I had been in Central America for a few days when I visited Coopetarrazu. Their warehouse and office building was easily the biggest building in the small city of San Marcos de Tarrazu. It felt more like a community centre than a headquarters due to its 1980’s feel and the impressive number of people who seemed to be wandering around the building. However we were quickly greeted by Carlos Rivera, the co-op manager, and what ensued was more than reassuring — it was surprising.
I knew Costa Rica had a rich history in the coffee industry, but it was revealing and thought provoking to be presented with the history of this co-op. Started in 1960 with fewer than 300 farmers, the co-op was created in an attempt to step forward in the coffee industry. I am sure that many things contributed to the founding of the co-op, but Carlos highlighted three main areas. Firstly, Coopetarrazu was established to bring control of regional commercial activities back to the farmers. Secondly, it was founded to create an organization which was concerned for both the well being of the farmers and the economic development of the region. Thirdly, it was established to stop the unfair practices of the bigger commercial forces.
When I heard the history of Coopetarrazu, I responded with a deepening sense of respect. You can’t read or hear those initial hopes and ideals and not be impressed. In fact, even today I would call them ‘progressive’ ideals. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise that they are major contributors to Tarrazu’s international recognition on the coffee scene. Yet despite its rich historical past, it is what the co-op is doing today that enticed me to come and visit.
Co-op Tarrazu is taking another step forward with an amazing programme called Community Coffees. Taking their cue from a recent trend in consumer buying, they are trying to bring recognition to individual coffee communities. Traceability will thus increase because an individual community’s coffee will no longer be simply lumped into one large collection; instead they will keep the coffees separated so that we can begin to profile lots from the smaller micro-regions of Tarrazu. In some regards, this increased traceability alone would be enough to generate greater interest in buying their coffee. But there is more!
The traceable coffees receive a premium when they are sold because they are a specialty grade. However, the premium is structured in such a way that a percentage of the profit goes directly back to the community. What happens next is amazing. The entire community is involved in deciding how the money is spent. In the past year, participating communities decided to spend the money mainly on helping strengthen the infrastructure i.e. bridges and roads. This doesn’t help one individual alone, but contributes to the betterment of the whole community. In the future, the hope is that the money will also expand into education, such as the construction of schools and school programmes and, of course, contribute towards agricultural needs.
Hearing the intent of this programme was exciting — but the quality of the crop is still the driving force for a purchase. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was that several of the coffees really were exceptional. Two communities in particular stood out, San Guillermo and Alto San Juan. San Guillermo had the best dry aroma on the table — rich, buttery, caramel, slightly floral — and Los Altos had this really refined and delicately mastered taste to it. Coopetarrazu has also hired Ricardo Hernadez of La Candelilla Estate Coffees to consult for this new programme. His formidable track record and work bring a bit of backbone and real credibility to the new programme. I can’t wait to see how our team roasts and prepares these coffees!
Starting a new relationship always involves some risks. However, there are those special moments when things seem to align and carry enough positive weight to move a decision forward. These Community Coffees are a case in point. Not only will we receive a quality product, but we are entering into a relationship with a partner with both a healthy organizational past and the potential to do some real good for the people of Tarrazu, now and in the future.