It is said that in Nicaragua, everyone is considered a poet until proven otherwise. Certainly this land with its misty jungles, cloud-covered volcanoes, its mountain lakes and streams inspires poetry. But it also gives rise to great coffee. In fact, coffee is the main export from Nicaragua; 53% of the country’s agricultural jobs are in coffee production, and more than 45,000 families depend solely upon coffee for their main income. Yet it has only been cultivated here for a relatively short 200 years.
10,000 years before Columbus landed in 1492, people lived in what is now the nation of Nicaragua, creating cities, trade routes, civilizations. A mere 500 years ago, conquistadores founded their own cities, and 275 years later, coffee arrived on the scene courtesy of Catholic missionaries. Grown at first more as a curiosity than a possible cash crop, by 1870, coffee had become Nicaragua’s principal export, and for the next 100 years, coffee cultivation boomed, helped by government incentive programs and coffee cooperatives.
But in 1979, the country became a battleground between communists and contras, and the coffee industry was caught in the crossfire. Coffee transports and workers were attacked. Mills sabotaged. Then hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, devastating agriculture. Coffee prices plummeted between 1999-2003, and to top it off, drought hit the nation. Thankfully, Nicaragua is emerging from these dark times. Democratic elections are bringing stability, and some great things are happening in the coffee sector.
These days, most coffee is grown in three regions: Jinotega, Matagalpa, and Segovia, Predominately shade-grown, it carries a fragrant, complex profile with medium body and acidity, and hints of nut and vanilla along with citrus top notes. Many Nicaraguan farmers have never actually cupped their own coffees, but this is changing. In pursuit of a more excellent product, farmers are setting up tasting labs on site as well as improving cultivation and processing practices.
Despite the hardships they have faced, the Nicaraguan people are “muy sympatico”--very pleasant, and they genuinely care about the quality of the coffees they grow, not just individually but for Nicaragua as a whole. As one co-op leader expressed, “...producing quality coffee, just like working to improve people’s quality of life, is the responsibilidad de Todos (responsibility of everyone).” Smallholders and their co-ops are working together to show the world that coffee from Nicaragua is something special, and they take this cooperation seriously.