by Matt Gibson
What environmental factors make a location ideal for growing great coffee? Well, high elevations, rich volcanic soil, a tropical to temperate climate, and plenty of shade is needed to grow the most flavorful and aromatic beans possible. Two coffee producing countries that are blessed with all of these environmental conditions are Costa Rica and Colombia.
Costa Rica is a small country, and they are only responsible for about one percent of the entire world’s coffee production. So, instead of churning out massive amounts of coffee, Costa Rica prefers to focus on quality over quantity. They even outlawed the production of robusta beans within their borders, making it illegal to grow anything other than the higher quality arabica beans in Costa Rica. Talk about dedication.
For decades, Colombia has been one of the top three coffee producing countries in the world, and has built a reputation for high-quality coffee due to its ideal climate and high elevation. Colombia is responsible for about 30% of the world’s coffee production. Unlike Costa Rica, Columbia grows both arabica and robusta coffee, though they do produce much more arabica (70%) than they do robusta (30%). Several of the larger coffee farms in Colombia produce coffee for mass market blends, so the quality of Colombian grown coffee is not always consistent. However, since the 1980’s, Columbia’s focus on specialty coffee has exploded, as a growing number of small farms have made a name for themselves by producing excellent single origin roasts that are graded amongst the best coffees in the world.
Similarities and Differences
The coffee produced in Costa Rica and Colombia share quite a few similar traits. They both tend to be high in acidity, with a creamy, full-body and mouthfeel. Both countries produce well-balanced coffees that share a classic coffee aroma and flavor that is not too complex and completely inoffensive. One noticeable difference between Costa Rican coffee and Colombian coffee is that Columbian roasts typically have a light, floral scent, whereas Costa Rican coffees tend to have a sweeter, more robust aroma. Another key difference is that Costa Rican coffee beans tend to be significantly higher in caffeine than most coffee beans grown around the world, including those from Columbia.
Costa Rican coffee beans are usually roasted to between a medium and a medium-dark roast. Colombian roasts vary more widely from a light roast to very dark. Colombian beans can be roasted for longer periods of time without turning the beans bitter, so the country’s beans tend to get turned into dark roasts. Colombian dark roasts are great for making espresso shots, as well as for brewing in an aeropress or french press for a more bold, robust coffee with no lasting bitterness. The high-acidity content in lighter Costa Rican roasts can be brought to the forefront by brewing it using a pour over device. For darker Costa Rican roasts, try the french press or an automatic drip machine.
A History of Costa Rican Coffee
Coffee was first introduced to Costa Rica in 1779 by Cuban traders. Just after the turn of the century, the first Costa Rican coffee farms began to appear in rural areas across the country. By 1820, Costa Rican coffee started to enjoy some commercial success. Encouraged by incentives offered by the Costa Rican government, as well as the success of growing farms, new coffee farms continued to pop up everywhere during the early 1800’s. The incentives were created as part of a strategy to separate the country’s economy from European interests, and it was a sweeping success.
By 1860, Costa Rican coffee was being exported to the United States, Britain, and other major markets around the world. The country prospered from the financial growth that the coffee industry brought into the country. The infrastructure improved. Roads, and train tracks were built, and with all the modern amenities, tourism began to increase.
The 1900’s brought swift changes to the coffee industry, as other countries began to enter the coffee production trade. Brazil had already become a major force on the market by 1900, and Honduras and Guatemala were soon to follow suit. Then World War II shut down the majority of coffee exports to many major markets. Many small coffee farms began to dissolve as the demand for Costa Rican coffee was at an all-time low.
There were still a good number of coffee farmers in Costa Rica that chose to weather the storm, and eventually, the markets opened back up and the country’s coffee industry slowly began to grow again. The 1980’s brought with it a fungal blight on the country’s coffee crops. Coffee farms began to recover nearly a decade later, but the demand for Costa Rican coffee had lulled again, causing more coffee farmers to sell their properties to other interests.
With the country’s economy still coasting due to the tourism industry, more and more coffee farmers abandoned their farms to pursue other business interests. Even though Costa Rica has seen a major decline in coffee production, and are now only responsible for about 1% of the world’s coffee exports, there are still quite a few farms that remain, and they have benefited from the absence of competing farms in the country.
One percent of the world’s production may seem small, but Costa Rica still produces enough coffee to rank as the 15th largest coffee producing country in the world. Now that the market has started to shift towards single origin specialty coffees, Costa Rican coffee demand is rising again, and the farms that stuck it out are once again cashing in.
A History of Colombian Coffee
Coffee has been a part of Colombian life since the early 1700’s. Brought into the country by Spanish settlers, the first small coffee farms began appearing shortly thereafter. Colombian coffee was kept within the borders initially, as commercial coffee production didn’t begin until the 1800’s. As the coffee craze began to sweep across the globe, the demand for coffee imports began to skyrocket, and the Colombian coffee industry was born.
Colombia’s coffee industry grew exponentially throughout the 1800’s, aside from a brief lull in market demand, which happened around the same time as the country’s civil war. This lull was actually a good thing for the country’s coffee industry, especially for small farms, as plantation owners abandoned the industry and sold their farms off to their workers, leading to the emergence of a wave of new coffee farms, now fully owned and operated by the country’s working class.
Colombia’s economy benefits greatly from the coffee trade, and in the early 1900’s, the country’s government gave the coffee industry a huge boost, developing a program to help the smaller, rural coffee farmers with their coffee exports. A Colombian coffee farmers union was formed in 1927 to help look out for the best interests of coffee farmers across the country, and the added interest, and assistance from these programs helped lead Colombia to becoming the world’s third largest coffee producing country.
In the 1950’s, the famous Colombian coffee advertising campaign introduced the world to Juan Valdez, a fictional Colombian coffee farmer, who would boast of the quality of the country’s coffee, while leading a donkey through a mountainous Colombian terrain. Juan Valdez greatly helped spread the word that the country of Colombia made the world’s greatest coffees. Colombia is not only one of the world’s largest coffee exporters, but they are also one of the world’s largest coffee consumers. Over 30% of the coffee produced in Colombia is sold inside the country itself.
Head to Head: Costa Rican Vs. Colombian Coffee
When it comes to single origin, organic, specialty coffees, there are hundreds of excellent roasts available, and there are certainly top-tier coffees grown in just about every country that specializes in coffee farming. With so many incredible options on the market, and so many complex and unique flavors coming from small farms around the world, it’s very hard to rank the origin countries, let alone the best roasts from each one. However, the key factor that separates Costa Rican roasts from many other coffee producing states, is their commitment to quality.
Larger countries, like Colombia, have plenty of small farms that produce high-quality specialty coffees that can easily compete with the best coffees from Costa Rica, but they also have mega-farms that produce low quality robusta beans for mass market coffee brands. Though Costa Rica is responsible for a very small percentage of the world’s java, they only produce the highest quality coffees, and their grading system insures that only the best beans are used in their premium roasts.
So we will take Costa Rican coffee over Columbian for this head to head matchup. Colombian coffee, though taking an L in this battle, is still well worth investigating and should never be thought of as a weak link in the world of specialty coffee production. There are lots of great coffees from both Costa Rica and Colombia, and if you are a coffee connoisseur, you owe it to yourself to try them all.
Everyone has a different palate, and everyone will have different traits and characteristics that they will find agreeable or disagreeable when trying out new roasts. Though it is human nature to form habits in regards to the foods and drinks we consume, often returning to our favorites instead of choosing to try a new, more adventurous option, it is important to try new things regularly so that you are constantly developing your palate and learning your personal preferences. How do you know whether you like something or not if you never try it? This is especially true with coffee, as it is a delicate beverage, with unique, subtle, and nuanced flavors. We recommend trying as many Costa Rican and Colombian roasts as possible, as well as other specialty coffees from around the world.