I am excited to go home and harass a stranger in line at Starbucks about the coffee making process (if I can still bear to drink the trash at Starbucks). I feel as though I could now write a book about coffee because I am so well versed in the topic. I probably won’t be writing “Newp Dog’s Coffee Guide” anytime soon, but I will be changing the way I consume the wondrous caffeine bean. I have a new appreciation for the work that goes into producing a cup of joe, and a capacity for the raw materials that it is composed of.
All coffee farms need to source seeds to grow the coffee, people to pick the coffee cherries, and pesticides to protect the plants. Often times, coffee farmers, especially if they operate on a smaller-scale, use their own seeds. In Costa Rica, many of the coffee pickers come from Nicaragua. This is for the same reason that the farm that I work at in Pennsylvania uses pickers from Mexico. Because Nicaragua is in a tough economic situation, many people migrate down to Costa Rica in order to find jobs. When I visited coffee plantations, it seemed like almost all of these businesses had very good relationships with their pickers. For example, many plantations provide child care services for their pickers during working hours, housing during the picking seasons, and a few even offer food services. Pickers wages are also regulated by the Costa Rican government. Although outsourcing labor to immigrants can seem bad, it benefits both the laborers and the farms. Picking coffee is not a job that most people in a state of economic stability want, so by outsourcing it to workers in more dire circumstances, people that are in need are getting paid, and farmers are able to receive labor in a cost effective way. Lastly, farmers need to make the tricky decision of whether or not they are going to implement the use of pesticides on their plantation. If they do treat their crops with pesticides, most source them from China. This is obviously the less sustainable method of pest control. An organic farm can cut costs in this regard by using natural shade to protect the coffee plants.
Very few coffee growers double as coffee processors (Doka is an exception). For this reason, the owner of a coffee mill must source coffee cherries. They also need the machinery that completes the coffee processing, including a drying machine and a milling machine. When the coffee industries first took off in Costa Rica, the country did not have the resources to manufacture advanced milling equipment. This is why many companies that have been around for a while use machinery from Germany or China. As the coffee trade continues to grow in Costa Rica, more modern milling processors will be made in country. The alternative to a modern milling system is the wet mill. These are made in Costa Rica and act as the traditional coffee milling method. The other traditional practice in coffee processing is sun drying. This requires a patio and the sun (which can be sourced from space). The majority of mechanical coffee driers are also manufactured internationally. Most coffee processors act as intermediaries between farms and roasters that have preexisting contracts, so the cherries that these companies wash/separate/etc. are supplied from wherever the roasting customer buys their coffee.
Coffee roasting is another interesting step in the coffee supply chain because some roasters are only the middleman between a coffee farmer/processor and a coffee retailer. In this case, they roast whichever beans the retailer needs roasted, similarly to the coffee processor. The roasting machinery is usually produced in Germany or Spain.
Other firms roast and retail their own coffee (i.e. Starbucks, Cafe Rey). In the case of the latter mentioned, retailers need to make the highly strategic decision of where they are going to get their coffee beans from. Many various facets go into choosing a farmer to buy from. These include: whether or not they are organic, their location, their prices, their quality, their labor practices, etc. Every retailer has a different sourcing strategy when it comes to this. The trend in Costa Rican roaster/retailers is to source from a variety of the eight coffee regions in Costa Rica to diversify the flavors and qualities of their blends. Retailers in countries that can’t plant coffee locally put more emphasis on this aspect because it plays more of a role on raw material costs. Farming organically is still too hard to achieve without sacrificing product condition, especially with climate change and the resulting increase in new crop killers. For this, most retailers buy non-organic, or only enough to produce one organic good. Coffee retailers are also starting to pay more and more attention to the environmental practices that plantations implement. This is especially popular in Costa Rica, one of the leaders in sustainability. It is also an especially popular modern day marketing tactic. In addition, a coffee retailer needs baristas to make their coffee. This could range from the college students with no coffee knowledge that the Starbucks in the Pitt quad hires, or the highly trained baristas that study at the school of Coopedota and go on to illustrate the Mona Lisa in a cappucino at some trendy cafe.
Coffee drinkers also need to make the highly strategic decision of where they are going to get their coffee beans from.The pay attention to many of the same things that a coffee retailer looks for; taste, price, availability, whether or not its organic, where the beans are grown, etc. A lot of this comes down to personal preference. For example, I would never be caught dead drinking a cup of Folgers, but others drink it on a regular basis. It all depends on the opulence of one’s palette. Now that I’ve tasted gourmet coffee from the volcanic regions of Tarrazu, it will be hard for me to go back to drinking whatever is served in the school cafeteria.
Studying the coffee industry in Costa Rica has provided me with several experiences that I will take with me for the rest of my life. One of takeaways is simply a new outlook on coffee. I think I forgot that coffee is a plant, and that it has to go through an extensive series of steps before it arrives in my mug on Monday morning. I now see coffee as something that totally turning around a country’s economy, and as a way of life for thousands of people. I definitely have a new appreciate for exactly what is in my cup. Furthermore, I will pay more attention to where my coffee is coming from, and who I am supporting when I buy it. I am very thankful for Plus3 Costa Rica, and plan on passing on my new expertise to anyone who will listen.