Nicaragua Trip - The Farms and the Farmers - Part 4

August 03, '21
After blindly cupping and scoring over 50 coffees at Las Segovias; Joe, Agim and I chose some coffees we thought would work really well as espresso. The first coffee we chose had an overwhelming honey aroma. It was really sweet and caramely. We all scored it around the 88 mark. This coffee was a small micro-lot from a little farm called La Esperanza. Our second favourite coffee was from a farm called Agua Sarca. This scored in the mid to high 80’s. It was a special reserve coffee we thought could complement some of our blends. We visited both farms over a few days and learnt a lot about the coffee we were going to buy. LA ESPERANZA – THE HOPE and the farmer ‘SALA’ After many hours of cupping it was the coffee from a Finca called La Esperanza which was the stand-out.
La Esperanza translates as hope, an appropriate name for every small farm in Nueva Segovia. After comparing our notes we found this micro-lot stood out for all of us with its characteristics of bold floral and honey aromas, a heavy sweetness and flavours of apple, honey, cinnamon and spice. We have committed to purchasing this micro-lot of coffee from La Esperanza and will feature it as a Special Single Origin later this year. The story of the farmer Salatiel De Jeus Zavala Ferrufino or “Sala” will also be featured as part of the Coffee Encounters book. Sala owns La Esperanza and his wife Olga owns La Picona; a farm we had visited earlier in the week. La Esperanza is located about a kilometre South of the Honduras border. It was originally owned by Sala’s father and was left to him and his brothers. Over time Sala bought the farm from his brothers, as well as acquiring other neighbouring lots. Through the proceeds of coffee sales he was also able to buy La Picona for Olga, which has also produced some amazing Cup of Excellence winning coffees. La Esperanza has fared extremely well in Cup of Excellence competitions over the last 10 years, a winner in 2003 (2nd), 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009 (1st Place), 2010 and 2012. Consistently producing coffees over 85 his 2003 second place coffee scored 93.14 and his 2009 winning coffee scored 92.75.
We spent a day with Sala and the Coffee Encounter team, and with the aid of a translator learnt a little about him and his farms. Sala’s Cup of Excellence success is testament to his hard work and his desire to improve his coffee. He was very interested to hear what we had to say about his coffee, as he didn’t really consider himself to be a great judge. He was also keen to know how we rated his coffee compared to his wife’s and seemed quite pleased that we chose his coffee over hers, a little healthy spousal rivalry! He happily shared his secrets in producing winning coffees. It seemed that as a whole the coffee community were very supportive of each other and shared any techniques which could improve their coffees. Sala’s secrets included; working on the coffees himself, picking and cutting the most mature trees, and his big secret - the times he washed and transported his coffees.
Originally the reason Sala started washing his coffees in the early hours of the morning was to utilise the time of the pickers who were already on the farm and save on labour costs. He quickly realised that the earlier he washed the coffees and sent them to the mill for drying the better a score his coffees would receive. He now washes them in the middle of the night and they are transported to the mill before daylight. I assume at this time the coffee is less affected by the humidity and any unwanted fermentation. He claimed he could notice a 1-2 point score difference for every hour earlier he washed and transported the coffees.
Although he has achieved considerable success and recognition with his coffees Sala is by no means wealthy. At times he still struggles and is assisted with loans from Luis and Las Segovias. Often roasters would visit once and never come back. He asked if he produced the same quality or better coffee if we would return again next year, a commitment to him we were happy to make. Sala was very humble and told us of his excitement that we would travel all the way from Australia, cup so many coffees and then choose to buy coffee from his farm. He dreamed of one day visiting Australia and seeing where his coffee had travelled to, but his basic objective was providing the best life he could for his family.
AGUA SARCA Agua Sarca is located about 30km’s from Ocotal in Dipilto. We were lucky enough to get a full tour of this farm. They were nearing the end of the harvest and were just picking the last of the cherries from the trees in preparation for the next harvest. Gustavo the manager drove us around the farm which had beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. There were vast forests and a real mix of tropical and mountain climates. With lots of natural shading, I think this mixed climate could be one of the secrets why the coffees in the area are so consistently good. Gustavo told us the area was a protected reserve and home to lots of different bird and animal species such as deer, squirrel, rabbit and many bird species. We drove and walked through the 60 hectares where he was growing red catuai caturra and yellow bourbon varieties. It was great seeing the yellow bourbon on the trees, an excellent contrast to the greenery and more common red cherries. Gustavo took us through the nursery, which was naturally shaded in a small valley of the farm. We then visited the washing station where the collectors would drop off the coffee they had picked. There were probably about 20 pickers working on the farm at the time, a mix of men and women, aged from about 16 to 70. The pickers would be paid by the basket for the coffee collected. On average they would earn about 30 cordoba’s or around $1 per basket. During the peak of the season when the trees were covered in ripe fruit they might collect up to 7 baskets a day, but on average 5 baskets was more common and now at the end of the season they were averaging about 3 baskets a day.
The coffee trees were planted all the way up and down the hillsides, so they would be picking and climbing on steep gradients all day. The pickers would load their coffee into sacks and trek through the farm with the coffee sacks on their shoulders to the wet mill. They would then drop off the coffee for Gustavo to mark-off. He sat behind an old school desk with a manual ledger and tallied the workers daily collection. A lot of the pickers worked on the farm with their families or partners, so combined they could collect a little more. The farm provided accommodation during the peak season and had a very rustic outdoor kitchen and eating room - more like a barn than a dining room.
All day ladies were cooking corn, preparing meals of rice and tortillas for the workers. Farm work could start and end in darkness and the farmers were fed throughout the day. There were also a few kids roaming around the farm. Joe spoke to Claudia about leaving some money for the farmers and the kids, but Claudia mentioned it would be more beneficial to buy some books and encourage other improvements around the farm. Most important to the community was repeat business. Repeat business would also allow us to work more closely with the farmers and encourage some positive progression. Consistent support and encouragement from coffee roasters makes it easier for the farmers to comprehend the benefits of implementing change and improvements.
This is something I think we can easily do, and we have committed to returning again next year, purchase more coffee and hopefully witness some improvements in their standard of living. We had a fantastic week in Nicaragua visiting some beautiful farms and making lots of new friends. We also purchased some real standout Micro-lot and special reserve quality coffees which should be arriving before mid-year, so stay tuned. I’m hopeful that members of our team will be returning next year to revisit some of these farms and report on their progress.