At the turn of this century Nicaragua became something of a poster origin for progressives on the coffee left, and concurrently a rich source of higher-quality sustainably certified coffees, particularly from cooperatives of small holders certified organic and/or fair trade.
During the Cold War, Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista government was targeted by the United States during its proxy war with the Soviet Union, and along the way Nicaragua was economically isolated by a U.S.-enforced trade embargo (1985–90). Progressives in the U.S. specialty coffee community rallied around the beleaguered coffee farmers of Nicaragua, whom they felt were the innocent victims of a misdirected U.S. policy. Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee, a seminal supporter of sustainable and progressive causes in coffee, defied the embargo by importing Nicaragua coffee, and Paul Rice, who would go on to lead the founding of the fair trade movement in the U.S., lived 11 years in Nicaragua helping build the cooperative movement there.
In 1999–2003, Nicaragua became a widely cited example of the enormous suffering caused in coffee-producing regions by the devastating fall of worldwide coffee prices and a leading example in the media campaign in support of the newly founded fair trade movement in coffee. Finally, in the aftermath of the 1990 transition from the old Sandinista regime to democracy, Nicaragua coffee benefited for many years from U.S. efforts to stabilize the country through economic development, which included funding to promote coffee quality by educating and supporting small-holding coffee growers.
Cooperatives and Sustainability.
The result of this history appears to be a particularly vigorous cadre of coffee-producing cooperatives in Nicaragua and an industry generally attuned to sustainability both as practice and as marketing appeal. In 2012, 18% of Nicaragua coffee production was fair trade certified, and an impressive total of 33% was certified as either fair trade, organic, Rainforest Alliance or UTZ. At the first Cup of Excellence internationally juried green-coffee competition in 2004, I was told that roughly 80% of the winning coffees came from farmers associated with small-holder cooperatives.
Although the importance of small-holder cooperatives continues, the value-added appeal of certifications, particularly fair trade, may be waning, as Nicaraguan farmers turn toward the more individualized value-added strategy roughly described as direct trade.
Starting in 2018 and continuing as I write, the longtime president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, has responded to public protests of his leadership with harsh retaliation that has intensified the protests and destabilized Nicaragua. The impact on the Nicaragua coffee industry has not been positive.
Nicaragua grows a range of traditional varieties typical of Central America: the ancient and ubiquitous Typica, the compact, sun-tolerant Caturra, the admired Bourbon. As I write there appears to be relatively little planting of new disease-resistant, high-yielding hybrid varieties. Nicaragua, along with Guatemala and Mexico, is one of the few sources in the world of the rare, huge-beaned Maragogipe variety.
Newly Introduced Varieties.
Perhaps because of a traditional affection for the big-beaned Maragogipe, Nicaragua producers recently have favored two distinctive large-bean hybrids. Pacamara was first developed in El Salvador and is now widely planted in Nicaragua. Maracaturra or Maracatu is a hybrid of Maragogipe and Caturra first developed by Nicaraguan farmer Byron Corrales and his father. Both of these varieties have produced exceptional coffees in Nicaragua in the past decade or so.
Nicaragua Processing Methods
Almost all Nicaragua coffees are wet processed by the classic ferment- and-wash method, often performed by small-holding producers on their farms. Delays in getting partly dried coffees from small farms at higher, cloudier elevations down to final drying at larger mills at lower, sunnier elevations often produced musty-tainted lots in years past, but improvements in roads in Nicaragua have helped ameliorate this problem.
Newer Non-Traditional Methods.
Nicaragua producers perhaps have been a bit slower than those in some other Central America countries to experiment with alternative processing methods, but attractive lots of well-prepared dried-in-the-fruit or natural-processed and honey-processed Nicaragua coffees have appeared on the specialty market in recent years.
Nicaragua Growing Regions
Nearly all Nicaragua coffee is grown in the mountainous north-central part of the country near the border with Honduras. Matagalpa Department generally has the highest elevations and perhaps the best reputation, but north of Matagalpa, Jinotega and Nuevo Segovia produce admired high-altitude coffees as well. It appears that no efforts have been made by Nicaraguan coffee authorities to define cup profiles associated with these regions or to market coffees by branded regional name.
The Traditional Nicaragua Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
Sweet, balanced, rich, usually only moderately acidy, often full-bodied, with more emphasis on the low-toned chocolate and stone-fruit tendencies of the fruit sensation than on the higher-toned, floral, citrus side. But this describes the normative Nicaragua fine cup of recent tradition. Given experiments with tree variety and processing method and selection of small lots by terroir, one may now expect a wide range of cups from Nicaragua, ranging from pure and gently bright to lush, brandyish and fruit-toned to resonant and savory-sweet.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
Again, sticking to the traditional Nicaragua wet-processed type: chocolate, stone fruit, aromatic wood (fir or cedar), ripe orange, often hints of sweet flowers.
Nicaragua Coffee Ratings and Reviews
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