Last February, we sent Sally Parlier (the manager at our Duke store) and Nicole Dutram (JVG Head Roaster) to Nicaragua. This was Sally and Nicole's first visit to a coffee growing origin, and each of them came away with their own unique experience. Below Sally shares in the nostalgia of visiting rural areas, regardless of their familiarity. Read on for her reflection of her trip to Finca Las Brisas where she discovered a connection with the land that stemmed deeply from her own rural roots.
One of my baristas at Duke, Hannah, is a fellow transplant to the Triangle from a rural mountain region. Despite her origins in Idaho and mine in Western NC, we’ve found that there’s a lot of overlap in how folks from mountain cultures see and experience the world. People with deep roots in rural areas seem especially to be more familiar with the natural world, whether wild or cultivated. They seem more likely to notice subtle changes in the season and the names, tastes, and smells of the plants around them. As I’ve gotten to learn more about coffee cultivation, its place as a mountain-growing crop has piqued my curiosity over how its landscape affects its development.
Any plant has terroir, which can be loosely defined as a sense of place. It’s most commonly discussed in wine, but it’s been a useful concept for me as I learn how specialty coffee distinguishes itself. The climate, soil type, decisions made by a farmer, and other factors form a large part of what builds terroir, but I’m especially interested in how surrounding flora affect what comes through in a cup. Our trip to Nicaragua in February allowed me to start putting those pieces together a bit as I both develop my palate and deepen my understanding of the agroecology behind our favorite drink.
In September, Joe Van Gogh held a cupping of coffee from Hugh’s Finca Las Brisas prior to speaking to the man himself via Skype. My assistant manager, Cydni, noted citrusy elements in the cup and we were left wondering if this indicated the presence of citrus trees on the farm. When we dialed up Hugh and had time to ask questions, I asked him what kind of plants grew on his farm alongside his coffee. The first thing he mentioned was lime trees. (Cydni is usually right.) They were planted initially as shade for the coffee and produce a slightly tougher and tarter fruit than what we’re used to in the United States. He also mentioned melons, beans, guava, corn, and puzzled over the names of a few other native trees before saying, “well, you all should just come down and see for yourselves what’s here!” Little did I know that I’d be one of the lucky ones with the chance to go in February!
Although most of our time was spent at Selva Negra, our tour group was able to take a trip one afternoon across the valley of Matagalpa to meet Hugh and his wife Katherine and hike around their farm. They are a remarkable couple who initially came to Nicaragua to work with rural communities designing and installing drinking water systems. They eventually found a way to make it their home, discovering and restoring life to the abandoned farm that became Finca Las Brisas. They have planted it in catuai, caturra, and other varietals, recently adding on the Marsellesa which has demonstrated resistance to leaf rust and the vagaries of climate change. As we walked the farm, Hugh (and my fellow group members!) good humoredly fielded my questions about the plants we were passing, like a false vanilla pod that smelled like green beans straight from my garden and the magenta-husked banana flowers. We finished our hike with grapefruit juice and Nicole left Hugh and Katherine with beans she’d roasted, bringing that particular coffee back to its point of origin.
Since returning home, I have had the opportunity to travel to Ally Coffee with other managers to learn more about the coffee lexicon, sensory calibration, and cupping. As I develop my palate using this common language of referents developed by WCR and SCA, I will always carry with me that a particular tasting note only tells part of a story in a coffee’s development. Those citrusy, sweet, floral notes also carry the stories of the point of origin and the hands and history that helped shape that particular agroecology.
This is the first of four in a series of Sally and Nicole’s origin trip to Nicaragua, including each of their impressions from visits to two farms: Finca Las Brisas and Selva Negra. Of special note is that they visited the farms during harvest season, witnessing coffee at the earliest stages of production. While it takes months for coffee to travel along the supply chain, this new crop can be expected on our site later this year.
For the story about Hugh and Katherine Force and the serendipitous begging of Finca Las Brisas, read HERE.