You can’t talk about the history of Costa Rica without mentioning coffee. In fact, if it wasn’t for coffee, Costa Rica may have suffered the same fate as The Mosquito Kingdom, a place you’ve never even heard about! Fortunately, Costa Rica possessed all of the natural ingredients for producing the savory bean we know and love today.
As with just about any “first” in history, there is still much debate about how the first coffee bean arrived in Costa Rica. Some say that the first seeds were brought from Jamaica by a sea captain under orders of the Costa Rican governor. Others, insist the bean emigrated from Panama or Cuba at the end of the 18th century. Still others argue that the bean was transported directly from Ethiopia in 1779, the theory of which I am personally least convinced. You can be the judge of which story seems most probable. Regardless, it is well known that in the beginning of the 19th Century, the Costa Rican government saw the potential value that the coffee bean had and highly encouraged its production.
After Costa Rica’s (read: Central America) independence from Spain, the government began offering plots of land to anyone that was willing to grow and harvest the plant. With fertile volcanic soil, favorable temperatures year round, a varying elevations, the crop grew quite easily in the country. By the end of 1821, there were over 17,000 coffee plants in the nation, producing a crop that, for the most part, was still not being exported. In 1825, in an effort to promote growth in coffee production, the government exempted coffee harvesters from paying a tithe. Four years later, coffee became the leading crop in production, easily surpassing cacao, tobacco, and sugar.
By 1832, Costa Rica finally began “exporting” coffee. The bean was sent to Chile, where it was rebagged and renamed “Café Chile del Paraiso” and then sent to Europe. After learning of “Cafe Chile del Paraiso’s” coffee bean’s true origin, an Englishman by the name of William Lacheur arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica to negotiate the purchase of Costa Rican coffee beans. Don Santiago Fernandez Hidalgo, the owner of the farm prospective exporting farm, was suspicious of this Englishman and his “promise to return with silver” in exchange for his coffee beans. In 1843 he allowed Mr. Lacheur to take over 5,000 sacks of coffee and set sail for England under the watchful eyes of a Costa Rican trade specialist. Six months later, both men returned, paid the coffee growers in pounds in sterling and fully loaded another two ships for export. England had acquired a taste for Costa Rican coffee and a new market had been discovered.
Cultivation of coffee in the early 1800s had transformed Costa Rica from a remote, struggling country to a leading exporter, allowing a stable middle class and a wealthy coffee oligarchy to form. By 1850, coffee comprised over 90% of Costa Rica’s exports. The coffee industry transformed the economy and modernized the country. The revenue generated funded the first railroads connecting the capital to the Atlantic coast in 1890. In 1897 it funded the building of The National Theater in San Jose (modeled after a Paris Opera House). Thanks to the revenue brought in from coffee, Costa Rica was one of the first cities in the world to have an electric lighting system in 1884.
After World War 2, the demands for Costa Rican coffee was steadily increasing and productivity was falling short. The Typica and Bourbon varieties of low productivity, were replaced with small caturra and catui varieties. This led to an increase from just over 10,000 coffee plants per hectare to an average of over 30,000 plants per hectare. By the late 1980s, coffee production had increased from 158,000 tons to 168,000 tons.
Today, coffee is the third largest export in the country, behind Medical Equipment and tropical fruit. It accounts for 3% of exports at an export value of $308 Million. The top importers of Costa Rican coffee are the US (52%, $161M), Belgium (14%,$44.2M), Germany (4.1%, $12.5M), Italy (3.6%, $11.2M), and Australia (3.5%, $10.7M). Japan is 10th on the list at 1.8%, $5.63M. Still, with so much revenue generated from coffee exports, Costa Rica provides less than 1% of the world’s coffee production! However, the per capita consumption of coffee in Costa Rica is the highest of all coffee producing countries in the world.
If you find yourself in Costa Rica and would like to learn more about Costa Rican coffee, there are plenty of coffee farm tours available throughout the 8 coffee producing regions (Central Valley, Tres Rios, Tarrazu, West Valley, Guanacaste, Turrialba, Brunca, and Orosi). Or you could take a coffee tour at Britt Coffee in Heredia, a quick 20 to 30 minute drive from San Jose, depending on traffic. If neither of those sound interesting to you, then head over to Barrio Escalante and check out some of the new, up and coming 3rd wave café’s that have coffee from all over Costa Rica in different plant varieties, washes, and roasts. The coolest part about Barrio Esclante is you can still see some coffee plants on the sides of buildings and restaurants, remnants of the first coffee farms in Costa Rica.
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