Notes on Nicaragua: Happy Farms Make Happy Coffee

Nicaragua has a lot going for it: great coffee, great landscape, great friends. For the past few years I have been cultivating a relationship with two coffee growers, Roberto Bendana and Erwin Mierisch, and this month I flew south to see them face-to-face, check out their operations, and cup some of this year's prime Nicaraguan coffees. Fellow Zoka friends Jeff and Jerome tagged along. I love my job.

We flew Seattle to Houston to Nicaragua where Roberto's farm agronomist (the science guy who studies soil and crops) picked us up. It was a good flight, but the beds at the Hotel Ritzo in Managua were welcomed that night. A traditional breakfast preps us for my favorite kind of day: cruising farms and cupping coffee. Roberto has a full day in store for us, cupping from three of his farms - El Quetzal, Paraiso, and Los Arcedes - and visiting El Quetzal to see the farm in action.

Travel tip: Heading to Nicaragua? Get ready for tasty breakfasts of eggs, fruit and beans - the country's traditional breakfast fare.

Off to the Coffee Farms!

El Quetzal is our first stop and it's a treat. We get to see a lot where farmers are doing the last bit of picking. These locals are serious pickers - as in seriously fast. A team of three or four can conquer a couple of acres (some several hundred trees) in a matter of a few hours.

Coffee Beans Processing: Directly after picking, the beans go to the wet mill and processing facility on the farm. The beans are depulped and go through four separate sortings based on quality and size. 16-18 hours of soaking then the beans are washed and dried in the sun for two weeks. Voila - perfectly processed coffee beans.

Roberto is a smart grower. His farmers are talented and he makes sure they are treated well. I get to see the farmers' living quarters, which overlook the abounding landscape from 1,500 meters above sea level.

Fair Trade Fact: Ten cents of every pound of coffee sold from these farms goes toward the living conditions of the farmers; I am privy to the medical facilities, general store and elementary school that are frequented (for free!) by the 90 year-round coffee farming families at El Quetzal. Happy farmers = happy coffee.

And you should see the worm farm. It's the coolest thing: the worms transform the excess waste from the coffee cherry production into organic fertilizer. This farm is big, and keeps growing. Picture tens of thousands of worms. It's pretty squishy.

The View from the Top (of Erwin's farms)

Erwin has, hands down, some of the most beautiful farms I have ever seen. His farms are all small, up-and-coming operations - he has only been running La Mamamina for a few years and grows about five containers of coffee per year. La Mamamina is home of a tiny wet mill, and all his beans are washed, sorted and rotated while drying by hand.

Los Altos is one of Erwin's newly acquired farms, and he has big plans for this mountainous locale. New plantings are in the agenda, as a lot of the old coffee species can't handle the high elevation and wind.

San Jose is our last stop, and my favorite. This farm is in the province Jinotega and overlooks Lake Apanas, perched on the side of a mountain. Housing and a community center for the workers is on the horizon for San Jose. Because it also features some of my favorite coffees, I expect and hope that this will be a farm from which we can make purchases for years to come.

Preliminary Predictions

It is going to be a blockbuster year for the coffees at Zoka. I got to revisit my favorite Nicaraguan coffee from last year - Java Nica - which placed second in the Cup of Excellence and is one of Roberto's newer plantings. I was tickled to see Erwin also had Java Nica plantings at his San Jose farm. Soft florals and a sweet finish... coffee lovers get ready for this rock star.