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Nicaragua Las Nubes

8 May 2018 / Words & Photos by Ian Steel

I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee…

When we travel to Origin we go to take a closer look behind the scenes of the coffees we buy from such a great distance. So, on the last two days of our Coffee Origin Road Trip to Nicaragua, Las Nubes was a fitting finale to our voyage of discovery of this beautiful country and its people coming back from the brink of chaos. We go on these trips to check out the lie of the land on the farms, gauge the standards of husbandry and the health of the coffee bushes and surrounding trees, discover new processes, inspect the welfare of the workers, the standards of the mills, taste some amazing new coffees in the cupping rooms but most of all we go to meet the people who’s dedication makes all this happen.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to encounter kindred spirits who have made great sacrifices to follow their own particular dream to bring us the best possible coffee. Victor Robelo at Las Nubes is one such individual, with a very clear vision of how to produce great coffee. And, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the great strides made on the farms and the mills, inevitably leads to improvements in the lives of the community around him that rely so heavily on coffee. This fourth generation coffee farmer was a child during the civil war and spent many years in exile when the family's land was taken by the guerillas. Now, in happier times he has returned with a burning desire to restore the family’s fortunes and the well-being of the environment and the community that contribute so much to this success. It may be only 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration but one simply can't exist without the other. I recognise a certain drive in Victor that is common to many entrepreneurs in family businesses. It's a deep sense of caring about the entity you have created, an intense attention to detail as you go about the place curating it and having a clear idea of what needs to be done to realise the dream. So, despite the name of the enterprise: Las Nubes - meaning clouds, Victor's vision is very clear and far from nebulous...
Helping him to literally rebuild the farm is his Architect wife, who has designed many of the buildings here at Las Nubes. The scale of the project is quite staggering. After looking over the bright primary colours of the Beneficio Humedo or Wet Mill we are drawn to the large ranch-like building on a slight rise. This turns out to be La Cantina, which at the peak of the season serves three square meals a day to 700 workers. That’s a lot of tortillas and re-fried beans! Luckily there is Lolita the Tortilla Lady, she's a dab hand with a pancake flipper on her giant griddle and she and her team keep the army of workers marching through the coffee groves, day after day, all the way through the picking season.
Las Nubes is both a farm name, one of the seven estates that are scattered around Matagalpa and Jinotega, as well as the name of the Beneficio, the main Mill. Victor has replanted many of the coffee plants with Yellow Catui and Caturra, his father's favourites, in his memory.

We visited two of the main estates, Las Morenitas and Santa Maria, that we will be buying coffee from. Las Morenitas, a 200 hectare Rainforest Alliance certified farm, is just above the town of Jinotega at 1150masl. About 80% of the farm is planted with Caturra, with some rust-resistant Marsellesas plants which have replaced the Catimor. I always love to pick up little lessons of agronomy when we are in the field and Victor and his farm manager Jimmy Marwish, were very indulgent in explaining their different pruning techniques for different varietals. I could see that, as they were nearing the end of their picking season, there had been a concerted effort to pollard many of the medium height shade trees. So the canopy was open to give good ventilation, reducing fungal growth, such as La Roya, and it left the usually majestic shade trees looking more like those rather forlorn shrubs in the stylised backgrounds of the Dr Seuss books!

Victor really looks after his farms and his workers too, who, as well as being paid over 35% more than the minimum wage, are housed and fed on site. This means the workers are well-skilled in picking, with the same families coming back year after year, they are familiar with the farm and its ethos, that only quality cherries are needed to go to the mill. There is a new health clinic on site and lots of child care facilities for the working mums.
The second farm we visited was Santa Maria, beautifully located at an altitude of 1500masl, where Victor and Jimmy had laid out some drying trays for us to inspect. This was an end of season selection showing the segregation needed to keep the under-ripe green and over-ripe black cherries separate from the red and yellow ripe ones. There was definitely a certain aesthetic satisfaction at play here in this remote agricultural setting. It's these different degrees of separation or segregation of course that add extra expense to the coffee process from shrub to mill but luckily for us it results in a higher quality of Speciality Coffee and luckily for Victor and for all those involved in the Las Nubes project, it adds tons of extra value. We went on to test this extra level of flavour on the cupping table, with some striking aromas coming through, particularly in the honeys. It's no surprise that Victor, just like Markus with his San Pedro micro-lot at Finca La Bastilla, is very involved with the Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence Competition. In fact we stayed that night in the same hotel that was to hold the first heats there the morning after our visit.
Four years ago Las Nubes bought their own dry mill and warehouse, which also houses offices and the all-essential cupping lab. A better, brand-spanking new facility would be hard to find anywhere in the Coffee World. There is some serious investment in new kit here and the payoff for us is surely massive peace of mind that we are going to be getting very high quality beans. (You can see all the shiny new toys for yourself in the video clip below of our Coffee Origin Road Trip Nicaragua Las Nubes)

Everything has been planned and considered very carefully, just as you would expect from a Coffee Farmer & Architect team. Even the drying patios are laid out with the comfort of the workers and the beans in mind. The black tarpaulins are springy to the step, due to them being stretched over layers of spare parchment from the milling process. This genius idea means that the beans benefit from a little more air circulation from underneath them, whilst for those raking the beans, in the often searing heat, there will be less muscle fatigue and better productivity. It also means that we are far less likely to find bits of patio in the sacks, as we do very occasionally and, of course, far less likely to find damaged beans, that have been practically scorched on some of the hotter drying patios that can rise to such oven=like temperatures that they would be better suited to griddling Lolita's Tortillas!

Victor and Jimmy are both very focussed on quality and quite open to developing new processes such as naturals and all types of honey. Each estate's coffee is wet-milled at their own estate and then transported in wet parchment to the Dry Mill in Matagalpa. All the coffee is sun-dried in various stages, from 100% sun to different levels of shade, they are then milled and packed on site, keeping the whole process in-house to ensure absolute quality control every step of the way.

Seeing such high levels of investment in all areas of the Las Nubes business is highly encouraging and inspires great confidence in the whole enterprise and the ultimate quality of the final product. What Victor has achieved here is truly remarkable. His emphasis on quality will do wonders in the future to make Nicaragua really stand out as a progressive Single Origin. I would love to see a 'before and after' of the state he found the farm in after its confiscation. It must have been truly devastating. It's not just the physical improvements to all the buildings and milling facilities that are evident across the entire operation, it's also the investment he has made in the human capital. The coffee families, dependent on the success of Las Nubes, must feel in a better place right now than they have done for generations. Victor's father would have been proud of him...

Santa Maria Honey
Satsuma / Peach / Caramel
6 Cup Chemex
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