The past two weeks in Costa Rica have been amazing. Every day has been jam-packed with activities which took us all over Costa Rica. Besides all of the fun adventures, I learned way more about coffee than I ever thought I would. I appreciated the hands on learning experience where we never had to sit in a classroom. By seeing the farms and the roasting facilities, I can appreciate how much work goes in to the coffee process. My focus on this trip was to look at the management and decision-making processes of each company. Here is what I’ve learned for each aspect of the coffee supply chain:
Before this trip to Costa Rica, I knew nothing about coffee farming or farming in general. For one, I learned that coffee picking requires an extreme amount of labor. An important decision a farm owner must make is where they want to source that labor from, and how they will pay for that labor. A majority of the workers come from Nicaragua, and they are relatively cheap labor because they’re paid by how many baskets they pick. This parallels U.S. agricultural because we source a lot of cheap labor from Mexico. Another aspect of farming is the idea of being organic which has become somewhat of a fad in today’s market place. For one, I learned that sustainable and organic are very different thing. More importantly, I learned that it’s difficult and expensive for these farms to become organic. They must decide whether investing time and money in to a certification will improve the quality of the coffee enough to charge a higher price. For this reason, a majority of farms aren’t organic. I have a much greater appreciation for the coffee I drink and agricultural as I saw how much work goes in to just the beginning of the process. Also, the process of growing coffee was a lot more interesting than I would’ve imagined.
Personally, I felt that learning about the coffee milling process was the most fascinating. The workings of a wet mill were amazing to me because they used only water as their source of energy. I never knew how many steps were involved in simply washing and sorting coffee beans. The important decision these mills have to make is what to do with the varying levels of quality. For example, the biggest, most dense beans can be sold as a premium coffee at a higher price, so they put more work in to these beans by completely sun-drying them. The lower quality beans will be put in to cheaper blends, so they can be dried in the oven which involves less time and labor costs. There are also different processes that can be used on the beans and can change the price of the coffee. They can be washed, processed naturally without washing, or put through the honey process. The type depends on who is purchasing the coffee, but if the mill has a roasting facility, they must decide to quantity of each which will maximize profit. These mills are an important intermediary because they often aren’t a stand-alone company. Most mills are owned by the farmers, like Doka, or the roasters, like Coopedota.
One of the most important steps in the coffee process is roasting. These companies decide the final flavor of the coffee whether its light, medium or dark roast along with how the coffee is blended. Although they are essential to the final product, they can’t work without a high quality bean. These roasters must decide how to buy their supplies from; The two options we looked at throughout this trip is buying from hundreds of small farms or owning your own farms. From what I gathered, the more popular choice is to buy from lots of locals. I think this shows that for one, businesses don’t think the investment in a large farm is worth the costs, and they care about the lower classes. By putting money in to the class of small farmers, these coffee roasters are helping to benefit the economy. Another aspect of roasting coffee is how to sell it. Each company we looked at had special lines of coffee which they sold for more. Café Britt’s Fair Trade bag can be sold at a higher price because of this certification, and Café Rey sells their Tarrazu brand for 4 to 5 times the price of their traditional brand. The roasting process is important because these companies facilitate between farms and customers.
Retail Stores & Baristas
Retail stores turn the beans, or grounds, in to the coffee we drink. Stores like Starbucks have their own roasting facilities while smaller shops may have to buy roasted coffee or export their beans to be roasted. The partnership between retail stores and roasters may help to eliminate costs. If they’re under the same company, the retail store can receive the coffee at a lower cost than if they had to buy the coffee on the open market. Also, the cost and time of negotiating contracts will be lower because it’s taking place within one company. An important aspect of this final step before the customers receive the coffee is the flow of information down the supply chain. When we went to Coopedota’s barista school, our teacher told us that it’s important to know where coffee comes from in order to make the perfect drink. This flow of information is also important in marketing their drinks. They can sell them as regional coffee or emphasize their bold flavors and high acidity. Most importantly, I realized the coffee bean has been through a lot to reach the point of enjoyment in a drink. Of course I also enjoyed knowing learning how to make cappuccinos.
I now know that coffee consumers know nothing about coffee. I didn’t even know that coffee started out as a red cherry. I’m sure there are a lot of coffee drinkers who are connoisseurs and can tell the difference between a cup of Colombian and Costa Rican coffee, but in general, people don’t understand the coffee process. Personally, I love coffee so this trip has given me a much greater appreciation of it. Even without a full understanding, customers drive the entire coffee business because they create the demand. Mario also informed us that coffee is important because the consumers are rich countries and the producers are poor countries, so money flows from the rich to the poor. Ultimately, every coffee companies decision-making processes must relate back to their customers and how to sell more coffee. Every investment and contract must overall help deliver coffee to the customers. I’m happy to after this trip be a more informed consumer of coffee.
See you soon Costa Rica, and Pure Vida!