On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I witnessed a "revolution," though thankfully not the kind that culminates in a coup d'état. What I saw was the so-called "micro-mill revolution" -- a new way in which coffee is processed and sold, that could help transform the way specialty coffee is traded, to the betterment of all involved.
But before we get to the method some Costa Rican farmers are employing, it's probably important to explain a bit about how most coffee is traded. The majority of coffee in the world is grown by small farmers, with plots of land generally no bigger than a couple hectares. Those farmers are usually a part of a co-op or producer group (in which case their coffee is bought by the organization, blended together, and sold as large lots), or independent, in which case they would typically sell their coffee cherries to collectors for processing, blending, and selling to market.
While this can be an efficient means of getting coffee to market for buyers, it also represents a large gap in the value chain for many farmers -- if their product has been homogenized with the coffee of many others, and bought as an "incomplete" product, the collectors and processors (or mills) are able to cash in on that missed value. The coffee also loses a great deal of its traceability, and additionally, the quality of blends are inherently middling, as is anything when different calibers of a product are mixed.
This is the way small producer-grown coffee has worked for decades, and it is advantageous, for buyers particularly, when used in conjunction with the current commodity-based way of coffee trading. But in this day and age of a culture obsessed with high-quality products purchased with sustainability in mind, the new generation of coffee roasters are actively working to adapt their business models to meet their customers' expectations.
Now, back to Costa Rica. On my first visit to the country, eight years ago, I saw what was then the common way of doing business: coffee was grown by estates, or by farmers who sold their cherry to mills for processing. Fast forward to 2014 and the aforementioned micro-mill revolution seems to have taken the country by storm.
There are now far more farms milling (taking the coffee from cherry to "green" coffee, which is the product roasters buy from origin) their own coffee. You may ask, why would farmers choose to add capital expenses and more processes to their lives? Simply put, because it earns them more money and the pride in knowing that the full potential of their harvest can result in some of the best coffees in the world.