What I Learned in Coffee School is…

Get ready, this one’s a long one.

I can’t believe that my last day in Costa Rica is actually here. I have learned more about Costa Rican culture, and of course about the coffee process, than I would have imagined. I will definitely be a proud coffee snob back in the States. I analyzed the supply chain of coffee through a selling lens. While it may seem as if marketing is only one aspect of coffee production, it is actually applicable to each of the five main steps of the supply chain. The hands on experience I’ve gained has not only educated me about the coffee process, but will also allow me to make informed decisions regarding my personal consumption.

The first stop along the coffee supply chain at the coffee farm. Here, the coffee plants are grown in pairs to promote healthy evolution of the cherries. The duo of plants compete with each other, and both end up stronger. The farmer must ensure that the plants are not subject to fungi or broca, which are small bugs that hollow out the inside of the coffee beans, making them virtually unsellable. At this stage, farmers can choose to produce the coffee in many different ways. They can choose to use pesticides, or to aim for the organic status. If they choose to go organic, the coffee can sell at a higher market price, and may be more appealing to certain ethical buyers; however, this also is a costly endeavor for farmers. The farms can also decide what types of plants to grow. Coffee comes in numerous varieties, such as geisha, or venetian, which may sell for different prices. In Costa Rica, farmers do not have the choice of growing Robusta or Arabica beans, but this is an option for growers in other nations. After learning of the differences between the Arabica and Robusta beans, I will be conscious, especially when at Starbucks or other cafes, to purchase blends only with Arabica beans, to ensure the highest quality. I’d also much prefer to buy from coffee farms like Life Moteverde, where I know that their intentions are pure, and that they truly care about their product and practices.

The mills are where the different quality beans are really separated out. I visited several mills, and learned about the process in terms of quality and efficiency. After the beans are separated from the cherries, they are washed and dried. The washing process is pretty standard, wet milling is usually used. Drying however, is differentiated. Sun drying the beans adds a rich, sweet flavor, and is usually associated with higher quality. The big drawback: sun drying takes a lot longer. The other alternative is machine drying. Machine drying is more efficient, but of lower quality. Specifically at Doka, the beans of higher value were sun dried the majority of the time, while the lower value bean bends with machine dried. What are high quality versus low quality beans? Well the beans that come from red cherries are high quality, peaberry beans are even more valued. The beans that come from green or over ripe cherries, or maybe the ones that were damaged by disease, are sold as lower quality. This is what causes price differentiation among coffee blends. The seller can market these coffees differently, maybe the higher quality ones as ‘gourmet’, and the lower quality ones as ‘value’ price.

Next, the coffee goes through the roasting process. Here is where light roast, medium roast, and dark roast come into play. the different times of each roasting depend on the size of the batch of beans being roasted. However, the difference between a light roast and a medium roast, or  a medium to a dark roast, could be a matter of 30 seconds or less. Due to this time crunch, it is essential that roasters are trained properly. The different roasts can then be sold as different products in different markets. For example, Europeans tend to drink more dark roast coffee than Central Americans, due to differences in cultural norms. It is because of their roasting process that many coffee producers dislike Starbucks. Apparently Starbucks over roasts the beans; they essentially burn them. Local coffee producers lament that Starbucks gets quality beans, then disrespects the producers by burning them, wasting all of the hard work that went into growing quality beans. After tasting Starbucks coffee compared to the coffees at other estates, I can confirm that Starbucks coffee should be considered dark dark dark dark roast. Many consumers also have the misconception that darker roast= more caffeine. Contrarily, light roast coffee has slightly more caffeine, as the beans are roasted for a shorter amount of time.

Retail stores are where the creativity comes in. Cue Cafe Britt, which I’m sure we’ve all spent all of our colones at this trip. Britt is everywhere, talk about market concentration. Their retail stores are so successful due to Britt’s ‘multicolor’ business model. I’m sur everyone is sick of hearing about Britt, but I will reiterate their marketing strategies one more time. They have retail stores in ten different countries. The stores in each country are modeled after that country’s specific culture. This allows for a different, authentic experience in each company. Britt also strategically places coffee and chocolate samples in each store (I know these got me). They market to tourists looking for genuine cultural experiences and gourmet coffee. Cafe Britt’s attractions are incredible. They know exactly how to reel people in. As a buyer, if I had not known of their strategy before hand, I would have fallen for it. Even now, I appreciate their strategy, it’s clever, and successful. But I made an effort not to purchase from them because of this.

As a coffee consumer myself, I believe that customers’ wants are changing the coffee industry. Consumers want more organic and eco-friendly products, so tactics are changing. People are shifting from valuing low cost, to high quality. I know that many millennial would shell out the extra money to buy products from a more socially and environmentally responsible company, rather than the one offering the lowest price. I think that increased awareness about sustainable practices and working conditions is leading to a shift in taste, as well as reforms in many industries, coffee being one. This trip has been educational for me beyond words; I will take back every lesson that I have learned here, and put them into use.

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