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Your guide to Nicaragua Coffee
Nicaragua coffee is the country's most important export, earning the Central American nation more than $500 million (£370 million) a year and supporting over 200,000 jobs. It is the primary source of income for about 40,000 farmers and their dependent families.
The cultivation of coffee accounts for half of Nicaragua's agricultural land and while the coffee industry has battled against many forms of adversity, it is now beginning to be regarded for more high-quality, special coffees. It's gone from boom to bust and back again more than once.
Coffee production in Nicaragua
The best coffee from Nicaragua comes from the areas in the northern highlands, around Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa and Jinotega, on the Isabelia and Dariense mountain ranges. The country has the ideal conditions for growing coffee beans: a tropical climate with regular rainfall and rich soils as Nicaragua is a volcanic land.
It makes it into the top 12 coffee-growing nations, producing 140,000 metric tons (2.3 million 60-kilo bags) in 2020, just behind Guatemala, but trailing its northern neighbour Honduras which totted up 390,000 tons. About 40,000 of those bags from Nicaragua make their way to the UK each year and huge numbers are exported from coffee farms to the United States on a frequent basis. Almost all the coffee grown in the country is Arabica, with just a tiny amount, around 2%, being the Robusta bean.
What makes Nicaragua coffee brands so special?
Coffee plant varietals include Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Catimore, Typica and Pacamara. However, no catalogue of Nicaragua's coffee would be complete without a mention of the Maragogype, or "elephant" beans. As the name implies, these are huge - the biggest coffee beans on earth. They are fairly common in Nicaragua, but as the plants take up more space than either Bourbon or Typica and are less prolific, they are not grown on a large scale. They are not suitable for a dark roast but they do produce a fine, flavourful coffee with honey and nut tastes, combined with chocolate and apricot. If you are a fan of rich, fudgy coffee with a somewhat floral aroma, then beans from the Maragogype coffee trees are worth a taste.
Aside from the elephant beans, coffee plants are all grown at high altitude, between 3,500 and 5,300 feet above sea level; the higher the plantation, the better the beans. Around 94% are shade-grown and thanks to the tree canopy's shelter, they mature more slowly, adding to their juiciness and enhancing the flavour.
Harvesting of the green coffee beans occurs between October and March and wet processing in coffee washing stations is currently the preferred method for processing Nicaraguan beans for most farmers. This is where the cherry pulp from the coffee plant is washed away from the beans. The natural process or dry processing is also used, as are honey processing methods.
Honey processed means that the coffee cherries are de-pulped and then dried but without any washing. As a result, some fruit remains, but less than in the natural process. The name comes from the remaining sticky substance, which looks like honey and the colour of this residue changes as the coffee dries, transitioning from golden yellow all the way through to black. Black honey processed coffee will often have more fruit left on the bean compared to the lighter shades.
Nicaragua coffee farms
Coffee production is shared among a number of small farms, co-operatives and a few large single estates within the country. The majority of Nicaraguan coffee farmers cannot afford chemical fertilizers, so almost all the crop is organic.
Compared with the rest of Central America, Nicaraguan coffee yield per plantation is poor, amounting to 11 or 12 bags per hectare. Naturally, the scarcity adds to the price of the product to make it viable for farmers.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and once had a reputation for producing some of the world's finest coffee. In the past three decades, that reputation was damaged. The industry is successfully fighting back, creating a niche market for its specialist coffee, but it has one tough history to overcome.
Centuries of history in a bean
The history of coffee in Nicaragua is an interesting one with very little smooth sailing.
Coffee was introduced to the country two centuries ago, from Brazil. Thanks to the climate and soil conditions, Nicaraguan coffee quickly established itself as an important crop, and by the mid-1800s, the coffee trade was big business. The industry grew steadily despite production being affected during the Cold War. That all came to a grinding halt in the 1970s.
First, there was an outbreak of coffee leaf rust which hit crops across Central America. Then came an earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people in the capital, Managua. The end of the decade saw the beginning of a civil war that was to last until 1990. The Sandinista Revolution of 1974-79 was a protest against the Somoza family dictatorship and by the time this conflict ended, and the Sandinistas took over, the country was in ruins. More than half a million people were homeless, and guerrilla warfare had destroyed the agricultural economy, including the production of Nicaragua coffee. Matters didn't improve under the new government. The Sandinistas had a poor grasp of agriculture and had to cope with economic sanctions by the US. A new civil war broke out, led by the rebel Contras.
Peace was restored with the elections of 1990, although the coffee industry continued to struggle - then in 1998 Hurricane Mitch struck, wrecking large tracts of the infrastructure and blasting its way through the farms and coffee plantations in Nicaragua. A coffee crisis from 1999 to 2003 also hit hard. But growers of Nicaraguan coffee are nothing if not resilient and their products bounced back yet again.
Greater investment by the Managua government in the farms both large and small, smarter technology including advanced washing stations, and forward-looking growers working in co-operatives have seen a shift in Nicaraguan grown coffee - with a far greater focus on speciality, gourmet-style products than the bigger-scale commercial variety. The Nicaraguan Speciality Coffee Association is making its presence felt and Nicaragua coffee exports are on the rise again, while growers compete for the coveted Cup of Excellence award.
What does Nicaraguan coffee taste like?
If you like your coffees to have a full-bodied, heavy kick, coffee from Nicaragua is probably not for you. It has a taste in common with many of its Central American counterparts, but it is milder and less acidic than some. Drinkers who favour it often talk about a milk chocolate taste with a sweetish caramel aroma and some citrus hints. Specific flavours of Nicaragua single origin coffee can vary, depending on the region and the locality where the beans have been grown, and the varietal. Nueva Segovia, for example, adds a touch of almond and plum to the chocolatey taste. If you opt for a coffee from the prime growing region of Jinotega, you will pick up touches of apricot and grapefruit. Or if you choose the less well-known black honey processed Matagalpa beans, your reward will be a caramel coffee with cereal notes and plum.
Our medium roast Arabica Nicaragua coffee blend is a mild coffee of medium strength and low acidity, available as ground coffee or freshly roasted beans. With a great taste, it is ideal for all your filter coffees at any time of day but not best suited for espressos.
Is Nicaraguan coffee good?
Nicaraguan coffee has had its ups and downs in terms of quality, but pleasingly the country is now focusing on high-quality specialty coffee and is producing this very successfully. With complex flavours, beans grown in the Nueva Segovia and Jinoteca regions are of exceptional quality and rated very favourably for their taste.
What does Nicaraguan coffee taste like?
Nicaraguan coffee is one of the milder coffees available, with very low acidity but still plenty of flavour. There will be a difference in taste depending on the region the coffee comes from, but you can expect to discover hints of caramel and chocolate plus a touch of fruit.
The famous Elephant beans, or Maragogype beans from Nicaragua have a different taste profile. From these, you will still get chocolate flavours but with honey and nut overtones and a floral aroma.
With black honey processed beans, the chocolate flavours will be minimal, but they will be replaced with caramel and cereal notes.
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