Regalo de Dios - Changing Perception about Nicaraguan Coffees
Written by Christian Ott
Written by Christian Ott
I’ve spoken to a handful of coffee folks recently who have a set expectation of what coffees from Nicaragua taste like. This “Nicaragua” profile is predictable and lacks uniqueness from farm to farm, or even region to region. It’s not bad. It’s not great. It just kinda is.
There is a morsel of truth in that over-generalization. While I would argue that saying all of a country’s coffee “taste the same” is a flawed statement (it’d be analogous to saying that all French wines taste the same…), there is a reason why many people have built and substantiated this perception of Nicaragua coffees.
When I first visited Nicaragua back in 2014, I had an eye-opening experience that changed my perception of the coffee growing world. Before that point, I had spent most of my time traveling and seeing farms who were focused on (and had investment capital to) producing only the highest quality specialty coffees. These were places that invested in expensive processing mills, bought complex and fussy coffee varieties, and paid added labor to teach pickers how to grab only the ripest red cherries. In Nicaragua, I first got to see coffee not as a specialty product, but as a crop that people grew as cash crop. More specifically, I finally met people who were just trying to make ends meet through growing coffee. And, getting money (and food on the table) was a firmer imperative than focusing on quality or boutique processing.
A small farm I visited in Jinotega back in 2014. They did their best to dry coffee, but had to leave it exposed to the elements.
This is the truth for most coffee farmers. We like to glamorize the exotic, foreign coffee producer as this romantic image of a guy (or rarer, gal) making it big in the coffee world. Yet, this continues to be the exception, not the rule. And in a country like Nicaragua that has a lack of strong infrastructure, and having recently being shook by socio-political turmoil, there have been opportunities for large corporations to take advantage of the situation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the idea for these corporations are not to produce the best cup of coffee available: it’s to provide a means towards collecting as much coffee as they can, and making it as easy for local farmers to bring their coffee to the drying mill…even if it is at a cost minimum.
This is what a massive dry mill looks like: fields of black tarps baking coffee.
This is the system I saw firsthand in Nicaragua. As we drove into the coffee growing regions, we saw fields and fields of black tarps set up in the extremely hot (90*F+) lowlands. These black tarps were how a massive drying mill was able to churn through a ton of wet parchment coffee. They serve as a central hub for collecting regional harvests. But, it’s not a full processing mill. It doesn’t pulp and process coffee cherry. Instead, it takes partly dry parchment and finishes it down to export moisture levels. This is a highly idiosyncratic system: often small farmers (who don’t have a ton of money to begin with) are expected to pick and partially dry their coffee, often in dense rain forest type environments. This expectation, without training or investment, often yields coffees that are initially less ideal. Then, as they are delivered to the “quick dry mill,” the improperly dried coffees are then “baked” in the sun, and suffer further damage. This process yields coffees that have a noticeable “herbal” and “bitter” texture – a “typical” Nicaragua flavor.
It is only in the last few years that I’ve seen producers in Nicaragua slowly moving back towards producing quality coffee. Some farmers are slowly making new alliances with companies focused on teaching and investing in drying technology (drying beds); others have been able to transcend the norm and built true independent micromill operations.
Ripe coffee cherries from Un Regalo de Dios. Photo credit: Cup of Excellence.
Such is the case with our new coffee from Finca Regalo de Dios, a small farm in the north region of Segovia, Nicaragua. Luis Alberto Balladarez is a fourth-generation coffee farmer and has built multiple award-winning farms AND a self-contained milling operation. In fact, back in 2018, lots from two of his farms scored in the top 5 coffees in Nicaragua (Regalo won 5a and 5b…tied for 5th place). It is folks like Luis that are helping adjust the feeling of Nicaragua coffee. No longer are you stuck tasting a generic profile of chocolate and grassy flavors with an earthy body. As farmers can transcend that “typical” profile, you as the consumer will be able to taste more of the natural terroir and processing that they intend to impart to the coffee.
Advanced drying patios at Un Regalo de Dios. Photo credit: Cup of Excellence
This particular lot from Regalo is an amazing example of what a beautiful natural process coffee tastes like. (Natural process refers to the process of drying coffee inside of it’s cherry. These coffees tend to be more robust and complex in flavor if done correctly, but vinegary and pungent if not.) Our lot features a single variety: Yellow Catuai, which does extremely well with this processing style. It imparts an intense juiciness and chocolate texture that lingers from start to finish. In terms of tasting notes, you’ll notice a robust flavor of blackberry jam and cocoa with a cleanliness unexpected of naturals.
Challenge your status quo and check out what coffees from Nicaragua can taste like. I guarantee that it’ll blow your mind.