The rich landscape of Costa Rica is famous for its high-quality coffee beans and cacao fruit, but until recent years, the country has been primarily an exporter—with the best of its raw materials roasted, brewed, and blended far from its borders. But the times, they are a-changin,’ and all for the better if you love a rich cup of joe or the taste of artisanal chocolate. Now when you visit Costa Rica, you’ll find a robust coffee and chocolate culture and witness a new national pride in the country’s locally-grown products. Here’s where and what to sip, savor, taste, tour, and ultimately take home with you.
Costa Rica has long produced some some of the world’s most coveted chocolate and coffee, but most of the truly grade-A, world-class good stuff was never for Costa Rican consumption. Instead, for example, Belgium-based chocolate behemoths like Hageland source Costa Rican cacao to process in Brussels, and Starbucks roasts and serves Costa Rican-sourced coffee beans worldwide (both companies continue to do so today; and there are even 11 Starbucks locations within Costa Rica). Coffee and chocolate export sales contribute plenty to the country’s economy—and there’s nothing wrong with that—except that Ticos themselves rarely experienced the best of their country’s beloved products. For decades, the typical cuppa or candy consumed in country was of a lower-grade and quality than the beans and cacao that international buyers eagerly snapped up.
Even local chefs and café owners had difficulty purchasing locally-grown products, as growers knew they could get a better price abroad. “When I had my first restaurant, Bakea, from 2002 and 2008, I was shocked that we could not find specialty local coffee for our restaurant,” recalls chef Camille Ratton, who now owns and runs the renown San José-based coffee shop Cafeoteca and restaurant Kalú, both located in Barrio Escalante. “We had to buy and import our coffee.”
These days, Ratton says, the situation is completely different.
The Cultural Shift Around Coffee and Chocolate in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a coffee gold mine with eight distinct bean-growing regions, and cacoa literally was gold, as Costa Rica’s powerful indigenous Chorotega people (alongside the Incas and Aztecs) once used the pods as currency. Trade, in the form of both of these covetable specialty treats, has been going on for hundreds of years. But within the past decade, a shift has been in the works. There’s been a surge of third-wave coffee shops (that is, sellers that are part of a larger movement to serve high-quality coffee), and with that, a rising interest in also serving locally-grown beans. Cacao growers, while never exporting cacao at the world-player level of coffee (yet, anyway), have grown in number due to a rising interest in artisanal, locally-produced chocolate and gourmet bean-to-bar operations. Local fine dining restaurants and cafes have clamored to claim part of the harvests of producers, and food tourism—in the form of travelers visiting coffee fields and chocolate factories—has also sparked an interest in keeping more of Costa Rica’s fine goods in the country.
“Coffee, especially, is finally a thing now,” says Ratton. “Today there are plenty of coffee-related projects, and specialty coffee is no longer a hidden gem. Cafeoteca is just one of those undertakings.”
Cafeoteca’s Role in Changing Costa Rica’s Coffee Scene
Cafeoteca, a name that loosely means “coffee library,” opened in 2013. Chef Ratton and her husband, Juan Ignacio Salom, own it, the fusion restaurant Kalú, and a design boutique, all three of which shares space in a renovated home in the upscale neighborhood of Barrio Escalante in San José.
In 2014, Cafeoteca made headlines for selling a $6 cup of coffee, a price unheard of in a country where java generally went for about a third of that. Why so pricy? That same year, coffee farm La Mesa in Tarrazú—the country’s most famous coffee-growing region—took top honors in the Costa Rica Cup of Excellence competition. The award that typically guarantees a grower top dollar for all of its beans from an international buyer. But for the first time, Costa Rican roaster Café Boleto (one of Cafeoteca’s two roasters) purchased a portion of the winning beans. Cafeoteca in turn served up cups of the Costa Rica’s highest-rated coffee, a total flip for a country known for growing the best and drinking the worst of its beans.
Fast-forward three years, and Ratton still aspires to celebrate Costa Rican coffee, as well as introduce it to Ticos and tourists alike. “There are eight coffee regions in Costa Rica and we are the only coffee shop in the country, or maybe the world, to have at least one variety of coffee from every single one of them,” she says proudly. “In total, we roast and pack more than 25 different types of specialty coffee.”
Cafeoteca now buys green coffee directly from the farms on a yearly basis, plus tastes and grades every crop purchased, Ratton goes on to say. She and her team roast weekly batches for use as a blend at Kalú, and all the single state coffees are sold at Cafeoteca. And her well-trained baristas use both the modern equipment and techniques that coffee connoisseurs will recognize, from the V60, Chemex, and AeroPress, to a chorreador (a traditional Costa Rican drip coffee technique), and cold brew. The cafe also maintains an online coffee shop for the U.S. market, and importantly, one aimed at servicing the Costa Rican market, too.
Costa Rica’s New Wave of Artisanal Chocolate—and Chocolate Experiences
Ratton is also a supporter of Costa Rica’s rising set of chocolatiers, especially for use at Kalú. “We work exclusively with Grade A+ 76% cocoa chocolate from Upala [in northern Costa Rica] that is sent directly for us every week for our desserts,” the chef states. She’s a particular fan of Sibú Chocolate, one of Costa Rica’s leading artisanal chocolate makers. “They have the best chocolate in Costa Rica,” she says. “Both chocolatiers trained in Switzerland, and work with organic Costa Rican cacao. Everything is handmade and their quality is undeniable.”
Sibú Chocolate’s factory is located 20 minutes north of San José and has become a destination in its own right. Visitors can visit the grounds, sip an indigenous hot chocolate recipe from the 1500s and sample the latest bonbons, plus watch the chocolatiers at work.
They aren’t the only ones making a Willy Wonka-style factory experience possible for chocolate lovers. Samaritan Xocolata, another fine organic chocolate maker, offers chocolate workshops where guests craft their own bars from the company’s organic, single-origin, small farm-sourced cacao. The family-run La Iguana Chocolate offers both tours and intensive day-long chocolate courses. Beloved Puerto Viejo chocolate factory Caribeans runs a regular all-you-can-eat gourmet chocolate tour and chocolate forest hike, among other cacao-centered activities. There’s others, too, especially in and around Puerto Viejo and the south Caribbean, Costa Rica’s largest cacao producing regions.
Where Else You Can Sample, Sip, or Purchase Excellent Costa Rican Chocolate and Coffee
“Don’t miss Underground Brew Cafe for its simplicity and great coffee,” recommends Ratton of a neighboring cafe in Barrio Escalante. Other well-regarded coffee destinations, both also in San José, include the indie Café del Barista and Café La Mancha, an art-filled oasis in the city center.
For chocolate, other than the makers mentioned above, look for the excellent Tsuru natural chocolate and the beautifully-packaged Nahua artisan chocolate, both local makers and brands sold throughout the country. Either of make for excellent gifts…or simply a sweet way to make the taste of a trip to Costa Rica truly linger.
Main image: The interior view of coffee shop Cafeoteca. Photo courtesy Cafeoteca