If you went back to early 2012 and asked us if we thought a little farm nestled in the hills of Northern Matagalpa Department, Nicaragua would reshape the vision and mission of our company while making permanent marks on the hearts of our entire team, you’d be met with justifiable skepticism.
What a difference a few years can make.
When we met Bayardo Reyes, a gregarious, relentlessly positive, and effortlessly self-deprecating native Nicaraguan, he was finishing out the last few years of a career as a civil engineer in the US Army. He came to us with samples from the coffee farm he had purchased a few years prior as an effort to reconnect with his family’s history of coffee agriculture. The Reyes family were prominent members of the Samoza government when the Nicaraguan civil war of the late 70s toppled that regime and replaced it with the current ruling party, the Sandinistas. The Reyes family estate was broken up and redistributed, and Bayardo and his Brother Alvaro were sent to the US for safety and an education while tensions in Nicaragua died down.
Bayardo came to us at a time when we were actively looking to build deeper partnerships with the farms that produced our coffees. His farm, named in honor of his family’s historical estate, Finca San Jose de las Nubes, was producing quality coffee, typical of of the region. We were impressed by the quality of the samples he provided; but more importantly, we were impressed with Bayardo. We felt an immediate connection with him: his story, the story of his family, and how he came to be producing coffee were all compelling, and we knew we needed to get on the ground level at the farm to see it all first hand.
Our first two visits to Finca San Jose were really an effort to learn as much as possible about how coffee was produced in Nicaragua, and to understand the specific challenges facing Bayardo and his brother, Alvaro, who oversaw the farm’s operation while Bayardo was still working in the US. What we found was that the Reyes brothers had built a solid foundation of quality-driven production by building a workforce of full-time staff and seasonal workers who knew that better quality coffee production meant higher wages and more benefits. Still, there were infrastructure issues that were hindering Finca San Jose’s ability to grow production to meet the increasing demand for its coffee. This presented us with our first real opportunity get involved at the farm level to build trust and invest beyond a purely transactional relationship.
The Las Nubes region of the Matagalpa Department borders Jinotega and is covered in rainforest. In the higher altitudes where coffee plants thrive, the air is full of moisture, with hot days and cool, damp nights. This climate is ideal for producing sweet, high-quality coffee, but not ideal for allowing that coffee to dry. For this reason, farms in Nicaragua tend to have wet mills on site that process the cherries off the seeds and start the fermentation process, but harvested coffee needs to be transported to the low, arid climate outside the city of Matagalpa soon after the wet mill to complete the drying process and avoid over-fermentation or rot. The farm had a single small truck that could transport a few thousand pounds of coffee off the mountain for the two hour trip to the dry mills each day, but the road between the farm and the state road was treacherous in the best of conditions. A small amount of rain could make it impossible to transport coffee for days at a time, threatening the integrity of large portions of the harvest. When we asked the Reyes brothers what we could do to help, the answer was simple: help us build a better road.
Prior to the next harvest, we provided funds for labor and materials to build a more reliable road connecting the farm to the state-maintained roads. A seemingly simple fix and a small gesture assuring the Reyes brothers that we were partners, invested in the long term success of Finca San Jose led to increased quality, consistency, and volume in the next harvest. The farm was able to hire more harvesters and produce more coffee per week with the guarantee that it would be able to be safely transported from the farm to the dry mill. We were able to establish Finca San Jose as one of our most consistently available and widely loved single origin coffees. During this time we also began to ask how we could help the community surrounding the farm where many of the workers lived with their families. We established ongoing support of the local clinic with medical supplies and prenatal vitamins, built a schoolhouse on the farm so workers’ children could safely attend school during the harvest season, and provided supplies and uniforms for school children who would have otherwise gone without - all with the help and support of our own community of friends, family, and coffee enthusiasts.
With a foundation of trust established with the Reyes brothers and Finca San Jose, we began to explore ways we could affect change in coffee processing to produce new, exciting flavors and coffee offerings for our customers, and ultimately increase the farm’s profitability by developing more desirable coffees. We began with lot separation, isolating coffees harvested from specific sections of the farm, highlighting more nuanced flavors caused by variations in terroir and micro-climates. This progressed into experimentation in varietal separation, natural and honey processing, and even augmented yeast fermentations. The initial results were exciting, with field cuppings resulting in flavor characteristics we had never found in Nicaraguan coffees, but with the first full harvest implementation of our experiments, the foundation of trust we built would be tested.
The isolated Yellow Catuai varietal we asked San Jose to produce for us arrived with substantial phenol defect - a coffee defect that presents as a chemical rubber aroma and flavor and is often associated with coffees that are harvested past their peak ripeness, or improper handling during processing. The defect made the coffee unsellable, but because it was likely the result of the processing and handling changes we requested, we stood by our end of the agreement and purchased it all, using it as a learning experience and a reminder that partnership and trust is reciprocal.
We went back to the drawing board with Bayardo and Alvaro, aware that the changes we were making in processing carried the risk of unusable coffee, but the Reyes brothers were willing to try again, learning from the previous harvest, and we would stand by our commitment to own the result, no matter how good or bad. As harvest samples arrived, the results were promising, and then political unrest broke out in the streets of Nicaragua’s cities. As we watched the turmoil play out all over Nicaragua, costing innocent lives, and placing the country’s future in limbo, we were unsure we’d even be able to receive this year’s harvest, but Alvaro and our export partners worked diligently and we received the coffee only a few weeks later than expected.
Our work with the Reyes brothers and Finca San Jose has taught us to be both bold and humble; to take chances, but be prepared for them to end in with a negative result; to learn from our failures and turn them into success. This year’s harvest from Finca San Jose includes individual lots of washed process coffees, natural process coffees, and honey process coffees, all with unique flavor characteristics highlighting the trust between farmer and roaster. The natural and honey process coffees earn an average of $1.50 to $1.75 more per pound than the farm’s regular production - meaningful results that continue to fuel future experimentation, and allow San Jose to continue sustainable growth. The results we are able to share with you are a testament to hard work and trust, and using that trust to take risks together that could lead to failure, or could lead to outstanding coffees that push the boundaries of what is expected from a region like Nicaragua, and a small farm like Finca San Jose de las Nubes.