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COFFEE ORIGIN ROAD TRIP

Nicaragua - Day One

23 March 2018 / Words & Photos by Ian Steel

Travel broadens the mind but it can also stretch time. When you extract yourself from the daily routine and each day is filled with new experiences and you sleep in a different bed every night, each day can feel like a week! Such was the tempo of our Coffee Origin Road Trip to Nicaragua and Guatemala that I thought I would log ten journal posts to represent each long day on the ground - recollections of the exceptional coffee people we encountered in some of the most beautiful, stunning locations to be found anywhere on earth - extraordinary tales of hope and growth where once there was conflict and strife. So, let's start with Nicaragua - Day One - Aldea Global Co-operative.
The topography and chronology of any coffee sourcing trip follows a now familiar routine, by which I mean we start in the city at the office of the exporter, make our way out to a flat lowland region where we will find the large dry mill. Sometimes the cupping will be in the office, sometimes a lab at the mill. Either way we all enjoy the thrill of making new friends and putting names to the faces of those we may have dealt with only at great distances. The familiar ritual of cupping is usually a shared experience that brings us all together, as we ingest the fruits of their harvest. The next stage of the journey is, for me, the most exciting, when we jump into the 4x4s and head for the hills! Our Speciality Arabica Coffee, it seems, demands to be grown not just at higher altitude, up where the air is clear but also where the roads are bumpier and the landscape ever more picturesque.
On this occasion after visiting the offices of the Aldea Global, who are doing amazing things with an ever-expanding army of small-holders queueing up to join forces with them, we headed for the Sajonia Coffee Mill, a vast regional reception centre, with a warehouse full of parchment waiting to be milled at the end of the season. Our timing was perfect as a cupping was ready to jump straight into. The tour of the mill was also perfectly timed with a power cut, which meant we could amble round without the usual deafening roar of clattering machines. The most critical machine in a modern mill is the Optical Sorter. This amazing piece of kit manages to funnel down every bean, from the trillions in the silos and the hoppers down to a single tract, to flick out any remaining defects, all without becoming a bottleneck. With the power down, the electrician seized the opportunity to get stuck in to some of the vital parts of this machine and give them a good service. How fitting that, on the eve of International Women's Day, she was a well-qualified woman.
With our heads spinning from a long, detailed and very impressive presentation showing the explosive growth in membership of the Aldea Global Co-operative, we turned our eyes and thoughts to the hills, from whence cometh our coffee. We were being taken to the San Estaban farm of Ramiro Antonio Cruz in the community of Las Mercedes, one of the 3,000 coffee farmers in the co-op, who with their help had been able to buy an extra 1.5 ha of neighbouring land. Ramiro has been a member for 18 years and has seen an improvement in living standards beyond just clean, safe water supply. The house, which he built, now has a satellite dish on the roof, so his kids can be watching TV in one room, while his wife is cooking in the more traditional kitchen next door, where the pet piglet can snaffle up the scraps.
The diurnal rhythm of the tropics dictates that your day starts just before sunrise at 6am and just before sunset, at 6pm sharp, you need to be coming in from the fields. So, as the gathering dusk wrapped around us in Ramirez's little valley enclave we bid our farewells and headed back down to the twinkling lights of Jinotega strung out on the plateau below. We still had the last few slides of the presentation to take on board before we could switch off. One of the most amazing things about agencies like Aldea Global is the real impact they are making for their members. They have sustained them through the hard times of civil war and low coffee prices and now you feel their time has really come for the small holders to reap the benefits. As well as registering all the usual certifications, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, UTZ they have also very imaginatively started their own certifications, which rank members on farm management, yield and quality, giving them incentives to achieve higher standards. Our visits to these places shows them that these initiatives are working and we are buying into the same philosophy of driving up quality and being prepared to pay premiums. We are also learning so much too. For example, one of their own certifications is the Colibri Azul, the Blue Bird which is the national symbol of Nicaragua, which is Bird Friendly coffee and which I have already been buying without realising the significance of it! Indeed it's a key component of our main blend Archetype so you will no doubt have drunk it somewhere in the local Lancaster area, where it has fuelled many a meeting and many a dissertation up at the University! http://www.lancaster.ac.uk

Farmers the world over will always find something to complain about, because they are always at the mercy of the weather or the markets. At the moment in Nicaragua this year, the rains came too early and have been unremitting, causing cherries to mature too soon, with many falling to the ground before picking could begin. However, after all the years of conflict and despite the current political instability, let's hope their new-found optimism can be fulfilled and there really will be a bluebird somewhere over the rainbow...
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