Nicaragua Coffee Regions, Matagalpa, Jinotega and …

A visit to Matagalpa and other other Nicaragua coffee growing regions around it, back in March 2009

After a quick flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, I landed at the slick new-ish airport in Managua, Nicaragua. Managua is hot, and I have yet to discover it’s redeeming factors. Chilis? Fridays? Hotel Intercontinental? Not for I. So it is off for the coffee areas of Matagalpa with Sr. Erwin Mierisch, the only Nica I know with a Texas-Tennessee accent.

Beneficio Don Esteban outside Matalapa Nicaragua – Nicaragua

The next stop will be Beneficio Don Esteban outside Matagalpa. I’ve been happy with the Nicaragua coffees we have received overall, but I am always interested in what more can be done. To borrow my friend Sr. Mena’s analogy, if Central American coffees were a class and each region a student, Nicaragua would not be the A+ student in the front row. It would be somewhere in the middle, slighly slouched in it’s school desk, ambivalent about the prospects of moving up to the A range.

View of the low, flat, warm microclimate near Matalapa – perfect for drying coffee – Nicaragua
Coffee in parchment, “reposo” – Nicaragua

Why? While there are many great initiatives in Nicaragua (Cup of Excellence, the rural cupping program, talented national cuppers, some good cooperatives, many quality small producers) there is also a large commercial industry that aims to produce the most economical and mediocre arabica coffee.

Consider this: there is a mill here that devised a technique to make pale, over-dry coffee that sat for many days, bleaching in the sun, look like fresh well-prepared green coffee. How? Rub graphite and talcum powder on it! Every country has its lower levels of arabica production, local brands, commercial specialty grades, industrial roasters that want last year’s crop or “triage coffee,” broken bits and pieces. But along with Honduras, Nicaragua aims to produce a lot of this. Partly, this is due to the powerful multinationals like Ecom/Atlantic and some big Nica exporters like Mercon which maintain a high demand for lower grades of arabica, which forces small producers to cut every corner possible to produce coffee cheaply …for which people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder ultimately pay the price.

Another view of the parchment coffee in the warehouse, Matalapa – Nicaragua
Pacamara and Java samples, pulp natural and fully washed – Nicaragua
A certain coffee broker get’s the bag stenciled – Nicaragua

Buying the best quality coffee at the best prices has a positive impact on the zero-sum game of low-end production. Visiting producers, I see the higher prices paid for quality coffee ripple through the economic pool, down to the transient picker who harvests the coffee. I came to select discrete batches of coffee this year, a single lot that was processed at the mill in one run, usually from a single day’s picking.

Pulp natural Pacamara coffee at Beneficio Don Esteban – Nicaragua

My host mentioned that the crop is small this year, down by 30% or so, and while this doesn’t always mean lower quality in the cup, I was warned that it seemed to be a down year for Nicaragua in general. This doesn’t mean there won’t be great coffees, it means that they will be few and far between, and cupping separate mill batches will be important, even with proven sources like the Java cultivar from Limoncillo farm. (In fact, I cupped 11 different Java cultivar batches from various plots and various altitudes. The difference in quality is quite pronounced, although there was a nice, mild sweetness to all the lots; I like this variety of coffee!)

At erwin’s cupping room, matagalpa – Nicaragua

We went first to Erwin’s mill in Matagalpa to set up the batches for the next day, and then headed out to the farms. I wanted to see their Finca La Minita (no, not the Costa Rica La Minita, but has been the farm’s name for many years). It straddles the line between the departments of Matagalpa and Jinotega, about 2 hours north of Managua.

Erwin’s crazy home made frankenroaster – Nicaragua

I hadn’t seen this farm before; I had been to Las Placeras, where we rode the farm on horses …er, well I got a mule. And I had seen the beautiful Limoncillo farm with it’s multiple waterfalls. But I had not seen this one, a little higher up but not that far away from Limoncillo. We picked up Erwin Sr. at his clinic in Matagalpa town, where he is simply known as “El Doctor,” and headed out. At the farm, we checked out the plot of Java cultivar and discussed the variants that are appearing now that they are into the 2nd and 3rd generation of this plant.

It seems there is a mutant short type with closer branch nodes, and a large bean mutation that looks like Pacamara. Oddly, the farm where this has appeared, San Jose, has no Pacamara, so it is not a matter of spontaneous cross-pollination.

Anyway, the La Minita farm is impressive and well-kept. I noticed the shade cover is light and many of the primary forest trees are gone, with mournful stumps here and there. Erwin did not order their summary execution and removal. In fact, the Sandinistas had done it when they controlled the area and were supplying hardwoods to Cuba. It might have been a blessing for the coffee, because while there are forested reserves on the farm and sporadic cover among the coffee trees, this area is humid and plants risk infection by the Ojo de Gallo (Eye of the Cock) fungus, so named for the spots manifested on the leaves of an infected tree.

Shade compounds the problem, as does improper or insufficient pruning of the coffee trees; they need to let more light in and allow air to circulate. Coffee cannot be planted closely, or be allowed to crowd each other with an overgrowth of secondary branches. The farm extends from 1250 meters up to 1400 or so, an average elevation for coffee in the area. Try to go higher and the permanent low-laying cloud cover that blankets the area for a good portion of the year will create the perfect condition for Ojo de Gallo. This disease, untreated, can kill a coffee tree in a week.

Next day was set aside for cupping, and a visit to San Jose farm in Jinotega. I walked the mill area early, photographing Erwin’s quarterhorse getting a workout, his brother-in-law’s 7 champion labrador retrievers, and the prize cattle they raise for fun. Then it was back to the lab at the mill for cupping. They have hired some talented cuppers here. I can just barely remember meeting Francisco Javier at the first Cup of Excellence competition I ever attended, here in Nicaragua in 2002. The roaster in the lab, Jose Vialta, also cups as well as does the apprentice Osmon.

They are tough on the coffee, and I was often a point or two above them, Erwin included. Our cupping included a vast array of varietals, farm plots and types of processing: full naturals, pulp naturals, fully washed, and at my insistence a batch of full natural under-ripe green coffee cherries! The green repela coffee cherries are sold on the local market so I wanted to see what it tasted like. It was an interesting cup, and I was surprised it was not 100% quakers. Underripe coffee does not have the organic compunds present for a proper browning reaction to occur, so no matter how much you roast a true under-ripe does not turn darker than a light tan. You see this in Harar coffees. But quite a lot of this roast did brown. Still, it was peasy, peanutty, hard, astringent, acrid, phenolic, dirty. Not a good coffee, yet interesting to taste. I washed my mouth, scraped my tongue, and went back to the good coffees.

I could see what Erwin meant, some of the farms that performed so well in the past seemed a bit soft this year, nonoffensive, clean, but without a lot of acidity or remarkable flavor. Still, I think we found some really nice batches from particular pickings, and after I recup samples in my own lab, we will be setting those up to ship. (This should make for May arrivals). I also lugged down a bunch of GrainPro bags, the new gas-impermeable liners we have been using from some origins with great success. They help even out the shock to the coffee as it is trucked down to the humid port in Honduras and to maritime temperature and moisture. We hope that getting GrainPro bags to producers and having coffee shipped this way from the farm will allow the coffee to arrive better, and to store better too. We’ll see.

I met with the new Beneficio manager from El Salvador, Don Celis, a mechanical wizard with hoards of coffee processing experience. He is making small adjustments to the equipment to improve the efficiency and quality of the milling, as well as installing some mechanical dryers to finish the coffee drying process. This is rare in Nicaragua, where the sun is abundant and free. But it may bring a measure of control to a process where the dry air and radiant temperatures from the earth can actually over-dry the coffee if one is not careful. Mechanical drying is considered less ideal than the slow, even heat of sun drying, but for the reasons mentioned, it is entirely possible Nicaragua is the exception, at least in the hot microclimate of this area of Matagalpa. We also had a nice visit from “El Doctor”, Erwin’s wife Brenda and his sisters, Maria Ligia and Eleane.

We headed out for Jinotega with El Doctor. While running the OB/GYN clinic in Matagalpa is his primary duty, coffee is important to him, as it was to his father and his father’s father who came from Germany to work on road-building in Nicaragua. At the time, anyone willing to settle and farm was given a land grant. Matagalpa was an attractive destination for Northern Europeans who brought technical expertise, old-world skills, and a desire to escape their limited life-chances in a crowded and cold Europe. Otto Kuhl of Selva Negra farm has published books on the early Mataglapans, who quickly intermarried with Nicaraguans and created a new ranch and farm economy in the area. Erwin Sr.’s father was one of those, who was paid for his work by a cash-poor government in land, and with coffee booming in the late 1800’s, it was a perfect crop for this area.

As it turns out, San Jose is an amazingly pretty farm, with views of Lago Apanas from top to bottom, and a special micro-climate that keeps arid winds circulating about the coffee and Ojo de Gallo at bay. It is on the other side of the mountain from the Cecocafen cooperative called Las Brumas, and has good altitude ranging from 1200 to 1450 meters.

The pickers were bringing in the final part of the harvest from the upper ranges of the farm, and separating the red, ripe cherry from the green unripe ones. They each have a different price at the collection point, and are measured by the lata, a standard square volumetric quantity. Other workers collect the cherry in polyester bags to haul them to the wet mill for processing.

Nicaragua is unusual; coffee is wet-milled and fermented as usual in the traditional wet-process method, but rther than drying the coffee at the same location, it is rebagged and hauled down to a lower altitude with a dry climate and flat terrain, such as Esteli and the lower, flatter parts of Matagalpa. It’s not a long trip, but transporting “Cafe Humido” is dangerous; coffee needs to dry quickly once it is fermented and washed, or off vinegary flavors, mold or fungus can take hold.

The reason this is done is clear; the climate is too humid and cool and hilly where the coffee is grown, at least in many places. Hauling wet bags of Cafe Humido seems to work, based on the clean cup flavors in the coffees we buy, but for lower grades a delay or bottleneck in processing means potential quality is lost.

The farm also features a nursery with a nice way of germinating coffee. The biggest problem with young coffee plants is the quality of the tap root, the central deep root. If the tap root is crooked or starts to wrap around, the coffee tree will not be successful. The farm has a way to ensure a healthy tap root, by using a conical tube with a small aperture in the bottom. These are suspended off the ground on a make shift table made from a piece of chain link fence positioned horizontally. The tubes fit into the openings of the chain link and held in place.

The tubes are fairly small and a young plant is extremely root-bound. But all the secondary roots help keep the tap root from twisting; the tap root finds the opening in the bottom, and can be trimmed to be kept short and straight. Once it is replanted in the earth, it quickly grows deep and true, resulting in a very healthy root system for the tree.

After checking out the nursery, we drove up the farm roads until they narrowed into an ox trail where El Doctor’s Toyota pickup could not go. I wanted to hike to the top but Erwin seemed a bit asthmatic (probably aggravated by smoke from the low-land ranches where the annual fires to burn off grasses had started… an awful practice). We turned around to check out the town of Jinotega a bit, and drive by the local baseball game between the rival teams of Jinotega and Matagalpa. (Baseball is the game in Nicaragua … not Futbol/Soccer). (Below, images of Jinotega town)

The evening was another fine beef and Gallo Pinto dinner in Matagalpa town. Since I am reading Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan all about industrial food production in the US, I feel better eating meat here, 100% grass fed. The other big highlight as I wind down this super-short trip is to take a lot of photographs of Maria Ligia’s pomeranians. Wow, they call that a dog? The name “toy breed” is certainly accurate. They are like little huffing, puffing wind-up toys, really funny to watch but extremely hard to photograph. They just won’t stay still. Sadly, I think they will not make the upcoming “Dogs of Coffee” pin-up calendar from Sweet Maria’s, unless we bend the rules a bit. The idea was that it had to be a coffee farmer’s dog, and have coffee somewhere in the picture. I captured a few nice images out at the farms, but it would be a nice contrast to have a purebred little widget next to all those mutty mutts. We’ll see…

The remaining photos from this Nicaragua Coffee trip:

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