Exportation or Exploitation?

While coffee currently only accounts for around 3% of the nation’s GDP, there is no doubt that much of Costa Rica’s development and success in the previous two centuries can be accredited to coffee production and exportation. The early days of Costa Rica as a nation were plagued with widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Ironically, the “Rich Coast” lacked natural resources and a sustainable source of income. The introduction of high quality coffee became Costa Rica’s golden ticket to development.

What the nation lacks in size and ability to mass produce, it makes up for in quality. The small country of Costa Rica happens to have the climate to produce impeccable coffee. With unique aspects from the eight coffee producing regions in Costa Rica, the nation is able to produce coffee unable to be replicated elsewhere in the world. The country has taken note of this advantage and created rigorous regulations to keep Costa Rican coffee up to gourmet standards.

Costa Rica requires all coffee producers, by law, to only produce Arabica beans. This type of bean is of distinguishably better quality than its counterpart, the Robusta bean. This law was enacted to upkeep Costa Rica’sreputation of good coffee. Since the nation is small, it cannot compete with mass coffee producing countries like Brazil and Mexico; conversely, Costa Rica has decided to appeal to consumers of higher quality coffee. This is pertinent to companies such as Britt and Doka, who export the majority of their coffee, finding that tourists and consumers abroad are more willing to pay higher prices for coffee than Ticos.

The regulations regarding coffee in the country are also expanded to ensure humane treatment and fair prices for workers in this industry. A law that is nice to Costa Rica, compared the the rest of Central America, is that producers receive at least 80% of the free on board price. This prevents exploitation of the coffee producers, as they are typically the least educated about business and the final product. Organizations in Costa Rica, such as the Starbucks farm, have made an effort to teach producers more about how the characteristics of their beans specifically affect the final product. With producers beginning the supply chain, it would be easy to leave them in the dark about what goes on later in the chain; however, Costa Rica has gone the extra mile to ensure that the coffee process is wholesome and beneficial for all parties involved.

With high quality and regulation comes high prices. And with the majority of gourmet coffee companies aiming for tourists and consumers abroad, what do Ticos drink? Bring in Cafe Rey: la bebita de los TICOS. Rey’s coffee is marketed for locals of Costa Rica. Unlike the other companies I’ve visited, Rey’s keeps the focus on maintaining low costs and consistent tastes for customers. They sell to Walmarts and local supermercatos. The price of this coffee is also significantly cheaper than others (think $1 per small bag compared to $9). The brand does not come in an organic line, and is associated with low prices, rather than gourmet quality.

So are Ticos drinking second rate coffee in the nation known for this amazing product? I don’t think so. I have begun each day for the past week with an incredible breakfast and coffee made by my host mom. Throughout the tours I have not tasted coffee as satisfying and delicious as the simple one given to me each morning. Curious, I asked my Mama Tica what coffee she gives us; surely enough, it has been Cafe Rey’s Traditional blend the entire time. This makes me laugh, as the Traditional blend is made up of coffee beens that are roasted with sugar. During a previous coffee tour, a roaster said that any coffee that is roasted with sugar, is a crappy coffee brand. Yet this mystery coffee, that turned out to be good ole Rey’s with sugar, has been my favorite coffee thus far.

From my perspective, the Tico’s are not being given the short end of the stick. Coffee exportation has put Costa Rica on the map, and lead to an economic boom that created numerous social reforms in the past two centuries. As for drinking second rate coffee, I believe that perceived quality depends on the palette of the consumer. Ticos seem to enjoy their $1 Rey’s over $9 gourmet any day, and rightly so.

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