We first met Mauricio by chance. In March 2014 we were in Tarrazu, travelling around farms as guests of Exclusive Coffees, an exporter based in the region. After the last farm visit, our driver had to make a quick errand to see a friend, whose child had broken his hip and couldn’t leave home. The driver dropped off a gift for the boy, while we made some conversation with his father. He was also a coffee farmer, he told us stories of his passion for coffee production and of how his son wanted to become a barista. The next day we asked the staff at Exclusive about Mauricio, and were able to cup his coffees. Some of the cleanest naturals we had ever tasted shone on the table, along with clean and crisp honey-processed coffees. We visited Altos again the next day, and bought our first couple of bags. The coffee was so well received back in Denmark that we returned to Costa Rica the next year to visit Mauricio and buy more coffee. And so the relationship has continued, visiting and cupping with Mauricio, watching his son continue to be inspired by his father’s work, tasting as the quality rises, and increasing the volume we purchase.
We’re excited that the trust built between Mauricio and ourselves over the last many years has led to this point, where we are able to showcase a wide view of his work to so many of those who truly appreciate it.
Over the last 20 or so years, the coffee market in Costa Rica has
been in a state of upheaval, in a process dubbed the Micro-Mill Revolution. Over the past
year or so the very low C-market price for coffee has come under the spotlight. The C-price
is the base commodity price for green coffee, decided on the New York Commodities Exchange
based on speculation, supply and demand. It has now been below $1 per pound for some time,
below the cost of production for many producers, causing them to rethink their business
models or even their involvement in the coffee industry. This is a very tough time for
coffee producers, and although we (and many other specialty roasters) pay far above the
market price for all of our coffees, and don’t rely on the market price when agreeing what
to pay a producer, even as a whole we are a very small part of the industry. A market price
this low creates a completely unsustainable industry, and finding a way through this crisis
is a present and serious concern for everyone in coffee.
The last time the price was this low was in the late 90’s, which triggered the changing market in Costa Rica. In Costa Rica the cost of production is somewhat higher than in most surrounding countries, the tree stock is mainly of high quality but low yielding varietals, which need lots of external inputs to grow well. Costa Rica is also a slightly more developed country than some others in Central America, so the coffee pickers and farm workers here also demand a higher wage. All of this meant that the coffee producers of Costa Rica needed to dramatically lower their cost of production, which some did, or find a way to break free of the grip of the commodity market price. By processing and milling coffees themselves, the farmers were able to keep much more of the value of their green coffee than by delivering cherry to huge mega-mills, which were blending coffees together, taking a cut, and selling at the very low commodity price. Many farmers began banding together and exporting coffees themselves, dealing directly with coffee roasters to maximise the value they could receive for their work. Excitingly for us, this also gives much more traceability of exactly where lots come from, and how they are grown and processed. The farmers are able to have total control over important stages of the coffee production process, including fermentation and drying, allowing for more experimentation, producing small boutique lots which are kept separated for the waiting specialty coffee sector. The micro-mill revolution was also in part spurred on by environmental pressures, water and electricity are scarce commodities in the coffee growing lands of Costa Rica. The new smaller mills were much more efficient and used new methods such as honey processing, which creates less of a drain on the precious natural resources of these beautiful and remote regions. Some of the older and larger mills used to power down at dinner time to allow the surrounding villages enough electricity to prepare food, such was the scarcity of resources in the 90’s.
Now, the micro-mill revolution has fully taken hold in Costa Rica. Small farmers wet mill coffees on their farms, and share knowledge on fermentation and drying methods, new varietals and fertilisers. Dry mills are built to keep separation, and maintain traceability of micro-lots from tree to roaster. This leads back to our relationship with Mauricio. He ferments and dries all of his own coffee, allowing him complete control over this important stage of the coffee process. For years he has produced some of the best Costa Rican coffees we have ever tasted, and has recently begun to produce a wider range of processes and varietals. This experimentation leads to a much wider range of coffees coming from Altos, allowing to showcase more of Mauricio’s work.
We are proud to have been able to advise on and be part of some of Mauricio’s recent experimentation, and that we have been able to purchase such a wide range of coffees with a wide range of taste profiles from his farm. These small experimental lots also allow us to pay a higher price that reflects Mauricio’s greater outlay and expert work.