At an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, El Cielo is one of the highest coffee plantations in Nicaragua and one of the most prized. The steep and rocky road to El Cielo (Spanish for "the sky") ceases to be a road after a while and becomes a path fit only for donkeys and four-wheel drives, which is why owner Mario Cerna is driving me to the harvest in his shiny silver Toyota Land Cruiser. The remoteness of this plantation and the extreme poverty that exists in much of the country also make the trip a bit hazardous. Accompanying us is a pickup carrying three guards with assault rifles.
As we wind our way up the mountain, we pass plantation workers heading back down, having finished their day's work. Most are in family units with small children in tow. Some carry bags of just-picked fruit whose pits will become coffee beans. Lucky ones have horses or mules to carry the heavy loads. Despite the arduous work, there are lots of smiles because Cerna pays workers top dollar for getting to this distant spot (sorry, no shuttle buses) and picking the fruit on perilously steep slopes.
Just climbing up the side of the mountain leaves me winded. It's steep-mountain goat steep. I can't imagine a full day here picking fruit, then hauling it down. As if that weren't enough, there is one more obstacle: land mines. About three-quarters of the way up to El Cielo, a camp of Nicaraguan army troops have been removing some 15,000 land mines that were planted to protect a communication tower from Contra rebels during Nicaragua's civil war, which ended about a dozen years ago. On the grounds of the camp, soldiers are practicing with mine detection equipment. It doesn't fill me with confidence.
Not all coffee plantations or farms (fincas in Spanish) are this remote or dangerous, though a good deal of coffee comes from places in turmoil, such as Venezuela, Ethiopia, Colombia and Indonesia. But virtually all good coffee is planted at high elevations, making harvesting backbreaking work-at El Cielo it takes one worker about five days to pick a 150-pound bag of beans. And that's just one of the many steps that coffee goes through before it winds up as a steaming, dark liquid in your cup.
Most people treat coffee like a commodity. In fact, it's the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil. But the past 20 years have seen the steady growth of what are called specialty coffees, whole-bean coffees of higher quality than ground coffee in cans. Specialty coffees, which represent about 13 percent of the coffee market in the United States, have demonstrated that coffee can be something more than hot, wet and caffeinated. When grown, processed and brewed properly, coffee can be as complex as a first-growth Bordeaux. Coffee has 1,500 flavor components-three times more than wine.
How did coffee become the drink consumed daily by more than 100 million Americans? I spent a week in Nicaragua and Costa Rica last year to find out. Though I have written frequently about coffee over the past decade, I never truly understood or appreciated the demands and complications of coffee production until I visited. Like wine, coffee is subject to the vagaries of weather. Quality requires painstaking attention to detail, in the field as well as in processing. But unlike with wine, such efforts for coffee are often performed under difficult, if not primitive, conditions.
Central America is prime coffee country. Coffee plants grow only within an equatorial swath between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Despite the proximity of their growing zone to the equator, coffee plants don't like hot weather. That's why the closer plantations get to the equator, the more elevated-generally 3,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level-they need to be to produce quality coffee. "The altitude is magical," says Cerna's son Alejandro as he surveys the workers harvesting on El Cielo, where you can see for miles and miles to other mountains and the valleys below in this region, called Matagalpa.
Though the effects of terroir on coffee have not been studied as thoroughly as the impact of terroir on wine, altitude is universally acknowledged as a key factor in quality coffee. "High altitude produces big temperature fluctuations, and it helps to increase the volatile compounds of the brew and the organic acids content," says Ernesto Illy, chairman of Italy's Illycaffe, an international leader in the trade. High altitude also gives coffee plants just enough stress to, as Illy puts it, "force the plant to produce the aromas we like."
Another reason for the importance of high altitude is that the superior arabica coffee plant cannot grow at lower elevations, where it is too susceptible to disease. Sometimes, though, coffee farmers try to hedge their bets. At the nursery of the Juan Viñas estate, nestled in the verdant cloud forests of central Costa Rica, coffee mill manager Rolando Guardia shows me one of 15,000 caturra seedlings, hybrids of arabica and the robusta coffee plant, which is heartier but yields inferior coffee. "It's illegal to plant robusta in Costa Rica, but we can graft it onto arabica," Guardia says.
High altitude also produces hard, dense beans, which roasters prefer. "Hard beans can take the heat of roasting and develop more flavor than soft beans," says David Dallis, president of Dallis Coffee, a roaster in Ozone Park, N.Y., that markets estate coffees from El Cielo and Juan Viñas, and one of my guides on the trip, along with Dallis vice president Jim Munson. In Central American countries, the terms "strictly hard bean" or "strictly high grown" are used interchangeably to indicate these high quality hard beans.
Superior beans also need shade, as I saw firsthand while touring the well-manicured Juan Viñas estate. Plots of coffee plants are ringed by ornamental dracaenas that also act as windbreakers. More important are the two kinds of shade trees that owner Armando Gonzalez points out. Poro trees have an umbrella of lovely orange flowers. The smooth bark of eucalyptus trees is streaked with psychedelic colors as if splashed on by Jackson Pollock. Together they form a canopy protecting the coffee plants from direct sunlight, which can cause leaf burn. When the 6-foot coffee plants are pruned down to 1.5 feet every six or seven years (lighter pruning takes place more frequently), the shade trees will also be pruned. "Pruned plants need more sun to grow," Gonzalez says. "By the time they mature, they need less sun, and the shade trees will be large enough to provide the shade."
"Shade-grown" and "bird-friendly" coffees, primarily from Latin America, have become an issue for environmentalists who are concerned about maintaining native bird habitats. In some countries, such as Costa Rica, hybrid arabica varieties that grow well in full sun were introduced, eliminating the need for the shade trees, which give refuge to the many birds that migrate through Central America.
However, Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group based in Long Beach, Calif., thinks that it is more important to focus on quality coffees that require shade trees. The hybrid plants, notes Lingle, have produced inferior coffee. He believes that if quality is the goal, concerns over shade-grown and bird-friendly coffees will take care of themselves. "The important issue today is how good the coffee tastes," Lingle says.
With coffee as with wine, good taste starts with ripe fruit. In the case of coffee, though, it's not the fruit but the pit, seed or bean that is used. The coffee plant looks like a kind of tropical holly bush with shiny, dark green leaves and fruit-called "cherries" in the coffee trade-that is bright to deep red when ripe, though some plants produce yellow cherries. Although the cherries looked to me more like cranberries, the ripe fruit that I plucked off the bushes at El Cielo did have a sweet, almost honeyed-cherry taste.
During harvest, which peaks from November through January, workers might pass through an area several times to get fruit at optimal ripeness. If the fruit isn't ripe, the bean will not be fully developed. On the El Sitio lote (akin to a vineyard or block on a winery estate) of the Juan Viñas estate, Guardia points out a branch on a coffee tree that, astonishingly, contains dead-ripe and completely green fruit coexisting along with lovely white jasmine- and citrus-scented flowers that signal new growth. "On this site, workers may have to pass through as many as 11 times to pick all the ripe fruit," he says. A careless picker (not to mention the occasional hurricane) can kill the flowers and thus the fruit for the next harvest.
Picking begins at 6 a.m. Workers, some barely school-age, pick the cherries individually by hand. As we pull up to observe, I'm amazed at how quietly but quickly they work, deftly grabbing only the ripe, red fruit because they know they'll be penalized at la medida ("the measuring") if they have green cherries. On the side of the road, some workers are frantically removing green cherries and foreign matter before la medida. The cherries are put into baskets called canastos. The canastos, which look like laundry baskets, are made of plastic here in Costa Rica but in Nicaragua they are woven from plant fibers. They rest on the picker's midsection (some even have a curve to fit the belly), and are held in place by rope or cloth around the waist or neck.
By 3 p.m., it's time for la medida. At an intersection in the town of Juan Viñas, workers in high spirits line up to have their day's picking measured in front of a weathered wooden wagon that looks as if it has trekked the entire Oregon Trail. One by one, the pickers pour their cherries into a rectangular pail called a cajuela (lata in Nicaragua), the official unit of measure, which holds 20 to 25 pounds of fruit, (about 5 pounds of beans). The moment the cajuela is filled, the foreman, or mandador, throws five coins into the picker's now empty canasto. The coins represent 450 colón (about $1), a rate that hasn't changed in 25 years, Gonzalez says. Nonetheless, it's about double the wages in Nicaragua, which is why so many workers here are Nicaraguan. An average worker at Juan Viñas will pick about six cajuelas a day, and thus earn about $6.
Because commodity coffee has traditionally been so competitively priced, wages for coffee-farm workers have been abysmally low. The Fair Trade coffee movement is designed to set a fair price for small farmers. In Europe, where Fair Trade began, it affects all grades of coffee, though Lingle says it represents only about 5 percent of coffee sold. In the United States, where Fair Trade affects about 1 percent of coffee sold, the focus has been on specialty coffees. Separate from the organized Fair Trade movement though are quality-conscious roasters (Peet's Coffee & Tea in Emeryville, Calif.,
J. Martinez & Co. in Atlanta, and Dallis, for example) that are doing their own kind of fair trade by paying more for better beans. It's really not much different from wineries paying grapegrowers a premium for the best grapes.
The picked cherries are immediately shipped off to the wet mill or wet beneficio for processing. Cherries, like wine grapes, need to be processed within 24 hours to minimize oxidation and prevent off flavors. It's about 4 p.m., and I'm standing next to a giant cement vat at the wet mill on the Nicaraguan finca of Manoucher Farahani (an Iranian-American whose wife, Maria-Elena, is Nicaraguan). A dump truck backs up to the vat and unloads the day's harvest.
Finca manager Emilio Hyn lets me open a wide spigot on top of the vat, an action equivalent to throwing out the first pitch before a baseball game. Soon a gush of water washes over the cherries and sends them cascading down the slope into a tube that carries them to a sorting machine that will remove foreign matter such as stones and leaves. A second stage washes the cherries before they go into a fire-engine-red pulping machine that looks a bit like a wood lathe. Inside the pulper are four brass cylinders with nubs all around that catch the cherries against a strike plate. The fruit is squeezed off the pits, which are spat out into four channels. It's messy, and the humid air is heavy with sweet fruit. Fruit flies are having a field day.
The pits, or beans, are then transferred to cement bins where they ferment for about 24 hours. With grape fermentation, the fruit is transferred into alcohol-here, fermentation is used only to remove the mucilage that still clings to beans. The beans that were put in earlier feel sticky and warm from the heat of fermentation.
After breakfast the next morning, I walk back to the wet mill to watch the next step in the processing. In a sloping channel about 150 feet long, beans from yesterday's pulped fruit are washed in a stream of clean water. Three men with long-handled wooden paddles push the beans back and forth for about two hours to agitate the water, which helps to remove mucilage or any remaining pulp. Heavier beans, destined for the highest-grade coffee, fall to the bottom and stay upstream. Lighter beans of lower quality float to the top and head downstream. A dam at the end of the channel allows the good beans to stay while the lighter beans go over and are captured on large screen-trays. They are set aside for second- or third-quality coffee. Second-quality beans will be sold in bulk, perhaps for blending in lower-grade export coffee for supermarkets and food service. As for the third quality, "It will probably be sold in Nicaragua," Hyn says with a rueful smile.
Dallis sticks his hand in the channel and picks up a "quaker" (a term some say refers to how these beans "quake and shake" during the dry mechanical-sorting process), an almost pure white bean from unripe fruit that didn't get rejected by the pulping machine. Normally, when the fruit is green (unripe) and hard, not soft enough to enable the machine to squeeze out the pit, the entire fruit is rejected. Sometimes, though, the bean does get separated from the green fruit. But these beans, like the fruit, are not fully developed; they won't develop flavor when roasted and will turn yellow instead of nut brown. "This is why washed coffees are better than unwashed coffees," Dallis says. "You'll see more of these from places like Brazil."
In contrast to the washed coffees above, in unwashed or dry- processed coffee, the picked fruit dries and shrivels in the sun and the pulp is then removed by machine. The flavors of dry-processed (also called natural) coffees are typically less bright, but sweeter and fuller than washed coffees'. These types are also more apt to exhibit off flavors such as a fermented taste (similar to that of overripe fruit), or even a medicinal taste like iodine, which many coffee drinkers in Eastern Europe and the Near East favor. According to coffee authority Kenneth Davids in Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying (fifth edition, St. Martin's Griffin), "the best and most-celebrated dry-processed coffees are Yemen coffees, the Harrar coffees of Ethiopia and the finest traditional Brazil coffees." Some coffees are processed by a combination of wet and dry methods.
Though the beans have gone through several steps of wet processing, there are as many steps of dry processing yet to be done. For that, we head to Beneficio Alemania, Cerna's dry beneficio about an hour outside Managua, Nicaragua. On a windswept plateau, thousands of pounds of beige-colored wet beans, which look more like peanuts than coffee beans, are spread out on huge concrete slabs. Patieros, many wearing bandanas across their faces to protect against windburn, rake the beans every few hours. Women make better patieros, because, says Nestor Aguilar, the beneficio manager, "they are more careful and rake faster than men."
It may take as long as two weeks for these beans to become dry enough for the huller machine inside the mill to remove the parchment, the thin skin that still adheres to the beans. (Some beneficios use mechanical driers that do the job in a matter of hours. But most coffee experts believe natural drying produces superior beans.) The removed parchment reveals green beans-more like blue-green or gray-green beans-that will be exported to coffee roasters all over the world. At this stage, the green beans are in a neutral state; it is roasting that brings out the flavors we recognize in coffee. If not destined for immediate export, green beans can be kept in their protective parchment for up to a year, though they will gradually lose freshness.
While freshness is important in coffee, a small portion (less than 1 percent) of coffee can age like wine. But like wine, coffee must be aged under carefully controlled conditions or it will taste cardboardy, flat and dull rather than nutty, rich and mellow. The best-known aged coffees are from India (Monsooned Malabar), Sumatra and Java.
At Cerna's dry beneficio, the hulled beans are sorted for size and density. Even though hardness and density are more important than size, large beans command higher prices because, as Dallis notes, "bigger beans look nicer." Sorting occurs as the beans are passed over a series of screens, each with increasingly larger holes, each hole numbered. Beans fall through the hole appropriate to their size. The numbers denote the diameter of the hole in 64ths of an inch. For example, an "18 bean" fits through the hole that is 18/64 of an inch around. (No one I asked at the beneficio knew the source of this arcane measuring system.)
After being sorted by size, beans are sorted by density with another machine everyone called an Oliver, named for the company that makes it. Like a giant mechanical prospector searching for gold nuggets, the machine vibrates, sending beans down a large screen angled to one side. Heavier beans stay at the top of the incline because their weight prevents them from easily sliding down. Lighter beans are bounced to the side and shunted into a chute. Between the parchment remover, sizer and density sorter, the noise in the beneficio is deafening. Yet I see no sign of earplugs. "We've handed them out, but no one wears them," Alejandro Cerna says.
Finally, in a room away from the din of sorting and hulling machines, a dozen women sit on either side of a conveyor belt and give the beans a final hand sort. Their small fingers nimbly pick out and set aside beans whose color isn't a healthy bluish or grayish green. Like the fruit pickers, they work quietly and quickly. But for more modern operations, not quickly enough. Not far from Beneficio Alemania is a huge dry beneficio owned by ECOM Coffee Group, one of the largest exporters in the world. Here, manager Henrik Bang shows me his two mechanical sorters. Almost faster than you can see the beans flow through tubes of these machines, an electronic eye rejects bad beans-those with poor color-with a blast of air. "The machines can sort 6,000 pounds of beans an hour," Bang says. And they don't take coffee breaks.
To test the quality of the green beans before they are exported, tastings, called cuppings, are done, much the way winemakers test barrel samples. Small batches of beans are roasted in roasters not much bigger than a gallon jug. The roasted and green beans are labeled and put in trays next to the coffee, which is brewed individually in cups around a rotating table. At Juan Viñas, coffee from last year's crop seemed lifeless compared with the fresh, snappy coffee from this year's beans. In addition, the quality of the estate coffee was brighter, with more body and balance than the nonestate coffee. At the ECOM Coffee Group beneficio, Bang goes through a few dozen samples in rapid succession, slurping with a spoon, then spitting into a bucket. "We're looking for defects. A clean cup," Bang says. "This is not for the high-end customer." Bang rejects two cups I also didn't like. One he called "moldy" tasted woody to me. The other he called "fermented," which to me tasted sour.
Estate coffee has a different denotation than estate wine. It is not merely coffee produced and processed on a specific plantation, but is of the highest quality, akin to single-vineyard or reserve wines. Like wine, however, the key is controlling the entire process from plant to green bean. In recent years, the specialty coffee niche has focused more attention on leading estates such as La Minita in Costa Rica, La Tacita from Guatemala and Old Tavern in Jamaica.
In addition to estate coffees, Juan Viñas and Cerna produce two other grades of coffee. The lowest-level beans will normally be earmarked for domestic consumption. Midlevel beans will be used by roasters for blends. For example, Dallis combines Cerna's second-grade coffee with a Sumatran for an espresso blend.
Blending coffees is as common as blending wines. A significant difference is that coffee blends can comprise coffees taken from disparate regions of the world, not just from areas of the same farm. The reason is that different regions of the world produce different styles of coffee. For example, the most famous blend of coffee, Mocha Java, combines a lighter, high acid coffee from Yemen with a lower acid, more full-bodied coffee from Indonesia. For low-end coffees, as for jug wines, blending is done to achieve consistency at a low cost.
Yes, there are microclimates within coffee countries. For example, Costa Rica has 60 recognized microclimates, though there is no governing body that defines and regulates them the way the French or Italians do for wine. However, these microclimates produce nuanced differences rather than significant ones in aroma, body, flavor, acidity and finish-the five main characteristics of coffee. If that's not enough, the Specialty Coffee Association of America produces a Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel, similar to the wine aroma wheel developed at the University of California, Davis. The wheel breaks these elements down into ever more specific flavors for those who want a deeper analysis.
Despite going through a production process that's at least as complicated as that of wine, coffee, specialty coffee in particular, has an X factor that wine doesn't have-you. While wine is fully finished and ready to enjoy once purchased, coffee requires the customer to be, in effect, part winemaker. That means buying freshly roasted beans, grinding them properly and only as needed, using filtered water at the right temperature, employing good equipment, and drinking the coffee promptly. Let's not even think about the slew of milk products, sweeteners and other adulterations. Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine.
Contributing editor Sam Gugino writes the Tastes column for Wine Spectator, as well as a food newsletter. He is the author of three cookbooks.
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