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Higher Grounds

How a country with a ho-hum coffee reputation started producing some of the most sought-after beans on earth

Author John Thompson

Julio Peralta tastes a selection of brews at his namesake coffee business (Photo by Richard Lionardi)

“THE PAST 10 YEARS have brought a complete change to the way we do coffee in Nicaragua,” declares Julio Peralta over a latte in a Managua café. Along with his cousin Octavio, Peralta heads up the specialty grower, wholesaler and roaster Peralta Coffees. “Before, while all the other countries in the region were selecting their best coffees and marketing them individually, Nicaragua was just bulking everything together.”

But today, he goes on to explain, Nicaragua exports single-origin beans from farms like Las Golondrinas, a Peralta-represented grower that became the first two-time winner of the regional Cup of Excellence and produced the most expensive coffee ever sold in Nicaragua ($47 per pound in 2007). “Las Golondrinas …” Peralta’s voice trails off as he smiles. “We have a waiting list of buyers. Japan wants it all!”

Although coffee is Nicaragua’s main agricultural export, its reputation in that area has lagged behind that of its neighbors. Panama, for example, produces a fraction of the coffee Nicaragua does but is revered the world over for Esmeralda Special, a variety that can fetch more than $100 a pound.

Nicaragua’s road to coffee eminence has been a particularly difficult one. Civil war in the 1980s devastated prime growing regions near Honduras. “Our farms near the border—we had land mines there,” Peralta says. “The army had to go in there in the ’90s to pull them out.” Then, at the turn of the millennium—just as Nicaragua’s industry was finally recovering—world coffee prices collapsed.

Now, though, rehabilitated farms in places like Dipilto, in the Nueva Segovia region, and Las Sabanas, in Madriz, are producing superb coffees. Nicaraguan-born César Martín Vega, whose Café Integral in New York Cit y roasts and sells Nicaraguan coffee exclusively, remembers well his first cup of “properly done” coffee from his homeland.

“It was a mystical experience—it smelled like home,” he says. “Nicaraguan coffees are extremely balanced, by and large. They tend to be relatively sweet and round, and then the back end has plenty of spice. The Nicaraguan terroir—what the soil can give the flavor—is a kind of unctuous spice note that tends toward cocoa and grain.”

The next challenge, Vega says, is rescuing small Nicaraguan lots from blends and promoting them with careful roasts that reveal their extraordinary flavor. To that end, Peralta and his cousin are now building a café and roaster in Managua. “People can come in and buy wholesale if they want,” Peralta says. “But we really just want to serve someone a cup of great coffee and ask, ‘Can you believe this is from Nicaragua?’”

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