A Taste of Tarrazu Coffee: the role of processing and micro mills in Costa Rica coffee
Tarrazu, located south of San Jose in the interior of the mountains, stands out as one of Costa Rica’s most legendary coffee-producing regions. Tarrazu subscribes to a quality-over-quantity philosophy; its rich volcanic soils, dry summers, and towering altitude makes for world-class coffee. But beyond its geographical and climatic suitability for growing delicious coffees, Tarrazu coffee farmers also pioneered the micro mill in Costa Rica’s coffee industry, setting the stage for important coffee processing innovations.
Mills and processing
Because coffee beans are the seeds that grow inside coffee fruit, there are multiple steps involved before we experience the coffee beans we roast, grind, brew, and drink. These steps include how and when the fruit is separated from the seed and when drying takes place to create the raw ingredient that coffee producers will sell. We call these steps coffee processing, and the places where processing occurs are called mills.
While it sounds simple, the process method has significant effects on coffee flavor. And just as importantly, farmers need access to a mill to sell their crop.
Impact of micro mills
In the year 2000, La Candelilla, a farm in Tarrazu owned by 7 siblings of the Sanchez family, opened Costa Rica’s first independently owned micro mill. At the time, coffee prices were incredibly low, and large cooperative mills were offering staggeringly low prices for unmilled coffee cherries from farmers. The Sanchez siblings made the decision to take control over their own coffees to produce higher quality lots and determine its final price.
This changed the game forever: The Sanchez family could not only increase their profitability and bargaining power by milling their own coffee, but it also enabled them to experiment with processing and master their craft by creating unique lots that could be traced back to them. Some micro mills even work with other farmers and process their coffees separately so they can be traceable as their own single lot. With micro mills, producers can develop traceability, regionality, and processing as key pieces of high-value coffee production.
Today, Tarrazu’s network of micro mills are important sites of experimentation for coffee processing. This year, we carefully selected the best representations of three processing methods—washed, natural, and honey—that demonstrate true mastery of coffee processing fundamentals in Tarrazu.
Available individually and as a limited-release trio set, these Reserve selections show a range of significantly variant and unique flavor profiles across the three coffees:
El Trebol: Washed Process
Fransisco Vargas produced this special lot at the El Trebol mill. The washed process entails removing coffee cherries from the seeds using a depulper, a machine that squeezes the cherries until the seeds pop out. The seeds are then moved into tanks where the remaining fruit mucilage is broken down by microbes and enzymes via fermentation and washed with water. Then, the beans are dried in the sun on patios or raised beds.
Washed coffees are an easy way to taste regionality because they yield clean and complex coffees that showcase regional attributes of coffee production. As such, it’s the most popular process method in the industry. In Fransisco Venegas’ coffee, we taste classic Tarrazu flavor notes like pecan, green apple, and brown spice.
La Candelilla: a Natural Process
From the farm and mill that started it all, the Sanchez family knocked it out of the park with this mouth-watering coffee. In this natural process method, whole coffee cherries are dried in raised beds in the sun. To prevent the cherries from spoiling, they are raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or during rain storms. After the cherries have been dried to the optimum level, they are sent to mills to separate the seeds from the rest of the dried fruit.
Because the seeds of natural processed coffee are encased in the cherry during drying and fermentation, the fruit’s natural sugars are infused into the seed. As a result, they taste fruity, sweet, and full-bodied. In La Candelilla, we taste juicy and sweet notes of strawberry and creamy Nutella.
- Vara Blanca: a White Honey Process
From the Valverde family at the Hermano Valso micro mill comes this beautiful coffee. The honey process sits between washed and natural methods; producers remove varying degrees of the coffee cherry and leave behind fruit mucilage, a material loaded with acids and sucrose that becomes sweet and sticky when dry (like honey).
There are many different variations of honey processing based on the amount of mucilage left on the seed, with darker colors representing more mucilage (red, black), and lighter colors representing less mucilage (white, yellow). Controlling the fermentation on honey processed coffees is difficult to pull off, but when done well, the result is a complex coffee that combines the sweetness and texture of a natural with the acidity of a washed. Vara Blanca perfectly demonstrates this process with notes of candied lemon and plum and a round, sweet finish.