result of location and variety is a tricky balancing act. Mucilage retention in honey coffees undoubtedly offers a sweeter cup than those where fermentation, or indeed de-mucilaging, has taken place. The impact on this mucilage in transparency of terroir characteristics varies, but where the debate is becoming strongest with cuppers and buyers with this category of process is the impact of producers manipulating drying temperature (and as a result a deliberate controlled fermentation). Globally, there are distinct regional trends forming as to where different styles of honey coffees are being bought. Our personally preference is to enjoy a coffee where it’s location and variety are primary and that any process characteristics are secondary, harmonious and complementary. For this reason when we buy honey processed lots to roast at Artisan Roast they tend to be the ones with less process character and more of the terroir about them, but we are very aware that this is our personal choice - This debate, like the processing methods being developed, is still very new.

One point mentioned very briefly earlier was that part of the move to honey process was as a result of new water regulations in Costa Rica. These laws looked to reduce water consumption and reduce the impact of coffee on the environment. The new processing methods use substantially less water than the traditional washed process and in some parts of the coffee growing world this means they will become increasingly important as global warming marches on. Central America is becoming drier and warmer and needs a diverse process methodology with its coffee to keep the industry sustainable. In Costa Rica the farmers are honing their craft of new coffee processing while they still have an option and at the same time producing some exceptional washed coffees in keeping with their tradition. I feel that the starting point for this innovation has been forgotten in the heat of the debate. As a global industry it’s vital that coffee looks to the long term in everything it does. Honey processing certainly fits this long term view and for that foresight and drive to do something unique I raise my cup to good people of Costa Rica.