Blog 11: Hasta Lluego Costa Rica

The past two weeks in Costa Rica has taught me a lot about the coffee industry here in Costa Rica. This large industry comes with a very detailed supply chain, from a plant to the end product that is consumed. My assigned topic was sourcing and this blog will go into detail about how companies source items during every step of the coffee production process, starting with coffee farms.

Coffee farms or plantations are the first step in the supply chain, and require many items to be sourced in order for coffee to be produced effectively. First off, a farm needs to obtain coffee beans to begin growing coffee trees. Most farms simply use beans from their existing trees when they need to plant new ones, however they often source beans in order to experiment with new strains or to find a plant that is more resistant to diseases. These beans are typically sourced from the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica, known as iCafe. iCafe does research for farmers in order to find/develop plants that are more resistant to diseases and climate change. Another example of a resource that coffee plantations need to source is labor. There is a great variety of jobs on coffee plantations, which can be seasonal or year-round. On smaller farms, the executive decisions are often carried out by the family who owns the farm. In addition, most full year salary jobs at the farm are family members. Larger farms often have an elected board of directors that manage the farm and how full year employees are sourced, with most coming from Costa Rica. The largest labor force that needs to be sourced on a farm are the pickers, with around 60% of them coming from Nicaragua. Coffee pickers are only required during the harvest season, which is roughly from November to March, however they are integral to the production of coffee. Due to the timing of the job, most of the pickers are migrant workers who spend time at the plantation during the harvest, then move on to another job. One last example of a resource that coffee plantations need to source are pesticides and fertilizers. While some farms are completely organic and do not use any chemicals, most farms do require some pesticides and artificial fertilizers. They are typically sourced from the United States and other countries, however iCafe is trying to push farms to use more natural fertilizer and shade growing techniques to reduce the dependence on pesticides.

The next step in the coffee production process is the milling process, which convert coffee cherries into green coffee beans. Obviously, these mills must source coffee cherries from farms and they must carefully source these cherries in order to match the quality they wish to produce. One thing that these mills must check for is the presence of the coffee borer beetle (known locally as brocca), which is a small insect that crawls into the coffee cherry and eats the bean inside. If a coffee mill purchases even a singular cherry with brocca in it, they must return the entire shipment in order to prevent the insect effecting the rest of their product. Another example of an item that mills need to source is machinery. Several machines are required to convert coffee cherries to green beans, depending on the milling technique used. Overall, some sort of peeler is required, in addition to fermentation tanks, sorting machines, and in most cases, drying tumblers. Most older equipment in the country was sourced from the United Kingdom, and is still in use today. Newer equipment is being sourced mostly from China, as they are typically less expensive. However, the mills must balance cost and longevity when sourcing machinery for coffee production.

Following the milling process, green coffee is sent to roasters, who convert the green coffee into a roasted coffee. Coffee roasters have a lot to consider when sourcing green beans. In Costa Rica, there are 8 major regions in which coffee is grown and each of these regions as unique properties when it comes to body, aroma, and acidity. An example of this is the Terrazu region which is known for growing coffee with a good body and fine acidity. Roasting companies must consider this when purchasing coffee from different parts of the region. In addition, roasters must consider different levels of quality when sourcing coffee. High quality coffee is sold for a much higher coffee and typically exported, whereas a lot of lower quality coffee in Costa Rica is sold locally. This quality is checked with a process known as pinching, where a pincher checks the beans in randomly selected bags for in a shipment for consistency to ensure that the delivered coffee matches what was ordered. Lastly, coffee roasters must consider different washing methods when sourcing coffee for roasting. Most coffee is milled with a fully washed process, which produces a flavor that most consumers are familiar with. Natural and honey processes involve a dry process that produces a much sweeter coffee that is distinctly different from fully washed. In conclusion, a roaster must consider all of these things when sourcing coffee to roast, in order to produce a product that stores want to buy.

The next step in supply chain of coffee is the coffee being sold by retail stores or being made into drinks by baristas. Coffee stores must decide where to source their roasted beans from and what their target audience is. Coffee shops can sell roasted coffee in either whole bean or ground varieties at various different quality levels. In addition, coffee can be prepared and sold as a beverage. Besides coffee, stores must also source cups, napkins, milk, sugar, and other items. In fact, Starbucks sources more milk than coffee, due to the nature of the drinks that they sell. The last step is of course the consumer, and I played this role a lot on our trip. With regards to sourcing, there is nothing that consumer sources, as they simply consume the final product of the supply chain.

Overall, this trip has had a large impact on my personal relationship with coffee. Before coming on this trip, I was an avid coffee drinker, but I knew little to nothing about the actual process and the effect that coffee has on the people who live in a coffee producing country like Costa Rica. Seeing the coffee supply chain first hand and speaking to people who are involved in it made me appreciate how much work goes into a cup of coffee we take for granted. Also, it gave me insight onto how many different ways there are to farm, mill, and roast coffee. Lastly, it opened my eyes to the effect that climate change is having on this fragile climate. Learning about the struggles that farmers have dealing with the effects of climate change made me much more aware of how serious of a problem it is. To wrap up this final blog, this has been an incredible experience and I will never forget it and everything that I have learned.

Adios y Pura Vida,


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