Back From the Road: Our Annual Nicaragua Trip, 2009
I really believed that I would be able to send an update "from the road" on last week's Nicaragua trip, but time flies when there's so much to see and do! I just returned from leading Counter Culture Coffee's annual pilgrimage to San Ramón, Nicaragua, where we take a small group of our wholesale customers each January to spend a week learning about coffee growing and processing, about building relationships, and about the amazing work that goes into crafting high-quality coffee. Joining me this year were Amanda Ventresca of Everyman Espresso; Denise Hall and Bernie Tostanowski of the Culinary Institute of America; Lana Labermeier of Big Bear Café; Jocelyne Finnagan of Tryst, Open City, and The Diner; Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen; and Counter Culture Coffee's own Cindy Chang.
After a smooth flight to Nicaragua and an easy trip up to San Ramón (a nice contrast to my last trip) our group of 8 arrived at Finca Esperanza Verde hungry for knowledge and the adventurous cooking of the farm's resident culinary expert, Alba. As a side note, in addition to Alba's cooking, her warmth and infectious laugh quickly made her a go-to person for entertainment and the group's favorite person at the farm. From one of the farm's hiking trails, we saw our first coffee plants on a part of the farm known as la sombra, or "the shade." The farm's 2007-Cup-of-Excellence lot came from this piece of the farm and almost everyone attributes much of that success to the environment provided by the shade canopy, which is one of the tallest, oldest, and most diverse canopies that I have seen, period. We also watched Pascual and the staff of the farm's small wet mill measure the day's coffee picking, separate the unripe and low quality cherry in a flotation tank, and depulp the coffee beans. Over the next few days, we were able to follow that lot of coffee as it fermented for 40 hours and was then washed carefully and laid out to dry on screens at the farm.
Having learned the process, we got the chance to put our ripe-cherry-picking skills to the test the next day as we spent the morning in the fields at FEV. At the end of three hours, the eight of us gringos and the farm manager, Pascual, picked a total of 4.5 buckets' worth of coffee (which, for reference, is about as much as a single skilled coffee picker could pick in a day – not so impressive).
Over the next few days, we would see the same process on various farms around San Ramón and discuss, as a group, the individual farms' environmental conditions, milling methods, and plant health. We noticed some dramatic differences, especially considering the small size and geographic range of the farms, which helps explain why tasting coffee from single farms, separated, can be a great exercise but also a daunting one!
We finished the seed-to-export chain with a trip to the dry mill, Beneficio La Pita, where the coffee is fully dried, stored, and prepared for export. We cupped a few samples there, as well, including coffee from FEV that still took the table by storm even though it wasn't their highest quality stuff! Mark my words, I think this could be a very delicious year.
But the trip wasn't all business, of course. As we learned about the coffee seed-to-export process, we also got to meet an ex-Sandinista soldier and hear his story, drink Nicaraguan rum, take a (chilly!) dip in a local river, play a lot of cards, visit a larger-scale conventional coffee farm in the area for a different perspective, learn to make nacatamales (a traditional Nicaraguan dish) and tour a small chocolate-making operation – one of only two in the country – that sources and roasts organic local cacao and makes delicious chocolate with only two ingredients: cacao and sugar.
I love this trip because, as many times as I've visited these same farms and seen the same process, I learn something new each time from the great people that travel with me and see it all with fresh eyes. As one member of our group told Javier Martinez (the talented and dedicated farmer that I mentioned in my trip report from December), "It's impossible to see your farm, and to see what you do, and not be inspired to keep doing more on our end. Thank you so much." We are all part of the chain that makes quality possible: may we always remember that responsibility!
Take care of the coffee,