After four separate flights and several sleepless nights, the dim glow of Managua on the horizon was the most inviting sight Joe and I had ever seen. We arrived late at night and the heat of the day was still lingering in the night air…
Nicaragua, for those who don’t know, is a steamy country in the heart of Central America, rich in culture, coffee and friendliness but unfortunately, poor in most other respects. As regular readers may remember, Dimattina travelled to Nicaragua last year as part of the making of the Coffee Encounters book (available in store). During this visit Simon, Joe and Agim laid the foundations for a direct trade relationship with one of the farmers, Salatiel de Jesus Zavala Ferrufino (or Sala). One year on, in conjunction with the annual Cup of Excellence (CoE) competition, Dimattina returned to Nicaragua to further cement our relationship with Sala. Myself and Joe were the lucky ones to be sent on this adventure; our mission was very simple, to taste some amazing coffee and to further our relationship with the farmers and producers of this amazing country.
Our coffee journey begins in the city of Ocotal in the mountainous region of Nueva Segovia where the Cup of Excellence competition takes place. Nueva Segovia is a picturesque location with high, winding roads and a cooler climate than the capital Managua; it is known primarily as a quality coffee-growing region. We arrived at our hotel just as our fellow CoE judges were checking in. Among the crowd were a couple of familiar faces from my Burundi trip back in August, among them Susie Spindler, the CEO of Alliance for Coffee Excellence. After we settled in it was time for drinks by the pool and a bit of R & R before the intensive schedule that lay before us in the week ahead.
The competition itself was a great showcase of the sheer variety of specialty coffee Nicaragua has to offer. Over the course of five days we cupped our way through all of the national finalists and scored them accordingly. The unusual thing about this year’s competition was that there were a great many uncommon varietals on the table aside from the standard Caturra, which has become an old favourite in Nicaragua. This variation was most apparent in the polarity between the floral, yellow stone-fruit characteristics of the Catuai Rojo (Red Catuai) and the smokey tobacco of the Maragojipe. For the record, Joe and I were divided on these two, me in the Catuai Rojo camp and Joe on the Maragojipe side. This division was a frequent occurrence in the jury’s discussion room which made for some interesting results. When all was said and done, only the top ten coffees remained to be given their final scores and profile descriptions; it was a real privilege to be able to cup this table. Floral notes of jasmine, hibiscus and rosehip were commonplace, caramel, butterscotch and crème brulee (one of mine) were mentioned as well as copious amounts of orange, lemon and clementine. Some characteristics were consistent with Nicaragua’s reputation, others not so much, but all were truly excellent in their own way. The overall winner was from a small farm in Nueva Segovia who was not really thought of as a contender for the top prize; but everyone loves an underdog. The winner was also one of the poorer competitors so this win will definitely prove to be life-changing for them. Our very own Sala placed a respectable 25th and will have his coffee sent away to auction.
With the hectic competition week behind us we were finally free to go out on our own and spend some time with Sala and his family on their farm. We had caught up with Sala on several occasions during the week and on one such occasion presented him with a gift – the completed Coffee Encounters book, inside which is a full page photograph of him and his wife Olga, complete with
accompanying article. Sala, a man Olga describes as “Never smiles”, could not hide the biggest grin, even behind his well-seasoned moustache. Sala confessed that, even though he had been told about the book during our last visit, he did not really believe that it would come to fruition (Sala has had a lot of promises made to him in the past but not many followed through on) let alone to see himself featured so prominently. When we arrived at their house we were greeted as old friends and offered fruit and drinks. We had a brief chat about the competition and I caught up with Samuel (Sala’s son) whom I had met the other night, but it was clear that Sala was eager to show us his farm, La Esperanza. For me, seeing the farm was an amazing experience, it is not like a farm that we think of in Australia, it is truly a jungle in every sense of the word. The mature coffee trees that litter the steep hillsides are shaded by a multitude of exotic trees and plants that make up the canopy. Sala leads us down an overgrown path deeper and deeper into his rainforest. Every now and then we spot the odd coffee blossom or cherry left over from the recent harvest, Joe plucks one and hands it to me. It’s characteristically sticky, and tastes very green, like freshly cut grass and straw; it’s not ripe. Sala selects some that he’s found and gives me one to try. This one is much sweeter and the taste resembles a very sweet passionfruit, ‘This guy knows his coffee’ I thought to myself. Sala’s years of experience working his own farm have given him a keen eye for the perfect cherry, no wonder he has had so much success at competition.
We took Sala’s truck up to the highest point on his farm, a mountainous peak that looks out over his world. Samuel pointed out several nearby hills listing the CoE winning farmers that they belong to. It becomes apparent how small a region this amazing coffee actually comes from – and La Esperanza is right in the thick of it. We took some beautiful photographs and even got a rare one of Sala with a smile on his face. We returned to the house as the sun was going down, Sala sat down at his long table, now with a serious look on his face – it was time to talk business. Though he doesn’t speak English it was clear that Sala wanted to continue his relationship with us, and we were overjoyed with this news. La Esperanza produces some of the finest coffee in Nicaragua and we are so proud to be able to bring it to Australia and share it with our customers. We agreed to work with Sala to help him improve his coffee and his farm and of course pay him directly. In return he will provide us with the very best quality coffee he can produce. When we came to La Esperanza we were greeted with handshakes, when we left we were bid farewell with hugs – this is what direct trade is about.
In all honesty, I didn’t want to leave Nicaragua. It had become my home for two weeks and all I wanted to do was stay and work on Sala’s farm. Life is simple in Nicaragua, but very fulfilling. While my time in Nicaragua comes to an end, Dimattina’s relationship with this poor, yet rich country is only just beginning.