This summer we are heading off on a Central American swing, with our Caribbean Trio taking us on a trip through the mountain ranges of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
The homes of these coffees bear much in common: cloud-forests wreathe the steep slopes, and the volcanoes which created the mountains have left a legacy of rich fertile soil. Sunny days and cool nights, gentle rainfall and rich biodiversity. It’s a coffee growing paradise.
On this journey we’ll meet three trailblazing producers: people steeped in the traditions of Central American coffee, who have taken up the challenge to evolve, experiment, and grow.
Fearless innovation and passionate investment has produced three coffees which push boundaries and forge new processes which set them apart from all others. This is the art of coffee as a profoundly creative endeavour.
We begin in Nicaragua, with the Blueberry Candy from La Bastilla in Jinotega.
In 2003 La Bastilla lay in ruin. The farm - which is tucked inside the borders of the Cerro Datanli - El Diablo Natural Reserve - had been abandoned by its previous owners. Old rows of coffee trees had been absorbed back into the surrounding natural park, all but lost in the acres of green rainforest.
The restoration which has taken place over the past twenty years has been an extraordinary undertaking. Roads were cut through the scrub, living quarters built, and seedlings planted.
As the trees flourished, so did the farm: a coffee processing mill was constructed, and now all of La Bastilla’s coffee is processed on site and sold directly from the farm.
Rainforest Alliance certified, La Bastilla operates according to strict quality, ethical and environmental guidelines from planting to production. There’s even an eco-lodge on site, creating a unique coffee tourism experience and further employment opportunities for the community.
Blueberry Candy is the work of La Bastilla’s mill manager Victor, who keeps the details of his process as a closely guarded secret. What we do know is that it begins with the selection of the very ripest coffee cherries from the harvest.
Only the darkest fruit, with its naturally high concentration of sugar, is suitable. The cherries are slow dried in a two stage process, which allows the sugars of the coffee fruit and sweet berry flavour of the cherry skin to absorb into the beans.
It is these trademark dark fruit flavours and rich sweetness which led La Bastilla to christen the beans “Blueberry Candy”.
When we cupped it at Merlo we were blown away by the freshness of the cup, the sparkling acidity playing beautifully against the watermelon and candy sweetness.
Moving south, we come to the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica, and Arturo Bonilla’s Black Honey.
Finca Sol Naciente - or Rising Sun Farm in English - is a golden spot in the famed coffee growing region of Tarrazu. Arturo Bonilla has more than 30 years experience in coffee growing, and together with his wife Xinia Martíne and their children, they hand raise and manually process their coffee to create, in their words, “a coffee full of life”.
Eucalyptus trees tower over the coffee plants, and when the family decided to invest in building their own coffee mill on the farm, they named it after these ‘guard trees’ - Los Eucaliptos.
That was in 2015 and in the seven years since Arturo has refined his process, coming to specialise in one of the most laborious, expensive and complex coffee processing methods: Black Honey.
Honey processing refers to a method wherein the skin of the coffee cherry is removed, and some of the cherry’s fruit is left to dry onto the beans.
Black honey is a level of honey processing which requires the highest possible amount of fruit flesh - or mucilage as it’s called in coffee - to be left on. To achieve this, Arturo hand rolls the cherries to gently strip the outer layer of skin without losing any of the mucilage.
Once he has the prepared coffee beans, the delicate process of drying can begin. Lots of fruit drying onto the seeds requires lots of time.
It takes two weeks for the beans to dry as the sticky seeds must be constantly checked and hand-turned, so that they dry evenly and all the sweetness can be absorbed without ever tipping over into sour ferment.
This rigorous endeavour comes with an incredible payoff: a velvety smooth full bodied cup with nutmeg, plum and raisin aromatics, toffee apple, honeycomb and blood orange flavours, and a fine green apple fizz of acidity which complements the citrusy aftertaste.
Our final stop is in Las Nubes - ‘the clouds’ - of Panama, with a man who embodies the spirit of this flight.
Agustin Gomez is 72 years old, and has made the art of coffee his life’s work. He says that coffee is something he finds in his heart, and that Finca Las Nubes, his 10 hectare farm in the Boquete region of Panama, is the legacy of his life.
Even after over half a century of labour, Senor Gomez strives to improve every year and with every harvest, inspired by the knowledge that his work will be inherited by his family for generations to come.
In the Intrinsic Cherry coffee you’ll find the Geisha varietal which made Panama coffee famous, along with home grown Pacamara and classic Catuai and Typica. What ties them together and makes a unique cup is the highly innovative processing method.
Intrinsic Cherry is the result of a collaboration between Agustin and the crew at Creativa Coffee District (CCD) - a self described group of “coffee revolutionaries” who reinvigorated a traditional coffee mill in Boquete and turned it into a forward thinking space which combines cutting edge experimental coffee processing with visual art studios and exhibition space.
Agustin Gomez describes visual art as “an important avenue of self-exploration and expression” and was drawn to work with CCD as they approach their coffee processing with this same dynamism.
During Intrinsic Cherry processing, the cherries are fermented inside the bag they are packed in from harvest. This creates micro-lots which are complete one-offs, as each bag has a unique combination of cherries which cannot be replicated. The aim is to infuse the essence of these particular cherries into the beans, as they are fermented for up to three days, at an average temperature of 30 degrees celsius.
The result is an astounding cup, opening with red fruit and coffee cherry notes, before deepening to the richness of chocolate and roasted nuts, with a light touch of liquorice in the back palate.
This coffee is sweet and smooth, full of flavour, and lively with sparkling acidity. A true original from an OG coffee producer.
With coffees this extraordinary, there is no wrong way to drink them. Espresso lovers will find depth and sweetness galore, while proponents of the pourover will find almost infinite complexity to explore with adjustments to dose and brew time.
The only thing we ask is that you set aside a little time to really enjoy each cup, because these coffees are truly works of art.
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