Nicaragua / Beneficio La Estrella
After a quick 45 minute flight we landed in Managua and the next morning headed to Ocotal, Nueva Segovia to meet the team at Virmax Nicaragua and see the operations at Beneficio La Estrella.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the familiar, friendly Francisco Javier Valle, Director of Virmax Nicaragua. We took a stroll around the perimeter of the beneficio that was starting to fill with coffee and away we went to visit 2 farms in the mountainous region of La Union, Dipilto in Nueva Segovia.
Among the farms we visited on this day was Brisas del Mogoton, owned by Bayardo Jose Jimenez Rodriguez with whom we have worked with for a couple of years now. The farm is in very good condition and has multiple plots separated by varieties including Bourbon, Maragogype and Maracaturra. Trees were carrying ripe coffee berries and they were being picked. In general we could see that at higher elevation farms the ripening process was just getting started. Flowering for this crop was delayed by about a month due to El Nino and as such ripening and picking has also been delayed by about the same amount of time.
In Nicaragua, coffee is delivered in wet parchment to the mills. Traditionally, parchment coffee is dried in cement patios or on top of plastic tarps and then processed for export. At La Estrella we don’t dry any coffee in cement patios or plastic on the ground. Here, we've set up 1800 sq meters of fully shaded pre-drying beds plus 6000 sq meters of raised beds with 80% shade. We firmly believe that by slowing the drying process we can have much better results in terms of moisture, water activity levels and maintaining the integrity of the parchment to protect the seed inside. In the cup this means cleaner and brighter coffees with much longer shelf lives. The drying beds at La Estrella are filling up, so we can expect these lots to be ready soon and for export operations to pick up the pace over the next month or so. Click here for previous blog on Beneficio La Estrella.
The next day we started with a cupping with the QC team at Beneficio La Estrella. We had the good fortune of having Mr. Luis J. Lovo, as a guest. We cupped excellent lots delivered from his farms as well as some from Brisas del Mogoton and early arriving lots from other regions. Again, delicious coffees that were clean and sweet, and scored very well in our recap of the table. It is always rewarding to be able to cup with farmers as you can provide very direct feedback and they clearly enjoy the opportunity to hang out and learn from you. As soon as we finished we were off to the Lovo farms in Dipilto.
Luis Joaquin Lovo, the father and leader of the pack, owns 2 farms: Santa Teresa and Bella Aurora (which he recently took over from his father Luis Augusto). His brother, David, owns La Pradera. Don Luis was sporting his infamous baseball cap with his initials sewn on the front. He thanked us for taking the time to drive up to visit them, after all it isn’t an easy farm to get to, and we laughed about how steep his driveway is.
These are larger farms that are very professionally run, with the high standards that you would expect from multiple COE winning farms. The trees are in great shape and coffee is being picked and processed every day. We had the pleasure of meeting Marcos Sanchez, the farm manager who has been overseeing the Bella Aurora farm for more than 30 years… everything that happens on that farm and everyone that works there must first meet his standards. Lofty standards they are. We are expecting great coffee this year from these farms.
Afterwards, we went to a community called El Horno which is so close to the border with Honduras, that you have to enter the zone between border checkpoints to access the road to get to the community. These farms actually require a passport to go visit! We had lunch with a few producers who were launching a new growers association. These 5 producers had previously been members of a 250 person group that had received international aid in the past to set up a cupping lab and receive cupping training in El Horno. Unfortunately, for the members of this group nothing really changed: the coffee was still purchased en masse by the dry mill at a very low cost, they were not given feedback on the quality of the coffee that they produced or who the buyer was. The cupping lab fell into disrepair. It was very much business as usual.
However, a few months back the leader of this group, Luis Manuel Almendares, ran into Manuel Rosales, a coffee producer and the Director of Quality Control in Virmax Nicaragua. Manuel explained in detail how we buy and sell coffee, how we set up our training to help farmers produce better coffee, and the feedback that we provide producers on each lot delivered. That was how we found ourselves at this lunch for the inauguration of this group.
A small group of producers joining together to form a grower’s association is not uncommon in Colombia. However, in Nicaragua, its not something we see every day so it was really special to be at this event. One of the producers said he never imagined that he would be able to sell his coffee directly to a roaster. And yet, here we were, myself and a small group of roasters, before him, ready to buy his coffee when he delivers it to La Estrella. Sometimes we take these things for granted, and maybe we should; this is the 21st century, these are our business partners, but being a part of breaking down barriers is significant, rewarding and meaningful. I just hope their coffee is good enough to realize the power of the Virmax/Caravela model. I’m confident it is, and if not now, it will be in the near future.
The next morning we were back on our way to the airport in Managua for trips back home. A whirlwind of a trip, but certainly productive and a good indication of the coffees soon en route to roasters throughout the world.
Tune in to my next report on Colombia in a couple of weeks.