I found out quickly that there was a revolution away from cooperatives and towards micro-beneficios in Costa Rica.
Less than a decade ago there were under 40 micro mills in Costa Rica as apposed to the 300 plus micros that are in operation today. That should tell you the reality of the trend. This was my first and biggest lesson about coffee on the origin side. There are all these pros and cons for both micro and coop. One of the reasons I went down to Costa Rica in the first place was because Carlos processes his own coffee and it was one of the first things he brought up to me when we drove from the airport to home.
Yet, in the first few days of being there he took me to Coop De Dota, a coop of over 600 farmers in the Dota region that Carlos also happens to be one of. I loved it immediately because they had fantastic wi-fi, so while I was waiting for the tour to begin, I facetimed with family and friends while showing them the facility. During the tour the manager of the coop mentioned how the farmers keep the best coffee for their micros and send the rest of their coffee to the coop. This makes it very difficult for the coop to produce the best coffee and sustain themselves in the market and in my head I was wondering if he was eluding to farmers like Carlos.
During the tour we watched a short video, saw the drying beds and machines, checked out the fermentation tanks, passed the cherry drop off, hung out in the green storage, conducted a cupping, and ordered coffee in their cafe. The cupping was pretty cool; a couple of German roasters joined, Intelligentsia swag and burlap bags were all over, and the cupping lab was nice. Most of the coffee was mediocre, but two or three cups really stood out. I was starting to pick up the Costa Rican terroir at this point. After I got aquatinted with the coop and their brand I realized it on everything as we left. The influence of the coop in the town they are in was very heavy from super markets, to parks, and hardware stores.
I got a good amount of experience with both the coop and micros since Carlos does both. He used coffee from La Pastora at his micro and the coffee for Guadalupe and El Llano went to the coop, and he did this for good reason. Firstly building a beneficio is a large investment and a risky one at that. Secondly, it takes much more work, technique, and know how. Thirdly, once the coffee is ready to be sold you need to decide how/who to sell it. However, you can make more for your money at the micro and the traceability is more clear. On the other hand with the coop, you don't have as much to worry about. After the coffee has grown, ripened, and harvested all the farmer has to do is drop it off at the coop to be processed. The coop pays you part of the compensation immediately and continues to pay off the rest over time. However, the prices are a low average and your coffee, no matter what quality, gets mixed in with the other farmers in the area.
Overall I figured that while the coop could produce good coffee, the micros were making better coffee. Their practices were more articulate, diverse, and agile, while the traceability was unmatched. Because farmers could make more money and be proud of their work they build micros. It is such a gigantic risk to take due to the investment in land, equipment, labor, and sales. The coop is much more dependable, but the money isn't good and your work gets lost with others, and therefore the coop is suffering because they aren't getting as much or as good of coffee. I realized that one of the biggest barricades to micros is how to sell the coffee once it is dried.