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Viva la Micromill REVOLUTION en Costa Rica!

I’ll admit it. I have always found Costa Rican coffee bright, clean, fine acidity, and rather boring. It sounds like a strange combination, but when you look at the history of coffee in Costa Rica, they had always done it “right.” During the 1970’s and 1980’s, Costa Rica had raised the bar for world coffee production by making a very consistent high quality, relatively massed produced, homogeneous product.

My very first origin trip was to Costa Rica in March of 2002, and I’ve been there many times since, but returning this year, on the 200th anniversary of the introduction of coffee into Costa Rica was a great time for a homecoming of sorts. I knew something different was going on down there, that the status quo was changing, as last year, we’d finally cupped some coffees that, in my terms, had “personality.” What’s personality in a coffee? It’s that uniqueness of a cup that can take it from a very respectable 85 to 87 to over the 90 level on the cupping table.

So what was going on? One word (maybe one compound word), Micromills. Traditionally in Costa Rica, and most of the world, coffee is raised by farmers who sell it in some various state of production to someone else, who process it some more, and sell it to someone else, who collects coffee from many many people, who do something else to it, and then, finally, put it in bags to ship abroad to us. As you can tell, the farmer gets lots along the way. Brand names trump farmers, exporters trump farmers, even collectors (often referred to as coyotes in Central America) trump the farmer. The farmer does not often know the real value of the coffee and where ultimately the coffee goes. It’s just loaded up on a truck and heads off down the hill and around the corner. This type of coffee production is commodity production. Whatever special care the farmer does with his coffee, it recedes into the mass production of hundreds to even thousands of such farmers. His hard work and passion has become a standardized product.

The Micromill revolution changes all of this. The farmer tenderly grows his coffee. He carefully picks it now, picking only the ripest cherry, as his coffee will represent him now. He mills it at his own micromill. He lays it out to dry carefully, and when it’s at the right level of moisture and perfect in the cup, sells it under his name to importers and roasters who seek out the nuanced cup that can now exist.

Micromills allow micro production that allow us, the coffee drinker, to taste the region, the micro region, the farm, the varietal, and even the altitude. Costa Rican coffee used to be only Costa SHB EP (Strictly Hard Bean European Preparation) or Maybe Costa Rican Tarrazu SHB EP. Now, Costa Rican Tarrazu San Martin de Leon Cortes, Finca Cafetin, 1800 meters and over, Villasarchi varietal, is possible. Wow, too much information, eh? Absolutely not!! It matters, it all matters. Last Friday, the 13th of March, we cupped 65 samples of coffee starting at 9 am and cupping, only with some saltine crackers and fruit to starve off hunger, until 6 pm that evening. I’ll admit that was the limit of what physically we could take, but every coffee had a face to it. In the cup, and often in the other room, waiting eagerly for us.

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Are these micromills the solution to all of coffee’s problems around the world? Yes and no. Yes, when the altitude, soil, and varietals, along with the farmers care, can produce a superior cup. ICAFE, the Costa Rican Coffee Institute estimated the cost of production was $1.20 per pound green for the average farmer in Costa Rica. A rough estimate from many of the Micromill farmers that we spoke with was $1.60 per pound. Quite obviously a micromill located at 800 meters with Catimor would not make much sense, but for a farmer high up on the mountain at Chirripo who’s at 1600 meters and above who unfortunately in the past had to sell his coffee down the mountains into an area know for lowland cheap HB (hard bean – under 1200 meters) production, it could be a wise investment for a hard working farmer.

And these Micromills are big investments. From the farmers that we meet who had gone out and built one from scratch, we are talking $120,000 to $150,000 investment. This is in a country with a GDP of $6,500 per person. These farmers are small, independent farmers who are investing their money and their life to make their coffee better. Many farmers did not build at once, but built up over a few years, as cash allowed. We met two brothers who named their mill after their mother who had gone up to the U.S. to work and raise money, who then returned home and started La Lia.

The Micromill revolution started back five to seven years ago when the commodity price for coffee was so low that the farmers thought they’d save a few dollars processing, and do it themselves. This probably was not a good idea, as the economies of scale were against them, yet it allowed the farmers, who had great coffee to start with, to sell their coffee as it came from the earth, not combined with everyone else’s. These farmers are from farms such as Herbazu, Cafétin, Helsar, Don Mayo, and many other now famous names.

The sustainability of these farms is without par. Some farms are certified organic, as a few within the Helsar family, but all are family ran, using traditionally farming, that use and re-use all they can. The Micromills use mechanical pulpers that run from 20% to 5% of traditional wet processed coffees. These farmers live on the land, sell their own coffee, and run them for the long term. Profitability is a necessity, but over the long run, they are not just maximizing it for short-term overseas shareholders of the large multinationals. True sustainability is social, environmental, and economic. These farms have all of these intertwined into a degree that transcend simple certifications. Are the farms paying fairly? Yes. Are they environmental? Yes. Are they economically sustainable? Yes. It all comes down to the cup. True sustainability is only possible where social, environmental, and economics come together. Come cup the revolution!