Depending on how old you are, you might remember Nicaragua from either the show Narcos or from the Iran-Contra affair. These associations have granted the country significant notoriety in the past, but one place where it outshines many other countries is in its diverse indigenous coffee. Nicaragua is the 12th largest exporter of coffee in the entire world, and most of its growers are small business owners. The steaming cups coming out of this country are renowned for their smoothness, bright acidity, and bittersweet taste. Nicaragua is also known for being home to a unique variety of coffee bean called the ‘elephant bean’ due to its massive size. This article explores more such idiosyncrasies of coffee culture in Nicaragua. We discuss what exactly makes Nicaragua ideal grounds for coffee growth, the noteworthy brands from this nation, and lastly, what the elephant bean is all about.
The History of Coffee in Nicaragua
Coffee was introduced to Nicaragua in the 1790s by Catholic missionaries that had traveled to the country. Yet as a commodity, coffee only became relevant to the national economy around half a century later when the Gold Rush led to investments and aid flowing to the region.
Agriculture was and still is one of the primary sources of income for most workers, but coffee emerged as a valuable asset for trade in this period. The growth of this industry boosted development and generated income, since its integration into the economy Nicaragua has seen its fair share of natural disasters, coups, conflict, and wars. These include a communist revolution that led to a trade embargo with the US, hurricanes, droughts, dictators, etc. These problems persisted as recently as 2003 when Hurricane Mitch brought about economic ruin for many involved with coffee. Years of crisis led to widespread stagnation. As a result of these obstacles, coffee has had stunted growth in Nicaragua, but today, things have improved significantly.
Most coffee grown in the country is exported to countries like the US, providing the central government with 30% of its entire foreign exchange that is derived from agricultural exports. As mentioned earlier, it is also the twelfth largest exporter of coffee in the world, thus supporting the 45,000+ families that cultivate the crop on their farms.
What Makes Nicaragua and Coffee Such a Good Match
One of the key reasons why coffee has survived the travesties of Nicaragua’s past is that the country experiences some of the most suitable climates for coffee cultivation. It is blessed with a diverse landscape that allows for coffee to be grown at high altitudes. The volcanic soil is especially conducive for coffee seeds that need its minerals and nutrition. Lastly, the warm conditions are perfectly suitable for coffee, which does best at around 20* Celsius.
In addition to these geographic advantages, three farming practices make Nicaraguan coffee stand out among their peers. Firstly, 95% of the coffee grown in the county is shade-grown. As the name suggests, this means that the coffee plant was grown under a canopy instead of out in the sun where the beans could suffer from damage. Coffee also tends to grow slower under the shade, allowing for the flavors and aromas within to mature better and manifest in greater concentration.
Secondly, a lot of the coffee grown here is wet-processed. Wet (or dry) processing occurs soon after the cherries are picked, and before the beans are left to dry. Farmers who wet process their beans wash the pulp and fibrous layer off the seeds using large amounts of water and sophisticated equipment. This helps bring out the natural flavors embedded in the coffee bean, influenced by the surroundings it was grown in. Dry processed beans often tend to have a stronger taste that might get damaged in the process of drying.
Third, most coffee cultivated in Nicaragua is free from herbicides and pesticides. In many cases, this is because a lot of farmers are simply too poor to afford them. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, and as a result, many farmers can’t purchase fertilizers either, or the certification for their coffee as ‘organic’. While the volcanic soil makes up for the lack of fertilizer, shade-grown coffee in general also requires less assistance from pesticides for growth.
The Flavors of Nicaraguan Coffee
There is much to discover in Nicaraguan coffee with the great variance in flavor profiles depending on which region it was grown in. Generally, the brew results in a smooth-bodied cup with bright acidity. Some beans have much in common with Nicaragua’s Central American neighbors in that they have a clean flavor and fruitiness. Notes of citrus and chocolate are also prominent.
There are three major coffee growing regions in the country: Matagalpa, Jinotega, and Nueva Segovia. Procuring coffee beans grown in Nueva Segovia can be a challenge since they are hardly ever on the market. These cups are known for their almond-like sweetness and floral characteristics. Grown at altitudes of above 1,200 meters, they are officially classified as Strictly High Grown coffee, which is the highest rank in the category. These beans grow slower and are thus more densely packed with flavors and nutrients.
The Matagalpa and Jinotega regions are the two brands that can consistently be found in the US, and other export destinations for Nicaragua. The farms in this area are blessed with all the geographic advantages we discussed in the previous section. Like the Nueva Segovia, both regions are also capable of producing Strictly High Grown coffee. Perhaps the only major difference between the two is that the Jinotega region tends to produce coffee with nutty notes like hazelnut. The Matagalpa region coffee, on the other hand, is more prominent for its fruity, floral flavors.
Elephant Bean Coffee
The elephant beans, also known as Maragogype beans, are the largest coffee beans in the world. Native to Brazil, these beans have found a new home in Nicaragua, where production remains limited due to low yields. The bean is a variation of the Coffea Arabica species, growing at elevations of around 2,200 feet above sea level.
Many of its characteristics are similar to traditional Nicaraguan coffee. It has a bright acidity, smooth body, and clean flavor, however, the increased size has created the impression that this means more concentrated notes. But opinions on elephant bean coffee remain divided, with some unamused by its mediocrity, and others wowed by its excellence. William Ukers, one of the most famous authorities on coffee, described elephant coffee as woody and disagreeable.
Nicaragua may be a small country, but the coffee it produces packs a hefty punch. The beverage has been an essential part of Nicaraguan history and has survived the decades of tumult it has faced through wars and natural disasters. You can expect to find an exquisitely smooth brew with bright, fruity acidity that has been grown using the best cultivation practices used by any farmer. u Since much of the product is exported to the US, you should be able to find beans from Nicaragua fairly easily. Those grown in the regions of Matagalpa and Jinotega are of the best quality and can be enjoyed cold, as well as hot.