Last year, I waded into the debate on natural-process coffee with a post that concluded, “I think that natural coffees should have a future, and that the coffee industry, from roasters to farmers, should invest in methods and systems to make natural coffees more consistent.”
Since that post, we have attempted to walk that talk. CRS’ Blue Harvest team — focused on water management in the coffeelands — started a collaborative project with Exportadora Atlantic in Nicaragua (ECOM’s Nicaragua branch), along with other innovators in natural coffees in Central America. This work is co-funded with a grant from the Multilateral Investment Fund (FOMIN) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), as part of its SAFE Platform.
Two weeks ago, CRS staff and partners involved in Blue Harvest visited two sites in Nicaragua to learn from people on the ground, including ECOM’s Condega mill and Finca San Rafael in Sabanas. Here is an update on what we’re learning:
Exportadora Atlantic (ECOM), Nicaragua
At its Condega plant, Exportadora Atlantic is developing and testing methods for processing natural coffees, as the exporter rapidly expands its volumes of specialty natural coffees to meet an growing demand.
Our guide was Tomás Espinosa, ECOM’s Quality Control Boss, who explained the Zen of natural coffee processing. “We are looking to balance the high acidity inherent in coffees grown in this area…. We want to capture as much flavor as we can in the natural process, but we have to balance that with the risk of over-fermentation… it’s not easy,” he explained. “Like any specialty coffee, quality starts at the farm, especially at the harvest. The timing of the harvest is even more critical than washed coffees.”
Espinoza got into fine points on drying curves and methods for quick and slow drying that ECOM is pioneering to achieve great natural coffees that most people cannot distinguish from specialty washed coffees. As Espinosa went through steps involved from production to picking to drying, he explained that, “With natural coffees, you’re changing the entire system.”
Finca San Rafael
In the well-known non-fiction book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gives what should be the motto for anyone involved in specialty coffee:
My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all.
This quote came to mind as we toured Finca San Rafael in the town of Sabanas, Nicaragua. This is a 10-hectare, family-owned farm that is setting the bar for what small producers can do in the specialty value chain. They are making investments to increase the quality of their coffee at every step of the process, starting from soil fertility to precision drying of their beans. They monitor and log every step of their operation to discover how they can add more quality and more value to their coffee.
“The registry is life for us,” said Fredman Vasquez, who applies a Silicon Valley spirit of innovation and learning to their operations. I asked Vasquez if all this extra work and effort is worth it? He laughed, and ran through the numbers on how every step has increased quality and value. They are measuring increased productivity on each tree, the effects meticulous coffee picking and sorting of cherries, the conversion (yield) of cherry to bean, and how cup quality points convert to price premiums.
Each individual improvement requires an incremental increase in the cost of production, but the combination of these improvements yields exponential results in terms of farm net income. At the same time, the farm is far more resilient to droughts and disease.
A few years ago, Finca San Rafael was selling green coffee directly to local buyers, barely covering their costs of production, if even that. Now, they selling extraordinarily high-quality natural coffee directly to roasters and buyers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, at prices that surprised many of us. Their coffee is regularly cupped in the high 80s, even in the mid-90s.
As we continue to learn and share about this action research on natural coffees, here are a few initial reflections:
- Water: ECOM’s mill and Finca San Rafael are both located in the arid hills of western Nicaragua, at the fringes of the Dry Corridor of Central America, an area with no rain for six months of the year that is vulnerable to climate change. It’s clear why a water-free natural processing is of interest to coffee producers here.
- Quality: Processing natural and honey coffee is hard work. I’ve been drinking natural coffee in my home for a year, and I’ve tasted some incredible brews. My standard is Las Mercedes, sold by Viva Espresso in San Salvador, a natural coffee so good it’s sold side-by-side with the best washed bourbons and pacamaras produced in El Salvador. However, I’ve also tasted a lot of natural coffee that tastes like burnt dung, or worse. Clearly, there is a lot that can go wrong in producing natural coffees, so the risks can be high. It takes an investment in labor and knowledge to get it right.
- Market: The market for natural coffees is growing. Given how critical water scarcity is in many coffee growing regions, there are good ethical and environmental reasons for specialty coffee roasters to seek natural coffees.