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 Caturra, 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.
We often talk about struggling farmers or underappreciated coffee workers in our blogs. As much as we’d like it to just be a trope, it’s an issue in many of the places that produce coffee around the world. And, today, we get to talk about El Salvador, a country that was once a darling of specialty coffee and progress. Now, it is a country struggling to deal with issues from gang violence to lack of government support to poverty. Like we said, we wish it was just a trope, but when you visit farms and are picked up in bulletproof cars (this happened to me twice), and citizens are afraid of going into certain areas/towns due to criminal activity, you get a real sense for the difficult situation that’s going on here.
Coffee pickers weigh the cherries they've picked throughout the day @ Los Pirineos.
So, El Salvador. It’s a country that just 40 years ago, saw about 50% of its gross domestic product come from coffee exports. Now, it’s a fraction of that. Civil war fractured the infrastructure. Other countries (primarily Brazil and Vietnam) grew exponentially in volume, forcing the national price of coffee downward. In the last decade or so, that price continued to drop, and struggles with both disease (coffee rust, just to name one), climate change (there’s been drought for five of the six last years), and political unrest. It has led to up to 30% of coffee farmers literally abandoning and walking away from their farms.
A view of the drying beds and patios at Los Pirineos.
With all this tumult, it’s awe-inspiring to see a coffee producer in this climate making a go of it. And, it’s never easy for these folks. Such is the case with Gilberto Baraona, owner of Los Pirineos Farm and Mill in Usulatán, El Salvador. Baraona, a 4th generation coffee farmer, has lived through the civil war and what the country has endured since. His family farm is in the east of the country, beyond the civil war line. In fact, during the civil war, Gilberto had to abandon the farm and found refuge in Guatemala.
Gilberto, in front of a lot of honey process coffee resting on a raised bed.
What inspires me most about Gilberto is his optimism and focus on growth and new relationships. He’s spent years looking for the right opportunity to re-invest in his farm. When coffee rust hit El Salvador, he took the blow in stride, slowly replacing his plants with newer ones that were healthier and more resistant to the disease. When rainfall was at an all-time low (due to climate change), he constructed a rain reservoir to conserve water throughout the year. When coffee prices fell, he invested in new types of processing (honey, natural, shaded raised beds, etc.) and looked for other new ways to innovate. Not to mention, he has a coveted variety garden on his farm, with near 100 different varieties of coffee growing there.
A nursery of new plants ready to head out to the fields @ Los Pirineos
For this lot, we chose a fully washed Pacamara from one of the newly renovated areas of the farm. The Pacamara variety is more resistant to rust but is cultivated for its characteristic bright and citrusy flavor. When you look at the beans, you’ll see that they’re noticeably larger than other coffee beans. In the cup, you’ll get a full palate of flavor. Up front, you’ll notice a bright, citrusy, cherry-like and caramel mouthfeel. As it rests on your palate, you’ll start to notice a unique herbal characteristic that is slightly reminiscent of hops.
We love this new offering from Los Pirineos. We hope you will as well.
We know that we’ve been showcasing different coffees from Guatemala for the past few months. We’ve had coffees from Acatenango, Antigua, and Huehuetenango, all different provinces/regions in Guatemala. What I hope you’ve all learned so far is that a “Guatemala” is not a “Guatemala.” You can’t just cookie-cutter one generalization of a country’s coffee flavor, and we hope to highlight that again with a coffee from a region you probably haven’t heard of before: Fraijanes.
So, why, Fraijanes? This region is found East of the capital Guatemala City. This region has altitudes that meet or match those in Antigua and Huehue but has a vastly different climate. When traveling over to this area, you are driving through roads and terrain that remind you more of mountainous Washington or Colorado: pine trees, sharp hills, rainy weather, and intense winds. This microclimate tends to yield coffees that are rich and bright in acidity (versus those from Antigua, which tend to have slightly more body and more of a round and balanced acidity).
Coffee cherries collected from a day of harvesting. (Photo credit to El Niagara)
Such is the case with this coffee, which comes from a farm named Finca El Niagara. Due to a combination of the variable cold temperatures and adequate rain, along with nutrient-rich soil from both the mountainsides and nearby volcano (Pacaya), coffee from this farm boasts of rich, fruity sweetness and bright acidity. The lot is composed of a mix of Caturra/Catuai, which tend to yield a round, nutty, and approachable cup character and “Catasik,” the name they give to their “elite” bourbon plants. This hit of bourbon boosts the acidity and makes the cup profile vibrant and fruity. Once picked, the lot underwent a typical Guatemala wash process and was dried on patios. The coffee was then delivered to our friends at San Miguel Coffee, who did an added layer of quality control and dry processing, sorting out defective beans and milling to a precise spec.
Pulped coffee drying on a patio at El Niagara. (Photo credit to El Niagara)
In the cup, you’ll get a mix of fruity and sweet notes. You’ll notice a lush caramel and nutty body that transforms into a ripe berry mouthfeel. As the cup cools, you’ll start to see more berry and citrus-like acidities appear, reminiscent of berry jam and tangerine.
There are some countries that I love to source coffee from because we have transparent and visible ways to see that our producers are well taken care of (sustainable farming). There are others, however, that I love flavor/profile their coffee, but the transparency of the product often falls short, which makes me second think the responsibility of buying it in the first place. If coffee is delicious, that’s awesome. But how was it sourced? How many hands has it passed through? Is the coffee producer receiving a price for their coffee? When sourcing from Ethiopia, these questions are often at the forefront of my mind.
Doing something like “direct trade” in Ethiopia has been daunting for many years. The country put the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) together to try and remedy the disparity between different farmers (similar grade = similar price, regardless of where it was grown). However, the ECX groups the same categories of coffees together from similar regions, strips away their identity (literally…all bag markings are removed), and puts the coffee into a “black bag,” where you will get the luck of the draw on the buying end. You are fortunate if you can trace a given coffee through to the other side. Seriously, this is how coffee has come out of Ethiopia for years. It gets marked at a grade, pushed together, and then a buyer wins the luck of the draw, not really knowing anything except for the quality or region. While this can lead to some tasty coffees and low prices, …it really doesn’t make me feel good about sourcing.
There have been a few advancements in Ethiopia over the past couple of decades. In 2001, the Ethiopian government allowed grower cooperatives to sell directly to exporters, avoiding having to have their coffee go through the ECX. In the past few years, these regulations have also extended to select large estate farms and to organizations that can secure payment directly to small producers BEFORE coffee is shipped. Both methods, however, require a lot of time, planning, and developing the right relationships (something that Mission is currently working on). In the meantime, we are reliant on aligning ourselves with import partners who share the same vision towards transparency and quality.
Drying beds at Kolla Bolcha. (Photo credit to Red Fox Coffee)
That’s where we’ll start talking about our new coffee, Ethiopia Kolla Bolcha. “Kolla Bolcha” is the name of the washing station where small farm holders deliver their coffee. This washing station serves d as a processing hub for everyone, and often, the quality standards of the station dictate the quality of the finished coffee product. At Kolla Bolcha, that standard is super high due to a partnership with USAID’s Techoserve, who offered both training and investment. The members of the Kolla Bolcha Washing Station jumped at the opportunity to learn and hone their processing skills. And, they received some state-of-the-art equipment (Penagos) pulpers. Similarly, they adopted processing techniques that are reminiscent of high-quality Central American coffee (pulp, soak/wash, dry on raised beds) that yield a fantastic cup quality.
The coffee cherry collection station at Kolla Bolcha. (Photo Credit to Red Fox Coffee).
This lot from Kolla Bolcha won us over on first taste. It is vibrant and multilayered like many other Ethiopian coffees, but Kolla Bolcha has a bright and stellar character that I’ve only tasted a few times before. This washed lot of Heirloom varieties will be a fruity bouquet of flavors. In the brew, we note hints of bright red currant and floral hops (almost like a lightly hopped sour beer); it will have a complexity of citric, malic, and phosphoric acidity, and finish with a sweet black tea-like finish. If you are into washed Ethiopian coffees, we recommend you check this one out. You won’t be disappointed.
To consumers, coffee can seem foreign and exotic. It’s a bean that’s cultivated thousands of miles away by some coffee farmer before it’s roasted to perfection. Then, an expert barista gets her hands on it and extracts the best flavors. The taste offers a pure sense of enjoyment from the crisp aromatics and flavor compounds in your cup.
But, for some of us, we experience a bit more than just the flavor in the cup. We renew our relationship with our producer who put their year’s work into the beans. It’s not just “grapefruit and caramel,” it’s Deyner’s family’s coffee.
Deyner Fallas-Mora, our friend and part of the amazing family at Cerro Verde Micromill.
That’s how I feel about coffees from the friends I’ve made while sourcing over the years. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about how I met the family that owns Cerro Verde, and why this relationship is so important to me. This is one of my all-time favorite coffees—it’s consistently delicious, and you can really taste the hard work that goes into it. When I taste it, I can see the people behind it and the memories from the time I’ve spent there.
My first coffee sourcing trip ever was to Costa Rica back in early 2013. When you visit one of THE places that grows coffee—the thing you’re so passionate about—you feel like a kid in a candy store. We met up with an amazing exporter who served as the platform for over 80+ micromills showcasing their coffee. I spent three days visiting over 25 different micromills and was awed by the complexity, consistency, and sustainability these producers had built.
Sidebar: A micromill is literally a small mill—a machine used to remove coffee cherry and fruit off the parchment/beans). It’s not in a regional facility. This is on their own farm and allows them to fine tune smaller batches of cherry into specific “microlots.” So, a day of picking—or even a day’s harvest from part of the farm—may be considered its own “micro” lot. Micromills are expensive to set up, so you either need a way to finance it, or you need to have earlier investment capital. If coffee farmers could all own their own micromill, they probably would.
This is the Fallas-Mora family micromill at Cerro Verde.
Back to our trip. On our third day, we drove through the mountainous area of Tarrazu. Late in the day, we stopped and met with a new micromill looking for more exposure, since they were new to selling coffee in the specialty market. This mill was Cerro Verde. Their mill was exquisite, as was the view from the top of the farm. Knowing what I knew at the time (and admittedly, it wasn’t much) I wanted to partner with them. I knew there were some risks, but I also wanted to observe the growth of a new mill (I was a new roaster, and it seemed like a cool symbiotic relationship).
It's a jaw dropping view from the Cerro Verde Micromill.
Cerro Verde is owned by the Fallas-Mora family who also owns a few small plantations. This is a family farm through and through, especially during the heart of harvest season. Their mill is cleverly tucked into the hillside around their house, and family members take up stations during the picking and milling process (from skimming “floaters” to picking out defects by hand in the drying beds).
I worked with this family for four years, buying a handful of different lots from both of their farms at the time (Concepcion and San Francisco) and learning about their improvements in picking and processing. Each time I went back, they had something new they were working on. And, every time I visited, I was welcomed to a meal like I was family. I remember brewing their coffee using a Chemex they had purchased. I could brew their coffee for them. It was special.
I left my position at the company that I was with, and, unfortunately, I don't think that relationship stuck. But Cerro Verde was still important to me. So, I reached out to Deyner on Facebook (because that’s how we communicate these days) and asked if he was interested in working together on a coffee again. I can’t buy the volume that I used to (Mission is much smaller), but having that relationship back is something important. And, when we cupped their coffee, it was like catching up with an old friend—and we were able to pick up right where we left off.
Honey process coffee drying on beds overlooking Finca San Francisco @ Cerro Verde.
The lot that we chose is a yellow honey process from Finca Concepcion. This coffee is a mix of older and newer trees and mixed varieties (Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchi). Yellow honey means that they leave a portion of the fruit on the outside of the coffee during the milling process. Not only does it save on water, but, if dried appropriately, it will impart a lingering sweetness. (We call it “honey” because it looks like someone dumped sticky, goopy stuff all over it). This coffee is dried on raised beds for 14–21 days to ideal moisture.
In the cup, you get a sweet, caramel-flavored, and dried-fruit mouth feel from the honey process. You’ll get notes of white grape and lush caramel. The Villa Sarchi adds just a smidge of grapefruit-like acidity, but this coffee is really balanced towards the sweet and lush body.
This is one of my favorite coffees ever. I hope you’ll take the time and enjoy it, and taste the hard work of the Fallas-Mora family.