Diving Back into Costa Rica

This piece comes directly from owner and co-founder Aleco Chigounis. 

The first country I ever worked in and one in which I have deep roots, Costa Rica is singular in that it’s one of the few coffee-producing countries where coffee farming is a truly viable business. 

As we embark on this new origin voyage in Costa Rica, we hope to better understand and be part of the realities behind this success and apply them to our other core origins. The upward mobility of producers is always front and center in our work, but a constant struggle in most coffee-producing regions, especially the remote smallholder communities we’ve built our model on. These first purchases from Costa Rica represent the next step in exploring how that mission can look different from place to place and is constantly evolving as the core of what we do. 

History

While new to Red Fox as a coffee source, Costa Rica is not new to me personally. I have history there beginning in 2002 when, four days after graduating from college, I hopped a plane to San Jose to work for Rodrigo Vargas of the famed Doka and Santa Eduviges Estates. Rodrigo was in the midst of opening a roastery and a series of coffee shops along the trail from his farms in Alajuela to the Poas Volcano. He wanted help getting this business off of the ground. He brought me down to do just that.  

I started with zero experience on the origin side but all of the will and desire to get down there and learn. I had never even been to mainland Latin America before jumping on that plane from Newark. I had no clue what to expect. Doing so forever changed my life, powerfully. My life and career were instantly propelled down a singular path focused on green coffee sourcing. I’m still very much on that journey thanks to Rodrigo, Arnoldo Leiva, Manuel Morales, Juan Ramon Alvarado, and the countless others who either took me under their wings or gave me opportunities to help me climb that ladder as a coffee professional.  

After a year working between Rodrigo’s estates and his export company, The Coffee Source, I moved on to run a joint venture for the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe between Costa Rica, Guatemala, and InterAmerican Coffee in Houston. Over the course of my time down there I had the opportunities to learn from the farm level through export, working for an independent producer and then the largest wet milling operation in the country. I trained with many who still might be the best cuppers I’ve ever learned from. These were very much my formative coffee training years.  

Changing of the Tide

Strictly from the sourcing end of the spectrum, I did my best work in Costa Rica after having moved to Portland. I became the buyer for Stumptown exactly in tandem with the launching of what was coined as “The Costa Rican Micro Mill Revolution.” Prior to this tidal shift, coffee farmers in Costa Rica historically did just that: farming. Centralized wet mills dominated the landscape for over a century. Producers tended their farms over the course of the year through harvesting, bringing their cherry down the mountain to either a cooperatively-held or privately-owned washing station where their coffees were blended with that of other farmers across their greater region. In Costa Rica, differentiation and brand identity didn’t exist for those other than the largest landholders.  

That is, until the early aughts. Coffee farmers ranging from just a few hectares of production to several dozens of hectares began investing in processing equipment along the lines of mechanical demucilagers over traditional fermentation methods. Costa Rica has some of the strictest environmental standards of producing countries when it comes to water contamination and reintegrating water back into the local waterways. With mechanical demucilagers, smaller producers now had the ability to keep their product identity intact and therefore extend value for their goods.  

The Costa Rica I left in 2006 was not the Costa Rica I came back to buy from in 2007. 

Since then, producers have been able to gain control over their own supply chains and branding from start to finish. Other factors help producers succeed. It’s a country with a great education system and fantastic roads. It’s a small country, making transport and access far easier than other origins we’ve built Red Fox around. Production is also small in Costa Rica, and scarcity means higher prices. Producers there don’t just survive, they make a viable living.  

Red Fox Producer Alliance

The producers we kick off our Costa Rica campaign with are virtually all folks that I had bought from for a very long time prior to founding Red Fox in 2014. Tonio Barrantes from Herbazu in Lourdes de Naranjo, Ricardo Perez from Helsar de Zarcero in Zarcero de Naranjo, Hector Bonilla from Don Mayo San Marcos de Tarrazu. These folks are the pioneers of that micro mill movement almost 20 years ago.  

We’ll be offering a series of processing sets from these three mills later this month. Keep your eyes open for details.  

Why Now?

When we started Red Fox, it was with a goal of helping smallholders in remote, isolated areas gain specialty market access and brand recognition for their superb coffees and communities. On starting the business, I didn’t look to Costa Rica for just that reason: they didn’t need that kind of uplift. It wasn’t complicated–the value we could bring to the table was to work in the places that had less marketplace access, not places where sourcing was already viable. 

So what’s changed? Over the last few years we’ve been in more and more frequent contact with old producer partners, who’ve reached out with the intent to increase their diversity of buyer. With our long-term relationship, they’re looking past the exclusivity they have with current supply chains and want to broaden their options. From our end, we had previously shied away from profiles outside of those that washed coffee brings to the table so consistently. But 2022 has brought new experiences and an expansion of our own minds and palates. We’ve bought more sundried coffee than ever from our partners in Ethiopia, and we’re excited to bring on new profiles from Costa Rica to diversify our customers’ menus as well. 

2022 Season

This year, we’re working with four different producer families. 

The biggest share comes to us from Finca Las Nubes in the Dota Valley of Tarrazu, up around 1800 masl and owned by Roberto Mata. He’s the only one we’ve never bought coffee from before, but not because it’s a new relationship. When I was buying Costa Rican coffee with Stumptown, he was a leader in a large cooperative, and we’ve been friends since the beginning. Now that he’s retired, he grows his own coffee: 

Finca Las Nubes: fruit forward, refreshing, Rainier cherry, kiwi, lemon-lime. 

We’ve purchased several lots from a wet mill called Don Mayo In San Marcos, Tarrazu, owned by the Bonilla family. Multi-year COE winners, they were one of my biggest sources back at Stumptown.

Don Diego Washed: yellow plum, green apple, toasted sugar

El Beneficio Yellow Honey: pear, carob, blondie

La Ladera Yellow Honey: Hosoi pear, red honey

San Miguel Anaerobic Natural: articulate Bing cherry, fresh-cut strawberry

Don Mayo Natural: green grape, spring honey (fresh, ethereal) 

Los Tucanes Red Honey Geisha: ripe blackberry (very tart but sweet), high percentage cocoa

Herbazu comes to us from the Barrantes family in La Planada, possibly the one we’re most excited about. Antonio Barrantes is one of the pioneers of this micromill revolution, and his coffees are spectacular. These lots include the famed Costa Rican Villasarchi variety.

Finca La Planada Washed: clementine, tropical lime, refreshing finish. Possibly my favorite of all. 

Finca La Planada Yellow Honey: honeysuckle, green grape, meyer lemon

Helsar De Zarcero comes from the Perez family, Ricardo and his two daughters, in Naranjo in the West Valley. We’re buying just a little this year but there’s lots of room to grow. 

Finca Las Casuarias Washed: Raisin, milk chocolate, fresh whole milk or cream finish

Finca Las Casuarias Red Honey: Golden raisin, dried redcurrant, green apple

Interested in sourcing coffee with us? Reach out at info@redfoxcoffeemerchants.comTo learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.