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RIO NEGRO, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Some U.S. gourmet coffee roasters have come up with a new solution to the problem of guaranteeing consistent quality in beans they sell to top-end restaurants and coffee bars: buy the farm.
Coffee connoisseurs pay attention to where and how coffee is grown, just as lovers of fine wines look to certain grape-growing regions.
Brooke McDonnell, owner of the Equator Coffee company which imports, sells and roasts gourmet coffee, began to worry a few years ago about the supply of the rare "geisha" trees found in Panama's highlands near the border with Costa Rica.
The geisha's sweet jasmine flavors are prized internationally but only a few farmers grow the variety, which can fetch more than $100 a pound at online auctions.
Instead of scrambling with competitors to scoop up enough beans to keep her customers happy, McDonnell decided to grow them herself.
Now she travels regularly from California to Panama to check on the harvest at a farm she bought a little over a year ago.
"It's a hands-on business," McDonnell told Reuters. "We view this as a combination labor of love and business venture."
Traditionally, coffee farmers and drinkers have been separated by a complex nexus of intermediaries, with coffee passing from growers, to local buyers, to exporters, to roasters, to cafe owners.
More coffee exporters have begun selling crops directly from certain farms to particular roasters, locking in prices with long-term contracts to avoid the volatile coffee market.
Only a few adventurous roasters have gone the more extreme route of becoming farmers themselves.
Texas-based Distant Lands, which owns a coffee farm in Rio Negro, Costa Rica and several others in Latin America, views the investment to grow and mill its own beans as essential to maintaining a reputation.
Distant Lands looks for a specific flavor known in the industry as a "cup profile" for its coffee. By controlling the production of beans it cuts out the hassles of dealing with multiple suppliers.
The company uprooted parts of its 281 hectares of farms in Costa Rica to make sure only one variety of trees, known as "caturra," are planted and harvested.
"At this time we are looking for the cup profile that caturra provides us in this zone," the company's agronomy manager Jorge Jimenez said, looking at rolling hills covered with coffee trees.
But the risks and work of running a farm is not for everyone, especially now as some in the specialty coffee business worry that a slowing U.S. economy will hurt consumption of expensive espresso.
Jesus Mountain Coffee, headquartered in Stockton, California, started working in Nicaragua over a decade ago but has expanded with farms, roasters, and coffee shops in Hawaii.
"It is a tough business to make a profit," company founder Mike Atherton said.
Editing by David Gregorio