Back in February, Nicole Dutram and Sally Parlier went on their first coffee origin trip where they visited the farms in Nicaragua from which we source our green coffee. In the second installment of our From the Farm: Nicaragua series (read Part 1 here), Nicole Dutram shares her insight on visiting the Las Brisas farm from a roaster’s perspective. Read on for more words from Nicole on her experience.
We rode down the mountain to meet Hugh Force, a man who lived up to his name in every story I had ever heard about him. He did the hard work of farming coffee with just his wife and a few hands. He was quick to tell a joke but was also a considerate person who thought deeply about his effect on the world around him. He was salt of the earth and loved to sit down to drinks with friends easily carrying a conversation with the way he told a story. And even at his age he could bike the 10 miles down his mountain and up the sister mountain atop which Selva Negra Estate sits, often multiple times a day, to meet with farm owner Mausi and discuss farming, industry and Matagalpa events, then return the same day, the same way. As we rode down from Selva Negra to a gas station in Matagalpa to meet Hugh, I considered the possibility of every pedal push, the heat of the day, the thickness of the air when a car passed, burping exhaust into our open windows and my own lack of physical strength and stamina and thought: Who are we really meeting today?
Our group exited the vehicles to wait for Hugh to lead us up to Las Brisas, The Farm in the Mists, a name that captures the mysticism traveling to origin holds for growth as a coffee professional and I was excited. The crop that we purchased from Hugh had been amazing. I remember thinking, this coffee is like candy - rich semi-sweet chocolate, coupled with succulent raisins, and a full smooth body holding it all together. When I sipped that cup, I was back eating Raisnets at the movies with my friends, and when the last roast was finished I was sad to lose a coffee that evoked such a strong memory of flavor. Here I was, watching Hugh approach, getting ready to see where that cup came from, to get a glimpse of the circumstance that creates excellent coffee.
Hugh had an easy gait, and as soon as I saw him I knew he was a person who made you feel at ease when you were around him. It was suggested that I ride up to Las Brisas in Hugh’s truck with another roaster so we could talk coffee. We sat in his little brown truck as we started through matagalpa up to his farm. He had come to Nicaragua first to work clean water initiatives, and had fallen in love with the place. Now retired, he farmed Las Brisas with his wife Katherine. His love for Matagalpa showed. His truck elicited many waves and friendly honks. On the way up to his farm he stopped and picked up people walking from the city up to houses on the mountainside. He fit into the rhythm of Matagalpa. It seemed as if Hugh had in some sense come home to producing coffee in Nicaragua.
Hugh and his wife Katherine tend this small farm near the Cerro Apante Nature Preserve in Matagalpa. Coffee farming is a labor of love and their small operation means that the work load falls greatly on their shoulders. They employ a small number of hands as the season dictates, but other than that they are responsible for the myriad tasks that it takes to grow and process coffee for sale and export. Hugh’s pulper, a machine which removes the cherry from the outside of the coffee bean by way of a grinding wheel, was fashioned to be powered by bike. He and his wife have a life on Las Brisas together, and have tamed the lands rawness in their own unique way, a way that blends with that spirit of the terrain. Their farm is a place of rich natural beauty as well as the joy that comes from a person ‘doing’ in conjunction with that. The farm was a feat, a great accomplishment, and the high quality of Hugh’s coffee was an indicator of that, but you could tell he knew that the accomplishment couldn’t come without the very land from which the coffee sprouted.
First, we relaxed on the patio, making introductions and enjoying conversation drinking tangy, sweet grapefruit juice made by Kate from citrus growing on Las Brisas. Then we set out to see the rest of the farm. Hugh took us by his small milling and drying station, explaining their operations during harvest and processing. As we approached the different lots of coffee we learned about how he rotates crops to keep the land viable and plants citrus around the outskirts as a natural repellant to coffee parasites and rust, which could affect his yield. We walked through a verdant sunlit field of coffee interspersed with banana and citrus, as some healthy looking brown cows grazed nearby. Hugh’s voice was like a calm breeze broken only by his light laughter and our questions, and for a brief moment I was beside myself. This place was magic. I try to laugh about it now, but I almost wept in that field looking at those trees under that sky, and hearing someone else talk about coffee the way that I felt about it.
Coffee and where it comes from means something. For Hugh, it’s continual efforts to grow a better crop, and to do it in tandem with the land and the people with whom he works. It’s getting to know different varietals, how they’ll yield and how they’ll perform in the cup, then using farming techniques to shape the coffee to produce the best cup possible. For me, it comes from understanding how a coffee’s origin effects how I roast it. Seeing the hard work that goes into farming and processing this product that seemingly just shows up at the warehouse finished in burlap ready for roasting actually demands an equal amount of hard work on my part as well. Seeing the great care that goes into the coffee further up the line from the Roastery reminded me that I am obligated to honor that level of passion for coffee with my own.
When we returned from the field we had refreshments on the patio. A few plump hens and a sleek looking rooster came in for their evening patrol as we talked coffee, politics, family history and Hugh’s immaculate old vehicle collection. Even though I had just come to this place hours earlier Kate and Hugh made me feel like an old friend in from out of town. I realized that coffee isn’t just a plant we brew, it’s not just a livelihood, it’s a passion. I realized passion is what makes coffee great, and on Hugh’s farm passion bears fruit.
I think about it now in the warehouse while I’m roasting. I open a bin of green coffee to weigh it and I’m reminded of where it came from. I think about how I must continually improve the way I roast coffee to create profiles truer each crop, each plant, each bean and each cup that will come from it. I think about Hugh and the group walking the farm that day. I asked him if he would pose for a picture with his plants. Hugh pulled his shoulders back solidly, gripped the top of his walking stick firmly, stretched out his other arm with his fingers extended. A wide smile bloomed on his face. ‘I’m commanding it to grow,’ he said with a small chuckle. Looking back, I know his command was meant for the coffee, but in some small way it was also meant for me. My understanding grew from walking the farm where a coffee I roast and love is produced and that is an experience that will always shape how I handle every coffee in the future.