Sitting in a lounge at Atlanta airport on my way home from Nicaragua, I take some time to reflect on my pilgrimage to Nicaragua’s coffee heartland. Ok, to be honest, I have a 9 hour layover, and I really have nothing better to do. Matagalpa is a mountainous region in the north of Nicaragua, the capital of which is the city of Matagalpa which is about a two hour drive north of Managua…
The road from Managua to Matagalpa is a good one (by Nica standards) – Pan-American Highway most of the way. The road from Matagalpa to the La Sombra, the ecolodge and coffee farm, is not. And believe me, I use the term “road” very loosely. If only Doc from Back to the Future was there to warn us: Roads? Where we’re going there are no roads. Let’s just say that it took us over 2 hours to travel the 50 kms – and that was in a 4x4.
The region is full of Nature reserves, parks and rainforests. These rainforests play a vital role in Nicaragua’s coffee production. A large proportion of its coffee is shade grown – the coffee is actually grown in the shade of large trees. Because of the lack of direct sunlight, it takes longer for the coffee to ripen and, as a result, according to our guide, produces a better tasting coffee (due to the increase of natural sugars). It’s also good for the environment because the natural habitat of many species of birds and animals does not have to be cut down to grow the coffee. The major downside to this technique is that yields are much lower for the farmer. Another upshot, however, is the fact that the land can grow coffee for much longer, but it's hard to sell that argument to a farmer that needs to sell as much as he can as fast as he can.
The lay of the land. My wife and our guide lead the way as I lag behind for a quick photo. This is a good example of the coffee plants growing in the shade of the taller trees. The land can be very steep which can make the task of picking the fruit very difficult indeed.
A humble coffee tree in all its laden glory. These beans are not yet ripe – they’ll turn a bright red colour when they’re ready to be picked.
Spot the difference. On this particular farm there are two varietals growing. One of them grows twice the height of the other and produces substantially bigger beans. Unfortunately when I took this shot the bigger bean was slightly closer than the other bean which will no doubt lead to Doogle-like explanations being proffered – “This bean is small, but this bean is faaaaaaaar away”. But honestly, it was twice the size of the other bean.
The auld Small Tree, Tiny Man routine. Actually the balding man in question stands at 6’1” which makes that a very tall coffee tree indeed.
The art of picking. A good coffee farm will do what is called selective picking. This involves making several passes through the farm, each time only picking the ripened fruit. This is much more time consuming and expensive than picking the whole lot in one pass. So, as well as having to traverse steep and uneven land, and only pick the ripest fruit, the picker must also be very careful in picking the fruit. If they accidentally remove the stalk along with the fruit (as on the right –hand side in the picture), no coffee will grow in that spot on the tree again.
The coffee is generally sun-dried by laying it out flat on large concrete surfaces. Depending on who you talk to, the technique is either far better or far worse than mechanical drying! Helpful, huh? Unfortunately it wasn't the right season to get a snap of the drying process and instead got a shot of some concrete. But you get the idea.
…and so ends my Nicaraguan odyssey – a beautiful country producing some great coffee!