For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.
Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.
In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.
At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.
The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.
Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.
By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.
[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]
Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.