Nicaragua Cup of Excellence and Cooperative Visits, 2003

A visit to some farms and coops as well as my first time as a judge in a Cup of Excellence competition.

Eighteen fine people were invited as judges in the Cup of Excellence (CoE) competition in Nicaragua in 2003. The judges were from Nicaragua, U.S., Holland, UK, Japan, Denmark and Australia.

Our job was simple compared to the National Jury that prescreened the coffees for us: they started with 400 samples and reduced it to 52, we simply reduced that to 37.

Yours truly, after a long day of cupping. If you cup 50 coffees in a day, you do flights of 10 at a time, with 4 judges at each table. Each coffee sample has 4 cups, and consistent character between those cups is part of the judging. So really on a day like this you taste and judge 200 cups of coffee.
Judging starts with examining the roasted coffee samples and recording any variations that might affect the cup. In Nicaragua, the roasting was excellent, but there were problems with the crust of grinds that forms on the cup falling to the bottom of the cup too soon. The cupper “breaks” this crust at 3 minutes after pouring, but some were falling at 2 minutes. This could be the R.O. water, the way it was poured, or the air conditioning in the room … who knows.

We had a non-human cupper one day. Here he is getting a sense of the dry fragrance of the cup, before the water is poured.

The support staff for the CoE was excellent. It was decided that at this even the water would be heated in percolators, with water temperatures always being closely monitored. But I don’t think we’ll be seeing percolators used at cupping events any time soon.

After the water is poured, cuppers judge the aroma from the crust of the cup, then sink the crust while smelling (called “breaking”) after 3 minutes. Actual tasting, which involves annoying sucking sounds of varying intensity and spitting, happens as soon as the cup is cool enough, for most people around 8 minutes.

Cupping is really quite disgusting and thanks to Soren from Estate Coffees, Denmark, for the lovely picture of the bottom of a spittoon. (This is what happens when you hand over your camera to a stranger! You want to spray the coffee into your mouth, your throat, up your nasal cavity, and then do some retro-nasal breathing for aftertaste. Sometimes I wear earplugs because the sounds are deeply irritation if you happen to lose your concentration on cupping, and start to listen.

After scoring the flight of 10 coffees, the judges retreat to share scores and comments in a separate room. In the meantime, the tables are cleared and the next flight of coffees is prepared.
After the panel had cupped the coffees rated over 85 twice, we recupped the top 10 to rank scores, then recupped them again using a “descriptive cupping form.” In this case, the silence rules were set aside and we discussed the coffees while cupping them.

Cupping is exhausting -very hard work! But it’s fun too. Kentaru Maruyama has a smile to share even after a long day at the cupping tables.

One cupper has the habit of going barefoot (you know who you are!) I have seen other people wear sandals. Frankly, I would not recommend open-toed shoes with all that spitting going on (see the floor around the spittoon).

Selva Negra Farm: Matagalpa, Nicaragua, 2003 Visit

Selva Negra is a unique, model farm in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua. It’s really part coffee farm, part mountain resort, part utopian colony! Coffee brings in most of the money to fund a host of sustainable agriculture projects. Walking the farm is a process of finding one thoughtful innovation after another…

Did I mention that it is very beautiful? This is the bungalow we stayed in, draped in vines and nestled in a bed of ferns. The farm is a sort of retreat-resort and has many small habitations like this, as well as a full restaurant with homemade breads, cakes, cheeses … all vegetables and meat coming from the farm

One of the most beautiful buildings is the Chapel. It is a fairly recent addition, at the quiet end of the farm, after all the cottages. In fact it looks like it has been there forever, and is on the edge of the towering native forest.

Speaking of the forest, it is vast. Much of the farm has been set aside as old-growth protected habitat, with a rich plant and animal life (including howler monkeys).

And here is one of your hosts at Selva Negra. Mousie, a nickname that stuck, and her husband Eddie Kuhl, operate the farm. The Kuhl family emigrated from Germany and are part of the European community that came to Matagalpa in the late 1800s. This is the garden adjacent to the Kuhl house on the farm.

Another picture of the farmhouse garden. You can find out a bit more at  A basketball court at the end of a drying patio for coffee.

Eddie Kuhl is a farmer, a historian, and a bit of an artist. My favorites were his paintings in the coffee mill explaining the farm and its processes.To the right, a diagram of their non-contaminating coffee-pulp/mucilage system. Mucilage is the fruity layer under the skin of the coffee cherry. It was traditionally washed into the streams after the wet-processing of coffee, but this is a natural contaminant of the water supply. Eddie’s system takes care of this in a clever way.

The pulp is recovered for use in compost and organic fertilizer on the farm. Not only is the mucilage kept out of the water supply, it is actually used in a bio-gas recovery system that provides cooking and heating power for the farm! And when it’s not coffee processing season and there’s no mucilage, they capture gas from the manure of the cattle herd!

A bio-gas collection tank where bacteria degrade the mucilage and create usable gas.

They roast coffee on the farm … mostly they use it to barter with suppliers for foods not grown on the farm, or other supplies they can’t produce themselves. This is a handmade primitive roaster, really amazing. And just think, it’s roasting coffee with gas collected from coffee itself, or cow manure!

They have a larger roaster that comes from Guatemala, still quite crude. The entire chamber tilts to dump the batch, like a huge Jabez Burns sample roaster. And notice the unique roast chamber door.

Prodecoop in Esteli Nicaragua

Prodecoop is a “cooperative of cooperatives” located in the state of Esteli, Nicaragua. Their membership is comprised of 40 coffee-growing co-ops, 2300 member-producers, which comes to 10,000 individuals with a relationship to the co-op! We have found their coffees sold under the name Sabor de Segovia (named for the coffees of Nueva Segovia adjacent to Esteli) to be consistently good, and the special lots that we cup and buy to be excellent. Prodecoop is on the web at

On the porch of the new Prodecoop cupping facility and office.
A group of us did some cupping at their lab, which included one of the coffees in the top 10 of the Cup of Excellence competition.
We were looking over the dry-mill facility, across the drying patios from the cupping room, when the lunch bell rang and the coffee-sorters flooded in! This is the final quality stage to get the true EP (Euro-Preparation) grade coffee. Even though the coffee is density-sorted on an Oliver table, and colormetric sorted by machine, hand-prepping is key to quality. It’s a boring job but this is considered good work, and everyone received fair trade wages and benefits!
My favorite sign at the Prodecoop mill. Dust is a real problem at some mills, and as in grain silos, dust can be explosive. But the Prodecoop mill is the cleanest I have ever seen, with the coffee-sorters separated completely from the hulling and sorting equipment that kick up so much dust into the air

I realized as we walked through the facility that this was the exact shipment of Organic Segovia from the Miraflores Co-op that we had reserved coffee from. After the tour of the mill
we were off to visit one of the small member co-ops, La Union…

La Union Cooperative; Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua

La Union Cooperative has 27 members, and has their coffee dry-milled at Prodecoop. They also have the honor of being the #4 coffee in the auction this year (consider that this was one of 400+ samples submitted), and this is the second year they have been among the top lots! The Co-op is near the Honduran border, in fact Honduras was just over the next ridge. They have a small communal meeting space and coffee receiving station in Dipilto, Nueva Segovia.

To the left: The Co-op is on steep hillsides with coffee trees planted under heavy shade … this is typical for not only organic coffees grown in Nicaragua but all coffee.

On the march up to 1600 meters, me with some of the Co-op members. They have native shade trees but also banana interplanted with the coffee (I had thought that banana couldn’t be grown at coffee elevations). The Cultivars here are mostly Typica, Bourbón, and some Caturra.

The entire group of farmers and foreigners visiting La Union Coop. In the foreground is the Oakland CA contingent, me and John from Mr. Espresso.
My favorite artwork: the Nicaragua anthem next to El Tigre -for a soccer team?

At this time of the season, the first flowering of the trees was complete, and where the flower was (dried brown remnants) emerges the coffee fruit. You can see the little green cherries starting to form in this picture to the left.

Typical adobe house set into the hill side. This one is beside the wet-mill, and belongs to three generations of coffee farmers, all still living under one roof!
We stopped for a cup of coffee and enjoyed the company of some spirited, and somewhat hostile, animals. This little dog was only friendly when you had food; without that it would bare its teeth…

The hostile, hissing duck – well, she’s got good reason.

And the fiercest of all. This turkey was puffing up its feathers and chasing us visitors out of its way, much to the delight of the co-op members. But it was all good fun, and I wasn’t going to leave without a good close-up of the brute!

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