Sunday, October 9, 2011

The ABC of the Dota Tarrazu coffee region

The Tarrazu region in Costa Rica, or Dota Tarrazu, as we like to call it in Down to Earth,  is Costa Rica's premiere coffee producing region.  Considered one of the top three regions of the world for the production of coffee along with Kona from Hawaii and Blue Mountain from Jamaica, Dota Tarrazu produces very distinctive coffee with a set of characteristics of aroma and flavor that make it unique.

-- Why do we  add Dota to the Tarrazu name in Down to Earth?  Well, to start, our farm is located in the town of Providencia, in the Dota county.  Also, it is not only a matter of pride in our harvest but also a definite issue of quality.  The Dota county occupies the highest part of the Tarrazu region, with an average of 900 feet (300 meters) higher altitude over the rest.  This creates a smoother, more balanced coffee than the norm of the Tarrazu region.  But don't get me wrong,  we are happy to be part of Tarrazu; aside from true connoisseurs that know and ponder the virtues of the Dota coffee, Tarrazu is the recognized name in the industry and like it or not, there are benefits to market our coffee under this umbrella.

Rather than getting into the characteristics of the coffee, I want to lay down the basics of the Dota Tarrazu coffee region.  This is very important because there are a lot of coffees blended with Dota Tarrazu beans, and there are a lot of coffees that claim to be from Tarrazu but like anything, there is always people who like to stretch the truth...and the boundaries of the region at the same time.

So, here is the ABC of Tarrazu:

--The Tarrazu region is made up of three counties:  Tarrazu, Dota and Leon Cortes.  That is the original Tarrazu region, known for producing a balanced coffee with very distinctive traits, like a chocolate nutty aroma, good body and high acidity.

-- The Tarrazu region has been producing Costa Rica's best coffee since 1865 and it is a key ingredient in the blends of some of the best known coffee brands.  For instance, Starbucks, Peet's, Green Mountain, Nestle/Nespresso, Hockland Kaffee and many others buy Tarrazu coffee in great quantities to flavor their blends. In some cases, like Starbucks, they sell  a Costa Rica Tarrazu blend and identify it as such.  Also, Starbucks has used beans from Dota Tarrazu for its Black Apron specials a couple of times in the last few years.

-- Origin of the name:  The coffee region is known as Tarrazu because, when coffee production started in 1865, Tarrazu was the only county, so the entire production of coffee was credited to it.  The Tarrazu county was officially created in 1868 and presently covers only 25% of its original area.  The Dota county was created in 1925 and Leon Cortes in 1961, and both areas came out of the original Tarrazu county.

This is an interesting point because marketers with an interest in the Tarrazu county claim a distinctive characteristic in the coffee produced by them, and claim ownership of the "Tarrazu" concept over Dota and Leon Cortes.  But when you look at the history of the region, the reason is a very different one.

--The three counties cover 812 square kilometers, or 313 square miles, with Dota covering the largest extension, actually 55% of the entire region.  Tarrazu covers about 30% and Leon Cortes covers 15% of the region's total area.  It is interesting to note that only 85% of the Dota Tarrazu region grows within the SHB range, 15% of it falls outside of the SHB range and is officially classified as HB.

--  Both Leon Cortes and Tarrazu have the highest percentage of their area dedicated to coffee, an average of 63% and Dota only 49%.  Tarrazu and Leon Cortes have the lowest area dedicated to forests, an average of 17% and Dota the largest, with 34%.  The main reason for these percentages is that the higher part of Dota, reaching 9,500 feet (3,000 meters) of altitude,  is not good for coffee and is being preserved as a habitat for the Quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
-- The key to the success of the Tarrazu coffee is the sense of pride that the producers put in the harvest.  A total of 95% of the region's coffee is produced in family owned-and-operated farms.  In absolute terms, there are 6,600 farms averaging 10 acres each.  Out of these, 6,000 are worked on exclusively by the family members that own it.

-- There are different cup profiles within the same region for the same reason that coffee can show different flavor if it was grown facing East or West.  For instance, the coffee from the Tarrazu county is more acidic, the one from Leon Cortes might appear "bland" to the untrained palate and the Dota cup has a more balanced taste.  When we want to get boastful, the producers of the Dota county  like to say that our coffee makes Tarrazu taste good, but the official cup profile is one where the characteristics of the three counties join to produce a distinctive taste.

-- The Tarrazu name is in the process of becoming a Protected Origin, such as Champagne, La Rioja, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.  The Department of Food & Agriculture from Spain has been a key player in the process by providing the knowledge and experience to develop a coherent and consistent body of regulations on the Tarrazu brand.  Known all over the world as a gourmet haven, Spain has many regions under a protected origin status for wine, ham, olives and many other products.

The Tarrazu protected origin is a great honor  and creates a Tarrazu brand, managed by a committee with legal control over the use of the word Tarrazu in coffee packaging.  When this process is concluded, a company will need to prove that the coffee has been grown, harvested and processed in the region in order to identify it as Tarrazu.   The comittee will legally regulate the use of the word Tarrazu and hopefully stop some of the abuse that goes on now.

-  Presently, the Tarrazu origin name is being abused in a few different ways and to set the stage for this section, let me state that there are 12 times more Tarrazu coffee being offered around the world than it is possible to produce in the three original counties.

The first issue is the abuse on the part of the big industrial concerns that market Costa Rican coffee.  They buy coffee from the surrounding counties of the region and still call it Tarrazu.  Surprisingly,  the Costa Rica Coffee Institute (ICAFE) is not helping the cause of the three original counties.  In a very political move, and under presure from the international industrial concerns, the Institute passed a resolution where the 5 counties surrounding the Dota Tarrazu region can also sell their coffee under the Tarrazu appelation. This and other positions by the Institute are being challenged in court by the Tarrazu Origin committee, the only one empowered to oversee the region's use of the name Tarrazu.

Another form of abuse is when a marketer in the destination country adds 5% or 10% of our coffee to a blend and calls it Tarrazu, or Costa Rica Tarrazu.   Most of the time, that ingredient is not even first quality Tarrazu but inferior categories that will still lend some of its characteristics to a blend.

But the worst case is when a company creates a "Tarrazu-type" blend, by using coffees from different origins that produce a similar cup profile than Tarrazu. This is the case of "Tarrazu" coffees being sold for a low price in the discount stores of the USA and CAN.  For good measure, and taking into consideration the economics of the region and the level of production, there is no chance a consumer can find pure Tarrazu coffee, or a blend with a decent percentage of Tarrazu, for under $11 a pound.

In other words, a lot of the Tarrazu coffee being sold around the world is either a knock off or "hopeful-by-proximity", and neither is the real thing.  I would go as far as saying that the true aroma and flavor of 100% pure Dota Tarrazu is a mystery for most coffee drinkers, except to the Down to Earth customers.

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1 comment:

  1. I envy this guys selling their coffee around the world. But I think the core thing in their success is the emphasize of the country, very clear prospect of country. Regards.


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