It’s hard to say there is one defining characteristic of Nicaraguan coffee. Some have the balance and “crowd appeal” of Mexican coffees from Oaxaca, mild milk chocolate roast tons. The coffees of Matagalpa come to mind. Others have a more pronounced acidity: Some are mildly citrusy and light bodied, such as the coffees of Ocotal and Dipilto.
The botanical cultivars utilized are usually old, traditional selections: Typica, some Bourbon and Maragogype dominate, along with Caturra and Pacas. There is some of the less desirable Catimor types too, but many farms removed it after the “catimor craze” 10-20 years ago passed. Catimor is a family of coffee varieties with some Robusta genes mixed in with Arabica, and while it produces a lot of coffee and has some plant disease resistant, it doesn’t generally cup as well as other pure Arabica varieties.
When in season, we offer some new “exotic” cultivars too: a Pacamara, a “Java” cultivar and the large bean Maragogype. There’s also the large bean Maracaturra (as the name implies a cross of Maragogype and Caturra varieties). It can have the depth of Maragogype and a citrus like accent. These coffees are all “spontaneous” mutations, not produced in a lab, but by natural cross-pollination events on farms.
Processing variations are now popular in Nicaragua too. Pulp Natural process is also a variation that gives the cup great body and a slightly rustic fruited layer. Pulp Natural is also called “honey coffee”, simply because the fruit left on the bean when drying is often yellow and sticky like honey. Dry process coffee is gaining popularity too.
It seems that many of the growers in Nicaragua, sensing that the value of their Caturra coffees reaches a certain ceiling and rises no further, are trying many combinations of coffee variety and processing to command higher prices.
We value the approachable sweetness and restraint of wet-processed old-style varietals like Bourbon and Typica, and their offspring like Caturra. We feel that an occasional foray into the exotic is fine, but people want to drink these classic coffees more often than unbalanced, one-off, odd coffees. So we like to see growers focus the core of their efforts toward these sweet and elegant coffees, not the flash-in-the-pan varietals or processing experiments.
If you are a fan of a heavy Full City or Vienna roast (in either case, you are letting the 2nd crack start and you stop the roast before it gains its momentum), then you really need to try a Jinotega or Matagalpa Nicaraguan at that roast level.
They have enough body to stand up to dark roasts and the great balance and pungent bittersweetness is unparalleled! Roasted to Vienna stage, these coffees can make excellent and unique single-origin espresso.
Nicaragua produces fairly large volumes of wet-processed coffee. There can be a very “commercial quality” approach to this system in many cases.
Farmers will process their individual lots, fermenting the small amount in a bin or plastic buckets, then partially dry the coffee. The “humid” coffee is bagged up and sold, sometimes through middlemen called “coyotes,” to the larger mills.
The coffee is often trucked to lower, hotter areas like Esteli, where it is unbagged onto plastic tarps to dry on the ground.
There are many problems with handling the coffee like this, particularly that the partially dry parchment coffee can become musty or moldy in the bags, and when finally dried it is at extreme high temperatures. The system is built for expedience and speed, not quality.
Yet there are many farms that process their own coffee, along with neighbors, taking great care in fermentation and drying.
There are nice coffees from the areas of Matagalpa and to some extent Jinotega, old names when it comes to quality coffee. But we prefer the state of Nueva Segovia in general, between the city of Ocotal and the border with Honduras.
This area has great altitude and climate for quality coffee, and seems to be our area of focus in recent years.