The Worse the Road, the Better the Coffee at Finca Suspiro, Nicaragua
Sunday morning in Nicaragua dawned cloudy and rainy. Rain is a rarity there during this time of year, and I dug through my clothes to find my rain gear – which, fortunately, I had along with me. My backpack filled up quickly with everything I thought I might need for the day – dry socks and clothes at the bottom, all serving as a cushion for my camera and tripod, with rain gear and hat on top if I needed to grab it quick. Outside pockets held bottled water, trail mix, hat, bar towels (amazingly useful for keeping camera and face dry while working in the field), and – if the sun came out later – sunscreen and sunglasses.
Initially, I put on my light weight Adidas cross trainers, which are perfect for dealing with steep, dry trails and uncertain footing. But upon reflection about the day’s weather, I switched to my heavy-duty, all-purpose Doc Martens – for which I was extremely grateful later in the day, as I found myself fording streams and sliding down ankle-breaking stretches of trail made slick with heavy, wet clay.
To enable a visit to a typical small Nicaraguan coffee farm, we traveled in Erwin’s four-wheel drive Toyota truck – seemingly the vehicle-of-choice in Nicaragua (and much of the rest of the world) for travel up into the coffee zone. Paved roads soon led to packed gravel roads, then to rutted dirt roads, and eventually to really bad jeep roads that were barely passable due to the three R’s of coffee country - rocks, ruts, and rubble. There seems to be an inverse relationship I’ve discovered in most coffee producing countries – the worse the road, the better the coffee. So as I was thrown side-to-side and up-and-down in Erwin’s truck, moving at a near walking pace on the rain-slickened jeep roads, I remember thinking to myself that the coffee ahead must be pretty amazing to make this grueling drive worthwhile!
The small farm we were invited to visit, Finca Suspiro, lay in a remote section of the upper reaches of the coffee zone in the Matagalpa mountains at over 4,000 feet elevation. Suspira consists of only a few hectares of coffee trees (a hectare is about 2.25 acres), with an annual output of only a small number of bags of high-quality coffee. To reach the finca, which lay across a steep, narrow valley into which there was no road, we had to leave our truck and finish the journey on foot. We hiked downhill, following a steep, rough trail through the woods. The mist and clouds moved through the trees above us, with the rich sounds of tropical birds filling the woods around us. At the bottom of the cleft, we forded the narrow stream at a shallow point (after the harrowing descent, glad a second time for my decision to wear my Docs) and, upon crossing, entered the bottom-most lands of Suspiro, which was planted out with young Bourbon variety coffee trees. We ascended the steep, slippery trail through the coffee trees, finally reaching the dwelling of Don Toño, Suspiro’s resident farm manager. Sr. Toño and his wife (whom everyone, including Toño himself, referred to as “The Missus”) were a bit uncertain as to our visit at first (which, given their remote location, and lack of phone or electricity, was perfectly understandable) but upon recognizing the Mierischs, kindly welcomed us to their home and farm.
Don Toño’s coffee is carefully hand-picked when the cherries are perfectly red and ripe, swollen with their two large coffee beans inside. At the end of the day’s picking, the ripe cherries are carefully poured into the top of the finca’s cast-iron coffee pulper – The Missus pouring in the cherries, while Don Toño rapidly turns the heavy flywheel. Inside the pulper, the cherries are compressed against a perforated cylinder that squeezes the coffee beans out of the fruit. The seeds are exuded from the front of the pulper, and slide down into a collecting bucket, while the skin and pulp of the cherries is ejected out the bottom of the pulper onto the ground where they are gathered and used as compost for the young trees. The pulped coffee seeds are spread onto metal screening suspended within a wooden frame – a method of drying coffee which is common in Africa, but unusual elsewhere – and then sun-dried down to about 50% moisture content. Unlike most of the rest of the world that ferments its coffee in water after pulping, and then dries it out in the sun, Nicaragua produces much of its coffee in cloud forests where it never gets hot or dry enough during harvest season to properly dry the coffee. Suspiro’s partially dried pergamino coffee – called café humido - is then bagged and carried on the back of Toño’s horse down and up the trails I had just hiked, transferred to a truck, and makes it way down to the hot and windy coastal plains where the drying process is completed.