SOURCING REPORT // NICARAGUA 2018
It's been a whirlwind return to the UK following my trip to Nicaragua. A place so very different to my previous visit and a real eye-opener to see just how much things can change in such a short space of time. You could also say it's been a catalyst for thoughts on sustainability and impact for Yallah. Although we've always tried to make conscious, environmentally positive decisions, it's trips like this that remind us we need to do more.
Just over a month ago now, I, along with 2 talented friends James Aiken and James Bowden went to Northern Nicaragua to visit the small group of producers who have contributed to our house coffee this year. It is James Bowden who we owe a huge thanks for taking these beautiful photos (these is just a few) and Aiken for shooting and producing a beautiful video, soon to be released.
Dipilto is part of a larger department called Nueva Segovia, now well known for producing some of the best coffee in Nicaragua. Last year, our coffee was a regional blend of 9 producers and we were there to taste the new season's harvest.
The trip was facilitated through 'Caravela', an exporter who we have been working with for a few years now. There are many ways roasters can buy coffee nowadays and indeed the word direct trade is now commonplace. Often, the details vary from country to country and the meaning of 'direct trade' can be vague at best, as I discussed in a previous blog post.
We've taken the decision to partner with Caravela here because quite honestly, they do all of the things we would like to do and support, but which we couldn't possibly do ourselves.
Indeed, in the face of a changing climate, increase in disease and the rising cost of production, simply paying higher isn't enough. Caravela have created their own education program called PECA (short for ‘Grower Education Program’ in Spanish) to help farmers improve quality and increase yields, whilst using better practices. Their mission is to engage the next generation of coffee farmers, from an analytical, science-based perspective to run profitable farms with a focus on quality and sustainability. For us, that's exciting because it tackles sustainability from both an environmental and financial perspective.
Our other aim was to meet new farmers from the region who are growing very high-quality coffee that we could import as 'micro-lots'. These would be smaller lots of coffee, separated out at the mills because of there unique and exceptional quality.
The quality grading system at Caravela is nice and simple, transparent and rewarding for the farmers. It makes it easy for us to identify these lots and know the farmers would be receiving a better price for them. The average price farmers receive from Caravela is 64% above the commodity price and for every lot scored above 86 points, farmers receive a premium of $.94 per lb.
At their lab coffees are categorised according to cup quality, with a corresponding price point. Farmers receive feedback on the cup score and how it affects the buying price. The small lots are placed into quality bands (grades), and are either blended into larger lots, adhering to the specific taste profile or kept separate if it scores over 86 points.
During the trip, we tasted over 100 coffees from this small region and as always, the quality and consistency were amazing. It was particularly nice to share this experience with both the James's. Neither had done anything similar to this so it was a refreshing change of perspective to hear their thoughts on taste and consistency.
José Javier and Eudoro Guillen were two of the farmers we met during the trip and we're excited to say we've bought some of their best coffees scoring over 86 points. Both farms were really impressive and the emphasis on quality was clear to see. José's farm, in particular, was mind-blowing, as was his attitude and commitment to producing great coffee. It was the highest farm we visited and he was essentially a one-man team. He and his small family lived in a tiny house high up on the mountain and he would pick each field with just the help of one or two others. The lots he picked and separated were as small as 30kgs each, which is the smallest we've ever come across. We had met José and visited his farm before we picked his coffee as being the best (the tasting was done 'blind' so we were delighted the put the two together).
Another high point and particular area of interest for us was the natural shade cover and variation in forestry on these farms. This, I was told is not uncommon in Nicaragua. The vast amounts of natural, native trees provide shade cover and are key to reducing the need for fertilizers, whilst protecting the soils on these mountains. They also act as nitrogen fixers and provide suitable habitats for local wildlife. Biodiversity is winning here, helping both crops and wildlife life together.
What was most shocking and saddening, however, was the lack of labour altogether. It was common to hear of farms working with 50% labour force in comparison to a normal year. There were lots of trees that looked like they'd been missed or not picked in time, resulting in over ripening and fallen fruit. Producers described how this had affected yields, both in terms of quantity and quality. What was most evident to me was the atmosphere (or lack of it) that this created. It didn't feel like a great time to be a farmer.
It's understandable that pickers would go elsewhere when you consider it's their livelihood too. If the season has been poor, less fruit on the trees and hard conditions for picking (lots of rain) then they're almost guaranteed to pick less by weight. Pickers are paid by weight, so it's obvious they would go elsewhere, especially with neighboring countries such as Costa Rica and Guatemala producing great coffee for higher prices.
Seeing these things cemented our belief and commitment to sourcing coffee from this wonderful country. Despite the poor season, I was honestly blown away by some coffees we tasted. Producers working hard to keep quality up and exporters like Caravela making it financially sustainable by paying good premiums for coffee. Indeed, it's more important than ever to make sure that producers are selling their best coffee for good money, as this will help offset the loss of a poor season.
Whatsmore, over the past few years we have become more and more concerned with our environmental impact and the footprint of our business. In my mind, this includes the footprint of the coffee when it's grown, shipped, roasted and brewed. Late last year, we did our first sustainably grown, permaculture series to raise awareness on these issues. I was delighted to see just how much biodiversity and natural permaculture was being used here. It's exactly the type of farming we want to support and promote.
We expect these coffees to land early summer and we look forward to releasing more information when they do. In the meantime please keep in touch as we'll be releasing some of the information and research we've been doing on coffees carbon footprint and what we can do to reduce it.