Nicaragua: Sweet, Round and Progressive
Nicaragua is simultaneously a rising star of Central American coffee and a poster child for what's gone wrong with coffee generally over the past few years -- the enormous suffering and social dislocation caused by the recent drop in green coffee prices. I suspect these entwined roles as emerging success story and prominent victim both are owing to the early and persistent attention Nicaragua has attracted from aid agencies and coffee idealists owing to its dramatic Cold War history and consequent late re-entry into the world of specialty coffee.
From a specialty coffee perspective, the isolation Nicaragua's coffee industry suffered during the Cold War has turned out to be both advantage and disadvantage: advantage because traditional coffee varieties and traditional agricultural practices were preserved, disadvantage because the infrastructure and industry sophistication necessary to bring a high quality, differentiated coffee to market hardly existed.
Two Strategies for Coffee Development
Thus Nicaragua offered an ideal opportunity for deployment of the two main strategies for using specialty coffee as a way to create a better life for small-holding coffee farmers: certification and product differentiation, or the gourmet strategy.
Certification involves identifying and promoting coffees that demand a premium because they are identified by independent agencies as fulfilling various positive environmental and/or social-economic agendas. It should come as no surprise, for example, that six of the ten coffees reviewed here are certified organically grown. It is considerably easier to convert farms to organic agriculture when the farmers never used chemicals in the first place, a common history in Nicaragua. Similarly, the preponderance of small growers in Nicaragua has encouraged implementation of Fair-Trade certification, a program whose bold little black-and-white seal assures buyers that growers have been paid a "fair" formula-defined price for the coffee, and that it has been produced by farmers organized into democratically run cooperatives. Four of the ten coffees reviewed here are also Fair-Trade certified.
The Gourmet Strategy
The second approach is coffee differentiation, or the gourmet strategy. It assumes that people will pay more for a product once they discover the difference between, say, a splendid coffee like this month's Thanksgiving Coffee Nicaragua Maragogipe and the hot brown swill produced by most supermarket cans.
In growing countries this strategy involves educating growers and mill owners about quality, investing in infrastructure like mill machinery and cupping laboratories, and rewarding quality through cupping competitions like those organized by the Cup of Excellence (www.cupofexcellence.org). This effort is complemented by developing a market in consumer countries for the resulting higher quality, higher priced, more distinctive coffees.
Two of the ten coffees reviewed here are Cup of Excellence winners, which means they attracted scores of 80 or higher by an international jury of cuppers, and were bought at Internet auction at prices considerably higher than the norm for Nicaragua coffees. The Cup of Excellence currently runs similar competitions and auctions in Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador and Honduras. Other growing countries, like Panama, India and Costa Rica, run competitions along similar lines.
Success in Nicaragua
It is the modest success of the gourmet strategy in Nicaragua that has led to its new role as a rising coffee star of Central America. The Nicaragua coffees offered by green coffee dealers over the past three or four years have, in my experience, steadily improved. The relatively high overall ratings for the coffees reviewed here seem to bear out that judgment.
Furthermore, a fairly consistent Nicaragua flavor profile has emerged: sweet, balanced, rich, often full-bodied, with more emphasis on the low-toned chocolate and apricot/papaya side of the fruit sensation than on the higher-toned, floral, citrus side. Most of the coffees reviewed here fit this suavely round Nicaragua profile.
Editing for Profile
Of course, it is never entirely clear how much such an origin-specific flavor profile is owing to reasons of soil, climate and plant variety, and how much owing to a kind of ongoing editing by growers, exporters and importers. When buyers begin to associate a certain flavor profile with an origin the temptation among growers, exporters and dealers is to send coffees that fulfill that profile into the specialty market while relegating lots of coffee that do not conform to it into the big, nameless pool of "blenders." This sort of flavor-profile editing may be particularly tempting in Central America, where distinctions among coffees are subtle, and one often finds more difference in flavor profile between regions or even farms than between countries.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a characteristic Nicaragua profile, and most of these coffees reviewed here fill that profile out with distinction and a subtle variety.
The Nicaragua Maragogipe roasted by Thanksgiving Coffee and produced by grower Byron Corrales is an extraordinary coffee that manifests the Nicaragua profile but also soars outside it with an almost East-African range and verve. This is the second time in two years that this coffee has emerged from blind cupping with an exceptional rating (94 this month, 94 in December 2002). (See the "Notes" section of the review for the term Maragogipe and how it applies and does not apply to this coffee.)
It is particularly appropriate that the highest-rated Nicaragua was sourced and roasted by Thanksgiving Coffee, a company headed by Paul Katzeff, a coffee-oriented Michael-Moore-style provocateur whose volatile personality and outspoken use of coffee to support populist and progressive agendas has both annoyed and gratified coffee professionals for over thirty years. Paul has been promoting Nicaragua coffee for most of those thirty years (including, I recall, defying the Cold War embargo), and his recent leadership in putting together a USAID-funded program to develop grass-roots cupping laboratories in Nicaragua may be one of the several reasons for improved quality and distinction among Nicaragua coffees.
Subtle, Suave and Lyric
The Nicaragua Matagalpa from Kaffe Magnum Opus (rating 91) is more clearly the kind of coffee I associate with Nicaragua: subtle, suave, and lyric. Other Nicaraguas reviewed here were impressive as a group, but tended to lack the little extra in complexity and range of sensation that might warrant a rating of 90 or higher.
Nevertheless, those interested in exploring the roundly rich and resonantly low-key possibilities of Nicaragua coffees have much to choose from in this month's selections, as do those interested in supporting small-holding farmers in their struggle to maintain their families and the integrity of their land.