Our time on a Nicaragua Coffee Farm
If you’ve never been to a small city in the rolling landscape of Central America, what stands out immediately is the topology of the place; it feels as though a perfectly flat, old-world Spanish city was constructed mid-air over the bunched-up foothills and lowlands of the nearby mountains, and then dropped haphazardly, such that the roads and buildings were all forced to conform to the shape of the area.
This is what it felt like walking through Matagalpa, Nicaragua; there was a distinct sense that the city was determined to exist in a way that fit the geography of the country, rather than changing the geography to accommodate the city.
Mrs. Linda was our tour guide, translator, and host as we explored these cities in rural Nicaragua during our downtime. You might think an energetic, blonde, Caucasian yoga instructor would stand out in this place like this, but she seemed to pass through the city as unnoticed as the natives, due in part to her stature (short), her skin (bronzed from years of equatorial sun-exposure), her affect (unhurried), and her accent (she spoke fluent Spanish after 18 years of immersion).
She also cared deeply for the people of the area, which was why she was there in the first place -- but we’ll get back to that in another post, after taking our yearly trip to the coffee farm to pick out our favorite micro-lot.
So off we went one morning to Finca de San José, winding up into the neighboring mountains. Drinking an ice-cold Toña at 10 am in the back of a bumbling truck bed was probably the easiest part of the excursion, though if you hit a particularly bumpy section of road mid-swig, you might end up with some beer on your clothing. But this was a necessary evil; the roads leading to the coffee farm were actually built not by the state, but by the farmworkers some years back to facilitate the transportation of the fresh coffee beans. While there were definitely some sections that were well constructed and flat, erosion had already started taking its toll in other areas, and it was here that a four-wheel-drive truck was absolutely necessary. So we had abandoned our rental cars about half-way up the mountain and piled into the back of a Toyota Helix.
A COFFEE FARM, IF YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ONE, PROBABLY DOESN’T LOOK LIKE WHAT YOU’RE IMAGINING.
Coming from the eastern US, all the farms I had ever seen simply consisted of furrowed parcels of flat land, with identical-looking plants spaced out in precise intervals, ad infinitum. Perhaps a barn would be off to the side, and you’d maybe even see a mule and some chickens if you were really out in the country. But here, we were on the side of a mountain, and so the coffee plants were as well -- terraced down the mountain faces along with all of the other trees and brush.
And that’s what’s most striking, I think, is how biodiverse the farm is. There are fruit trees interspersed everywhere throughout the farm, as well as several smaller plants that may not even have direct commercial value. Immediately, you might think that all of that extra land would be better off getting cleared to make way for more coffee (who doesn’t like more coffee?), but all of the plants and trees here serve a purpose, even if their fruit doesn’t get picked or sold. For one, the variety of species helps to protect the coffee against certain insects and fungi, and the trees help to provide shade for the crop; but perhaps most interestingly, some of the flavors of the fruit trees can get imparted to the coffee just from being in close proximity.
REALLY, A COFFEE PLANT IS MORE LIKE A BUSH, AND THEY CAN GROW QUITE LARGE.
Picturing something like a large, non-pointy holly bush with bigger cherries will get you pretty close. In most countries, there is only one harvest cycle per year, and in Nicaragua that harvest occurs from November to February. Of course, there’s work to be done all year round, but during the harvest period, a large number of contract laborers come to pick coffee cherries, and they will live on the farm with their families for the entire harvest. Our yearly trip in January lies smack in the middle of this process.
It’s unseasonably rainy on the farm this time, and it’s relatively unpleasant to experience this in the back of an open truck -- especially when you didn’t bring a jacket. The past few trips have been mostly sunny and mild as expected, but this time, even the farmers are caught off guard by the rain. They haven’t seen anything like this in 50 years, and it is unrelenting. I wonder quietly whether or not it has something to do with global climate change, but apparently I didn’t need to be so quiet -- the farmers insisted that climate change was exactly the problem and that they were feeling its effects directly.
WHILE NORMALLY RAIN WOULD BE WELCOME FOR MOST CROPS IN MOST PLACES, IT IS VERY PROBLEMATIC FOR COFFEE DURING THE HARVEST PERIOD, FOR SEVERAL REASONS.
Mold and fungal growth; both of these thrive in warm, wet conditions, and that is precisely what things are like during a wet harvest.
The rain is causing the cherries to ripen at an accelerated rate. This itself is not good for two reasons:
The laborers simply cannot pick the cherries fast enough before they become overripe and rotten.
Plump, watery coffee cherries do not make a particularly good cup of coffee, as they turn red before they have time to develop a good flavor profile on the plant.
Bayardo and Alvaro, who are brothers and the owners of the farm, have done their best to mitigate these issues, however, and the coffees we get to try are excellent as usual. Sometimes the cuppings are held on the farm, but in many cases the cuppings are held at the beneficio, or the dry mill, where the washed coffee beans are dried to a final moisture level of 9-13%. It is easier to do the drying in the warm areas in the valleys as opposed to doing it on the cool mountain farm, and the beans have to get off of the mountain anyhow in order to eventually be shipped to their final destination. So the next day we head to Sebaco.
AS A TESTAMENT TO THE DIVERSITY OF THE CENTRAL AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, SEBACO WAS DIFFERENT THAN BOTH MATAGALPA AND THE COFFEE FARM.
It’s probably better to think about Sebaco as a region rather than a city; if it weren’t for the mountains off in the distance on either side, the area would’ve seemed quite at home as a level piece of farmland in the American midwest, split by a singular straight road running right through the middle. The dry mill was just off to the side of this road, and it used the area’s flat, sunny geography to its advantage.
Green coffee fresh from the farm is turned out onto giant concrete slabs to dry in the sun; workers will come by periodically with large rakes to rotate the piles of coffee so that the drying occurs evenly throughout. Drying times can vary with sun exposure and temperature, but it takes roughly a week for washed process coffee and closer to two weeks for natural process to get to the correct moisture level. At this point, the coffee can be husked, bagged, and cupped, which is exactly what we were there to do at the central testing facility.
You can find the micro-lot we selected here if you’d like to try it for yourself; it was nutty, and sweet like a red apple, with notes of cacao from start to finish. The other 3 lots we tried were good as well, but this one was both our favorite and the most similar to the previous year’s micro-lot, which was good for profile continuity for our customers already accustomed to our Nicaraguan Medium Roast.
WE HOPE TO BE ABLE TO GO BACK IN 2021 FOR OUR ANNUAL CUPPING, BUT IT IS LOOKING MORE AND MORE UNLIKELY AS THE DAYS GO BY BECAUSE OF THE ONGOING COVID PANDEMIC.
What’s even more unfortunate about this is that we will not be able to visit New Song Mission Nicaragua this year, which was started by Mrs. Linda in 2002. Our visit last year to the Mission had a big impact on our own company’s mission, but that’s something that was so impactful that it really deserves a blog post of its own.
To be continued...
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