Our Origin Story: A trip through the coffee lands of Nicaragua

One week prior…

It was late morning as we pulled out of the dirt driveway, closing the iron gate behind us. Two people, two backpacks, one motorcycle. The air was buzzing with excitement.

After weeks of anticipation, we were headed for the coffee country. I took a deep breath as we sped off along the winding dirt road, leaving the sleepy coastal village we called home behind.

At this point, we had been living in Nicaragua for about 5 months, as part of a life-experiment/extended-vacation of sorts. It had been amazing– a dream years in the making.

Since 2007, Andrew and I had traveled through Nicaragua a handful of times and even got married along her pristine Pacific coast. There was something about the place that had captured our hearts, and when we decided to leave our life in Chicago seeking a bit of adventure and a lot of rejuvenation, we looked no further than Nicaragua.

In October, 2015, we arrived with our two dogs, a handful of savings, and a sense of gratitude. Our plan was to have no plan. We were there to slow down, and to just live, free of expectations. Whatever happened, it would be just right.

What happened was, in fact, beyond any expectations we could have had.

Soon after arriving, we were introduced to the process of roasting green coffee on the stove. It sparked a new appreciation and a deeper interest in coffee, and ultimately it ignited a chain of events that that would define the next chapter of our lives.

Back to the dirt road, 45 minutes later.

We had turned down a path looking for a shortcut that would take us to the highway. After passing through a dry river bed and up a rutted hill, we came to meet a gentlemen on the side of the road. We asked him if we were going the right way, he nodded, motioned his arm down the road and up towards the horizon, and leaving us with a big smile he shouted, “Buen viaje!”

Have a good trip!

After a beautiful ride inland through the countryside, we arrived at the buzzing city of Granada. We parted with our motorcycle and hopped in a 4×4 rental car– our new vehicle for the next week.

The trip ahead of us was laid-out as a series of stops through several of the major coffee-producing regions of Nicaragua, starting in Matagalpa and heading northwest through Jinotega, Esteli, and up into Nueva Segovia.

We had arranged a variety of meetings, including a couple smallholder cooperatives, a thriving startup in Esteli called Vega Coffee, a farm-stay in Miraflor, and a family-owned exporter in Nueva Segovia.

And, thanks to good friends in the Peace Corps living in Jinotega, a special appointment had been set to meet with a local coffee buyer named Omar.

We were ready to learn, find good coffee, and let new opportunities unfold. With the turn of the key, we were off.

 

First stop: Selva Negra, Matagalpa

Insight: Education should be a continuous journey for coffee professionals and drinkers alike.

Selva Negra is a coffee-estate-meets-eco-tourist-haven located in the cloud forest of Matagalpa. You can learn about the end-to-end process of sustainable coffee cultivation, tour a fully operational estate, and stay in an eco-lodge with access to nature trails (and lots of coffee).

Our first encounter with a flowering coffee plant on the Selva Negra estate.

 

Owned by the descendants of German immigrants, it’s home to La Hammonia Farm, where they grow organic, Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, offer high-quality tours, and host visitors from around the world.

Although certainly not representative of coffee cultivation in a Nicaragua as a whole, it’s a fine place to start your journey. They do a great job, and the owners are truly lovely people.

As our first stop, it served us very well as an introduction to the of growing, harvesting, processing, and cupping of coffee, along with showcasing a range of sustainable farming practices. It also gave us a peek into the lives of migrant coffee workers, who are provided with on-site housing and access to schools for their children– something not very typical.

 

Housing and and a school for children is available here on the Selva Negra estate.

 

One of the most basic things we learned was that coffee plants thrive as part of an eco-system that works together in harmony. This is why you’ll see coffee growing along side other strategic plants; for example, banana plants provide shade, and exchange different nutrients to the surrounding soil (in addition to income).

 

Andrew “cupping” Selva Negra coffees.
“Breaking the crust” reveals the unique aromas.

After our tour and cupping session, we had arranged to meet with the director of Selva Negra’s Community Foundation. She offered a range of perspectives, having worked in roasting, as a barista, and with coffee farming communities in both Central and South America.

Her key take-away for us: provide our customers with opportunities to learn about the story behind coffee. Continually educating ourselves and our customers serves as a way to stay grounded in the importance of sustainable coffee production. It’s also a way to stay connected to the human story, which often gets lost or remains untold.

It was a memorable discussion, and we left with insight that would later help shape our company’s core values, although we still had much to learn.

 

 

 

Next stop: Solidaridad Cooperative, Matagalpa

Insight: If you want to buy direct, you’ll need to buy a truck load.

Through a bit of research, we had learned about the Solidaridad Cooperative and exchanged a few emails with the cooperative’s leaders. They were extremely accommodating and happily agreed to meet with us.

 

Pulling up to Solidaridad’s HQ, located in a remote pocket of Matagalpa

 

Upon our arrival, we were greeted with warm smiles, several cups of coffee, and delightful baked goods to nosh on while we talked.

This being our first time visiting a cooperative, we admittedly didn’t really know what we were doing. But, they were very gracious, showed us around, and explained a few important things we needed to understand about buying coffee direct.

One of their largest direct buyers is Thanksgiving Coffee, a B Corp macro-roaster based out of California. It’s a very cool partnership, but here’s the catch: Thanksgiving Coffee buys their coffee by the container full– that’s a semi-truck’s worth of coffee at a time.

This is because exporting and importing coffee isn’t exactly easy, and most coffee gets shipped in full containers. Not so great for small roasters and startups like us.

If you can’t afford to buy that much coffee at a time, you can try finding someone else to split a container with you. Otherwise, there isn’t really another option for buying smaller quantities directly.

This helped us understand the role importers play in serving the needs of roasters seeking smaller quantities of coffee.

Our key take-away: buying direct is something we may strive for in the future, once we’re dealing with large volumes. Until then, we’ll need to either find a partnership, or seek alternative ways of sourcing; we were committed to seeking out and partnering with only other like-minded operations.

The process of finding Solidaridad in the first place was also enlightening.

We came upon their information after connecting dots along a string of searches. But in general, without inside knowledge or importer connections, it’s nearly impossible to directly access the best coffee farms and cooperatives– they’re pretty much off the grid.

This is what coffee exporters/importers specialize in: finding, vetting, and connecting coffee farmers and co-ops with buyers. And once a farmer is setup with an exporter/importer, they don’t often deal directly with the end buyer.

This all may seem obvious, but not for us newbies, especially since we were approaching the industry from the other direction: we were starting at origin, and building our industry knowledge from there. Typically roasters and cafes are born out of expertise for the end product sold to consumers, at the other end of the spectrum.

Our understanding of the coffee industry would continue to evolve, as we headed for Jinotega.

 

 

Next stop: Meeting with Omar, local coffee buyer, Jinotega

Insight: The supply chain is often dysfunctional, farmers have little leverage and limited access to information.

It was mid-morning in Jinotega, we grabbed delicious coffees from a fantastic cafe operated by the cooperative Soppexcca, and made our way to the outskirts to town.

Along the road that connects the city of Jinotega with the surrounding rural communities are a series of industrial buildings home to buyers, cooperatives, and exporters. Farmers come here to do business. Today, our business was to meet with a local buyer named Omar. It was an illuminating and candid discussion.

Omar is a good, honest man, and does his very best to offer farmers a fair price– which apparently isn’t always the case at this stage in the supply chain.

Small-holder farmers often have the most at stake and the least leverage. They need access to mills for their harvested coffee cherries to be processed and dried; without a mill, their product is worth nothing and will rot.

So there’s a process of exchange here, where farmers are at the will of certain gatekeepers: some are good, like well-run cooperatives. Others are not good, and take advantage of farmers who simply don’t have the financial leverage or the access to information; if farmers knew who was offering what prices, they could shop around. But they don’t have a way of getting this information, and usually stick to the same operations, despite getting taken advantage of year after year.

Furthermore, for many small-holder farmers, the coffee harvest season is the only time during the year that any money is earned; should they need to make necessary purchases during the other months for their operations, they don’t have the capital.

This is where the “Sharks” enter the picture, as Omar calls them. They will make a deal with farmers to pay them a very low price for their upcoming harvest, in exchange for an interim loan. It’s always a bad deal for the farmer, and perpetuates a cycle of bad business practices that makes it nearly impossible for the farmer to ever make progress.

“Sharks” will also do things like make deals with exporters for coffee at a certain quality level, but then behind the scenes mix-in lower quality coffees that would never sell for the higher price. Coffee can indeed be quite a shady business, if you’re not working with the right people.

While we sat there with Omar, a series of young men came through to do business with him, each carrying a large sack of coffee strapped to the backs of their motorbikes. It was fascinating watching these exchanges. We were getting to experience a part of the industry that is very rarely seen by the end user.

 

Omar explains his role in the chain and gives us a quick lesson on assessing quality.

 

Omar also shared with us his frustrations on “quality”. He wishes there was a way for farmers to get paid more for their harvest, even if there are defects within the lot– he wonders why defective beans can’t be filtered from the rest, and the farmer could earn more on the remaining? Currently, these farmers are denied from the well-run cooperatives who have higher standards and won’t accept any defective beans, which means they must turn to the poorly-managed mills and the Sharks. It seems these farmers can never get ahead.

As we finished our conservation with Omar, we left wishing there was something that could be done. Why are things so dysfunctional? And what does this mean for us, and our desire to enter this complicated industry? How will we navigate?

 

 

Next stop: El Jaguar Natural Reserve, Jinotega

A moment to pause and reflect: coffee country is the most beautiful place in the world.

After a few intensive days, we took a moment to reflect and digest. Situated outside of the city of Jinotega is the El Jaguar Natural Reserve, a family-owned coffee farm and nature reserve with trails open to the public. It’s lush, and gorgeous.

 

Angela hiking with Peace Corps friends, Sarah and Libby.

 

You can wander around, and soak-up fresh cloud forest air. The experience of visiting coffee country leaves you full of energy. These are some of the most beautiful places in the world.

 

Coffee workers joking with each other, late in the afternoon at El Jaguar.

 

Spending the afternoon hiking and getting caught in the rain was exactly what we needed. We left rejuvenated and ready for the next destination, one we were very excited about.

 

 

Next stop: Vega Coffee, Estelí

Insight: Reinventing the coffee supply chain is possible, and it starts with involving farmers from seed to cup.

Talk about a breath of fresh air. Enter: Vega Coffee.

During our research, we came across Vega Coffee via the Huffington Post article, “This Startup Is Trying To Revolutionize Your Morning Coffee.” Their story was super inspiring and we wanted to meet them while we were in Nicaragua. To no surprise, Vega was incredibly friendly, inviting us to come by their operations in Esteli and to meet with Rob, one of their founders.

Upon arriving we were greeted by a room full of women preparing Vega’s next shipment to coffee subscribers across the US. These women are also the coffee farmers that Vega sources their coffees from. It’s an awesome arrangement.

 

Vega’s Farmer Roasters packaging freshly roasted coffee headed for US subscribers.

 

Vega has a very clear mission, and as a thriving startup, they’re well on their way towards making a tangible impact on the coffee industry and on the lives of farmers in Nicaragua and beyond.

Rob gave us a tour of their operations, and along the way prepared a sample for us to take home.

Our first sample of Vega’s coffee is being freshly roasted on one of their Sonofresco machines.

We were pretty much thrilled at the idea of sourcing through Vega: it was a direct, well-managed and trusted way to source smaller quantities, and offered a tangible way to make a positive impact on small-holder farming communities.

They also primarily worked with women farmers, something I didn’t realize was a possibility.

And, they were addressing the dysfunctional supply chain head-on, with an innovative approach that not only channeled more financial benefits to farmers, but also provided opportunities for farmers to learn about the industry and to see the benefits of their hard work all the way through to the end user.

After finishing the tour, we sat down with Rob to discuss future partnerships. The conversation was brief and to the point: let’s work together. And with that, our sourcing relationship began. We left Vega eager to try their coffees and pretty much ready to start formulating our cold brew recipes.

 

Next stop: El Chilamate farm-stay, Miraflor Reserve

Insight: Farming communities must often diversify in order to get by.

 

Through the UCA Miraflor cooperative you can arrange farm-stays with local families that live within the Miraflor Nature Reserve. It’s a great program for all: travelers seeking to support sustainable tourism can get an authentic experience like none other, and families who host can earn additional income year-round, as opposed to only earning a majority– if not all– their annual income during the coffee harvest.

We had arranged to stay at the El Chilamate farm, and it was a lovely experience.

Our host family made us feel at home. In addition to delicious home-cooked meals and warm hospitality, they helped arrange a horseback ride through the Reserve, guided by a young man from the community.

 

Our horses after an incredible day touring through the Miraflor reserve.

 

As we wandered through the different communities within Miraflor, we saw resourcefulness everywhere; families making the most with what they have.

Outside of mega farming operations like “sun coffee” farms, or larger family-owned estates, most coffee comes from relatively small farms. And some of the best coffees come from micro-lots proudly tended by farmers at the peak of their craft, where a mix of location, conditions, and passion yield truly extraordinary results.

That said, a year with a low yield can be devastating. So another way of surviving during lean times is to diversify their crops. As I mentioned earlier, coffee grows wonderfully well as part of micro-ecosystems, where other crops provide shade and nutrients. These other crops can also provide an additional source of income.

Our last morning in Miraflor was bittersweet; we could have stayed much longer, but we needed to continue with our plans to head up into Nueva Segovia.

 

Our last morning at El Chilamate: well-rested, well-fed, and with a deeper understanding of small-scale farming communities.

 

Last stop: Peralta Coffee, Nueva Segovia

Insight: Industry relationships begin with family-style hospitality.

A cupping is prepared for us at Peralta Coffee, and we start putting our new skills to use.

 

 

Touring Peralta’s warehouse, we start to get a sense for scale.

As our trip neared the end, we had one last stop: family-owned exporter, Peralta Coffee. Once again, we came across Peralta through our extensive research, and with a few emails we were setup to come tour their facilities in Nueva Segovia.

 

Upon arrival we were treated like family. After meeting several staff members, a full cupping session had been arranged based on our expressed interest in sampling coffees for cold brewing. We weren’t exactly prepared as this was our first real cupping, but they were very gracious.

 

After we finished the cupping, Mr. Peralta came to meet us and gave us hugs before we departed for the remainder of the tour. We recognized it was simply good business, but there were good vibes all around.

 

 

A new chapter begins…

After leaving Nueva Segovia, we made our way back to Granada.

As we dropped off the rental car and hopped back on our motorcycle, we weren’t the same two people from a week ago. Something had definitely changed.

Our travels had solidified our interests in the coffee industry, left us fascinated, and equipped us with more inspiration than we knew what to do with.

As it turns out, it was a good trip, indeed.

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