Aranjuez, Nicaragua 1992
There were five of us under the forest canopy and each of us knew our search was over. Let me explain. Jan Eno (blue shirt on left), and I (behind the camera), were looking for the fabled great Nicaraguan coffee that had been denied U.S. coffee roasters due to the Reagan Embargo (1985-1991). Jan was Thanksgiving Coffee’s Roastmaster at the time. On the far right in the black T shirt was Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan who had fought in the Sandinista Revolution, came to the United States and lived in the Mission District of San Francisco, and was the creative force behind the creation of The Mission Cultural Center. I don’t exactly remember how we met, but it was he who brought me and Jan face to face with Byron Corrales and his father Arnolfo. This photo was taken on their farm. We had just completed an agreement. Byron and family would sell Thanksgiving Coffee 37,500 lbs of their family’s certified organic coffee and a similar amount of the Cooperative’s non-organic coffee. Thanksgiving Coffee would pay 50 cents over the then current world price. It was a historic moment. It would be the first Nicaraguan coffee directly imported into the United States since 1979 when the Sandinistas gained control from the Dictator Somoza. This was the picture I wanted to mark the moment.
The picture has many details that I would like to point out; we are kneeling in filtered sunlight, under coffee trees shaded by an over story of banana trees (the broad, bright green leaves behind Byron). The coffee cherries are full size but still green. It is still two months to harvest so this is September. Some of the coffee tree leaves have white spots on them, an indication of a kind of rust or mold that will need attention. Byron’s hat clearly shows the icon of the cooperative movement and in fact, at the time this photo was taken, Byron was Vice President of his cooperative, Solidaridad.
Where are these people now? Jan works as Roastmaster for the Urth Cafes of Southern California of which there are four. They are our largest “account”. Jan still lives on the Mendocino Coast and operates out of our cupping lab here in Ft Bragg. We see him every day and he is an integral part of our quality mission. Byron is a full time coffee farmer on his family farm but has become Nicaragua’s premier biodynamic and organic coffee farmer and now also heads up the Nicaraguan Government’s Organic Farming Extension Service for small and medium size farms. His father Arnolfo is still on the family farm, working as he has done for 8 decades. Roberto Vargas lives in San Antonio, Texas and is The Director of Venezuela President Hugo Chaves’ ” Heating Oil for the Poor” project. He is also one of Nicaragua’s honored poets, and I? , Well, I’m a historian waiting for the next great moment in coffee to be a part of.
(Side note: Byron grows one of the best coffees in the world. Try his exceptional Maracaturra varietal for yourself)
It was a big day in the cupping lab. Starting with a sample roasting session that went well after dark the night before (I got started a bit late thanks to a fan belt breaking on the company rig coming over the coastal range from San Francisco—that’s another, not so fun story) and picking up at 8am I had a chance to sort through, taste, and ponder this year’s crop from Cooperativa Solidaridad, in Aranjuez, Nicaragua. The exciting (and labor intensive) part of this cupping is that each of the cooperative’s farmers processes their coffee on-farm, and then keeps their beans separate all the way through to shipping. This enables us to explore the variety of flavors being produced by different farmers spread out over a mountainous area of about 30 square miles high in northern Nicaragua.
I came to work with my game face on (and a hearty bowl of oatmeal in my belly) and settled into a final check of the coffee roasts. Roasting each of the 100gram samples identically is critical; any difference in roast profile, time, or color will impart a variability that makes it impossible to compare one coffee to the other, which is the simple (and challenging) goal of this exercise. I spent about 5 hours yesterday roasting, checking, and re-roasting the samples. It’s an exhausting and enthralling task. There is a rhythm to the process, and pretty soon you find yourself immersed in a world of steam, smoke, flame, and smell. The end result, double and triple checked this morning, was 15 samples identically roasted, and ready to be scored and ranked.
I have to do this blind, otherwise I start to think about the farmers. I know these people, and have spent time on their farms taking shelter from a rainstorm, eating a delicious meal of chicken soup and potatoes all raised within 50 feet of their kitchen, or underneath the shade of their trees talking about coffee, farming, and their cooperative. They are friends, teachers, and partners, and I can’t help but think of them when I taste their coffee. Knowing that tasting with this kind of relationship is quickly an emotional experience, the first thing I do when the coffees arrive is number them, and tear off the tags identifying farmer, quantity, etc. Quite the scientist, I knowâ€¦
Then there’s the moment of truth: small 10gram samples are scooped out, and ground. Water is boiled. The perfume of sweet fresh coffee fills the room. And the hints of Aranjuez begin to float around tooâ€¦I move from sample to sample, spinning the rotating table underneath me smelling sweet maple syrup in some, deeply carmelized butterscotch in others, yellow raisins, and lightly toasted cashews. I pour equal amounts of freshly boiled water, and smell again. The aromas intensify. It’s almost as if the coffee blossoms. A timer sounds. 5 minutes is up. I break the cap, smell deeply, and clean away the wet grounds. Spoonful by spoonful I taste the coffees. Bright and lively they score well on acidity. Most are fantastic. A few really jump out. They are round, deeply toned with the clean characteristic sugary maple syrup-caramel that is the hallmark of these coffees. A number of the best blossom in the cup: their taste begins sweetly and with a lively citric acidity, a new dimension of flavor opens a second later (deep maple syrup rich sweetness) and a full buttery richness envelopes your palate. The flavor fades gracefully, and exits leaving a sweetly toned cacao bitterness. Damn, that’s good coffee!
More than half score over 90 on a scale of 100. That’s a full step up from previous years. The farmers’ hard work and our shared investment in the future of coffee is paying off.
We’ll load two shipping containers, the first with the 90-plus coffees. These will head for single origins, and our espresso blends. The balance will add a deep sweetness to our dark roasts. While the coffee heads north from Nicaragua, copies of my scoring sheet will head south. Benjamin Rivera, the Cooperative’s quality control officer and I will confer on the scores, and he’ll visit the farmers one by one to share the results. Where coffees are great, we’ll try to replicate the farmer’s craft at his or her neighbors. Where the coffees need help, we’ll dig in to identify and fix the problems. Already these coffees are greatâ€¦they get better each year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the new crop Nicaraguans with you soon—you can find them in our new single origin â€œJoya de Aranjuezâ€ 12oz. package.
This month we’re offering a special on a very special coffee: the Maracaturra varietal, grown by Byron Corrales Martinez on his small family farm in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The back of the package tells the story (in Byron’s words) but because you haven’t already hooked yourself up with one of the sweetest, most nuanced coffees in the world (you should) I’m going to share Byron’s message via this fine blog. Here goes…
I was 7 years old when my grandfather taught me to plant my first coffee tree. I liked to look at sun coming through the trees, to share the lessons my grandfather taught me about the growth of plants, and watch the rain fall and surrounded by the scent of the earth. I listened to the song of the birds and rode my horse to school every morning. 42 years have passed in my life since then and I want to transmit our family’s art, our work of many years, discovering the flavors we’ve learned to bring forth from our mountains, expressed in this cup by way of respect for our envionment and the songs we sing every day in our coffee farm.
I talk every day with my plants, and they ask me who will consume each bean of our production and in this moment when you are tasting our coffee, I want to talk with you and tell you in silence that you are contributing to the conservation of our plantet, that this cup has come from the Arenal Forest Reserve, that its flavor that you’re tasting on your palate is the expression of life and the life energy of all the living beings who live in our community. Now we are together in embraced by this moment celebrating with joy the responsibility of protecting the future of our generations.
The cup of responsibility is a song of love.
Byron practices biodynamic agriculture, in the tradition of Rudolph Steiner, and the ancient farming societies before him. His coffee is planted, pruned, fertilized, and picked in accordance with lunar cycles and the ebb and flow of the seasons. If you think this all sounds like a lot of hot air, check out this link to a third-party review of Byron’s coffee…scoring a 94 out of 100.
We’re offering a special for the next month: Buy 3, get 1 free. Just add 4 bags to your cart and use promotion code “luna” when you checkout on our store.
Here’s to Byron, and to coffee with a taste of the moon.