April 26, 2010; Ocotal, Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua. Twenty four judges, all coffee professionals, focus beyond the 90 degree heat and humidity in the classroom/cupping lab to give their undivided attention to flight after flight of the very best coffees Nicaragua has to offer. Every detail is scored to a strict protocol on the journey to find the ten absolute best coffees in Nicaragua this year. The event is Cup of Excellence Nicaragua, and I am one of the international judges discovering these often stunning coffees. The panel hails from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Central America, and the United States. Our purpose is to identify the best examples of Nicaragua coffee for the international market to bid on at auction, which gives the local producers a clear idea what extremely high quality specialty coffee is, and their impetus to produce this is the higher prices the top coffees are awarded at auction.
At the end of each day of cupping we travel out to the country to view the coffee production firsthand. The first evening we toured a Benificiado (coffee mill) where the entire cooperative’s coffee is dried on basketball court-sized patios and African-style raised beds. It’s then milled (removing the parchment covering from the bean) in towering three story machines; graded by size, color, and quality; bagged in jute and stored. The facility was pristine and well-organized by certification; organic, fair trade, and organic fair trade. This cooperative is committed to raising their standards of quality to meet the demands of the specialty market so their members can earn a good wage to care for their families. We shared a Nicaraguan meal of beans, rice, pork, and blood sausage with the farmers and operators that had come out to meet us and share ideas about our common passion- coffee. Back at the Hotel Frontera (4-star by Nicaraguan standards, think Motel-6) we sat by the pool and shared our own personal experiences and coffee stories until late in the night.
Next morning we are back in the hot, humid lab for round after round of cupping. No discussion is permitted while we are scoring, we save that for the breakout after each flight of 9 or 10 coffees. Then we share, and sometimes defend, our scores for each coffee. These are skilled coffee experts, all with strong (sometimes varied) opinions on what separates very good coffee from excellent coffee. The Nicaragua national judges spent the previous week weeding through the 300+ entries that weren’t good enough to make the final cut. Our job is to sort through the top 60 fine coffees to determine the 10 best. We’ll choose the top 30, cup again to find the top 10, and cup yet again to rank the 10 winners. By the time a coffee has reached the finals it will have been scrutinized on six separate occasions by exacting, discriminating judges.
One evening we travel close to the Honduran border to visit Finca Santa Lucia and walk through the rows as the Patron explains which varietals of Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, and Pacamara are doing well and why. We trudge down river a bit to view the nursery where 20,000 tiny coffee plants are beginning their life, to be transplanted into the finca in two more years. The Patron also describes the trapping methods they’re using to suppress the pests that attack and devour the ripe coffee cherries. The trapping is less expensive and less harmful to the environment than pesticides, and seems to be very effective.
Cupping begins with evaluating the dry aroma of the precisely roasted ground coffee. Each table has 4 examples of each of the 9 or 10 coffees in the flight- inconsistencies within the samples of a particular coffee are penalized. The hot water is then poured, four minutes later we’re ready to “break” the crust of coffee that’s formed at the top. A rush of aromatics bursts up and we discern and score that. The coffee is still too hot to taste so we wait another few minutes, then the real tasting ensues. Aroma, flavor, acidity, body, balance, sweetness, and finish are all evaluated and recorded. Sometimes only half a point will separate two superb coffees (out of a possible 100 point score). Is the body in harmony with the acidity? Does the aroma match the sweetness in the cup? Having one or two great qualities isn’t enough; the coffee must be excellent in every area to advance to the top ten. We continue cupping for 45 minutes, noting and scoring the changes as the coffee cools, then turn in our scores and retire to another room to discuss.
Another evening we journey to Dipilto to see how the cooperative and USAID are assisting the coffee producing community. A school has been built to support the children of the region, some travel up to 12 miles each way for the opportunity to attend. In many families the elementary school children bring home health and sanitation education that would never otherwise reach the family. The goal is to create a healthy, sustainable life for these families so generations can continue to thrive while producing the fine quality of coffee the market demands. The children were sweet and shy, the teachers were proud to present the programs they were teaching and the rising test scores the children were achieving. More children than ever before are matriculating their grade and they are staying in school longer. Later at dinner we chatted with exporters about the political climate in Nicaragua and some of the slight-of-hand movement of lower-grade coffees from Honduras and Nicaragua to Colombia to fetch higher prices and fulfill contracts. I am grateful for the transparency we insist on at Kean Coffee, we know exactly where our coffee comes from.
Next morning we’re back to the selection rounds, scrutinizing each coffee again to determine the top ten. Between rounds our head judge Paul Songer shows us the statistics on our scoring. Not surprisingly, our scores tend to group together by geographic region. The cuppers have tastes that are specific to their own part of the world. Generally, the Japanese/Koreans seem to favor a very bright acidity, the Scandinavians favor a medium body, and the Americans favor a deep sweetness. Because the scoring is compiled on a curve only a truly exceptional coffee will achieve a high score, because individual preferences will average each other out. The level of concentration is intense, these are all wonderful coffees and only the slightest nuances separate them. When we submit our final scores after four rounds all the cuppers are spent, and our tongues are a bit raw.
That afternoon six of us have been invited to join a local producer, Sergio Ortiz, to visit his finca and view his methods. Sergio is a super-passionate young man committed to producing the best quality coffee. He’s one of the few producers with a Q-cupper certification, and he’s constantly tweaking his methods and tasting the results to produce better coffee. He’s hot-rodded a Brazilian pulping machine to separate the ripe from not-ripe cherries better, and has an air-conditioned storage room for his pulped coffee to slow the fermentation process. Sergio was like a mad scientist as he clambered up and down the three-story machine pointing out the modifications and adjustments he’d made. We traveled back down the hill to Ocotal to a local beneficio to cup the 6 different production variations, as well as 14 coffees from other producers in the region. The different variations all had distinct flavors, the time Sergio spends refining his methods are making a noticeable difference. By the end of the day we had cupped 53 different coffees, our brains and tongues were ready for a rest.
On our final day of cupping we had the 10 finalist coffees; our job was to determine the order of placement. The entire group of judges was fired-up and focused, this was the reason we came to Nicaragua. Every single coffee was wonderful, and we bent to the task with relish. We spent the next hour becoming intimate friends with each coffee, listening to what it had to tell us about where it had been and how it had been cared for. I left the table confident that I had given my complete attention to every offering and been open to what each had to present to us. As always, we compared and discussed our scores afterwards, but we wouldn’t know the final results until that evening.
The Awards were held in the local sports arena downtown, all the Finalists were present to see who would place well. After all the opening remarks and adulations, and a sweet, moving folkloric dance presented by a children’s group, the winners were announced one by one. The capacity crowd cheered and supported each contestant; this was a big honor for each producer to place in the Cup of Excellence. As the top eight scores were read the crowd applauded louder for there were an unprecedented 8 Presidential Awards (scores above 90 points). This was a truly outstanding showing of dedication and hard work for the year. Picture after picture were taken afterwards, families beaming proudly, friendly rivals shaking hands, winners displaying their awards. Eventually the celebration moved down the street to a local hall where food, drink and music flowed freely. The students from the region’s coffee college who had spent the week assisting us professionally and stoically were there, dressed to the nines and ready to cut loose. The entire community was bound together by their passion for excellence in coffee and celebrated their achievements that night.
The next morning we said our good-byes, some judges leaving for home while I stayed on with a small group to visit some fincas in Matagalpa, about 4 hours drive away. Our band was hosted by Dr. Miersch and his family, one of the top 3 winners in the competition. Over the next three days we toured half a dozen fincas owned by the family and I got an in-depth education on varietals, grafting, land management, and the care and respect the family show the workers that live on the fincas and husband the land. A few fortunate villages have small hydroelectric generators installed on the streams that flow down the mountains, providing lights, and amenities unavailable even a few years ago. As we drove the few hours it took to get to each finca I got to listen to Paul Songer discuss with Erwin Miersch the changes in the countryside and the techniques being employed to produce the coffee at each location. The family’s operation is well-considered and thoughtful, trying various methods and keeping all the best. We toured a few miles of hillside on horseback; hardy, strong cowponies used to negotiating the muddy terrain. Our attempt to rescue a young cow that had fallen doubled over into a ravine failed, we eventually got her pulled out but she couldn’t stand on her dislocated hip. Dr Miersch told us the hands would come back later to put her down and distribute the meat to the village. There is little waste in this part of the world.
The country is beautiful and green, yet still hard and unforgiving. Plantations left untended were choked and overgrown in only a few years time. The work of pruning, caring, and tending is never ending; it is a way of living for the people who do it. A few pounds of coffee on our retail shelf is the result of years of careful labor by the people that live in this rugged paradise, I try not to forget to be grateful for the effort they put forth generation after generation. My journeys to origin have forever changed the way I see a 132 lb bag of green coffee on the roasting floor.