High on the rainforested slopes of craggy volcanic peaks, among lush rows of orange-flowered pro trees and twittering, exotic birds, something very special is happening. The rainy season which has battered the verdant mountains has ended, and with the November sun comes the nationwide harvest season. Families in their droves spill out over the hills to collect the country’s most precious edible: coffee berries. They pluck only the perfectly cherry-red ripe one off the bushy plants by hand, one by one, leaving the paler ones to wait a little longer. It’s a labour of love, but just one sip of the final steaming brew proves that it’s all worth the effort.
Bright, zesty citrus; sweet, smoky chocolate; ripe, juicy stone fruit — they’re just some of the aromas and flavours you’ll detect in Costa Rican-grown coffee. A world away from bitter, instant blends, the finest of the country’s beans could be compared to the top wine grapes of Bordeaux or the Napa Valley. Coffee experts consider Costa Rica a crème-de-la-crème producer; in fact, the most sought-after of local beans, such as some of those from the famed region of Tarrazú, fetch hundreds of pounds a kilo. But in truth, all the coffee grown here, even on humble family plots, is of the highest quality. That’s thanks to a magical formula found only in Costa-Rica, comprising unique growing conditions, meticulous production standards and an undeniable, country-wide obsession with all things coffee.
“When it comes to a local relationship with coffee, nowhere comes close to Costa Rica,” says Glenn Jampol, who along with his wife Teri runs the Finca Rosa Blanca coffee farm in the Central Valley. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in one of the country’s best restaurants, or if you go to a tiny family garage soda restaurant in San José – they’ll always make you an amazing pour-over. Unlike some countries that export all of their quality coffee, in Costa Rica it’s almost impossible to get a bad cup.”
This across-the-board deliciousness is largely thanks to the fact that by law Costa Rican farmers must grown the superior, pricier Arabica bean — rather than the cheaper, bitter Robusta, which often bulks out production in many neighbouring countries. The Arabica hallmark isn’t only its refined, complex flavour, but its excellent acidity.
“Acidity is a good word when you’re talking about coffee,” says Glenn, who, along with many other local producers, offers daily coffee tours and ‘cupping’ (tasting) at his farm. And one of the most important factors in maintaining acidity is elevation — something that Costa Rica has plenty of, with some plantations having a circumference of up to 1,700 miles. Of course, the country’s unique volcanic soils, selective hand-harvesting methods — as well as meticulous processing, drying and milling — all add to the quality equation. And, in Glenn and Teri’s case, there’s an extra ingredient: an organic, biodiverse approach, which sees hundreds of native tree species and birds flourish among their coffee plants.
Costa Rica was founded on coffee — the butter-hued buildings in San José, once owned by powerful coffee barons, attest to that. But despite its long history, it’s an industry that refuses to rest on its laurels. Innovation is rife, particularly when it comes to the search to find ever-more sustainable methods. For example, while some producers have made teas from the usually-discarded fruit, or ‘pulp’, of the coffee plant, Glenn and Teri have used theirs to produce a unique flour, which they serve as baked treats at their farm’s onsite luxury lodge. The rooms have forest-facing balconies, wood-panelled skylights and rustic tiling, and visitors say it’s dreamy falling asleep here, lulled by birdsong. But nothing beats waking up to sweeping views of the farm — and the best cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.
With the launch of British Airways’ direct flights from London Gatwick to San Jose in April 2016, Costa Rica is more accessible than ever before. TUI also offers direct fights from London Gatwick to Liberia. Air France, KLM, United and Delta all operate indirect flights in to San Jose, via their respective hubs.