This almost looks like a painting on the wall, but this was the view from the window in my room! This is in the province of Matagalpa in northwestern Nicaragua.
It has been decades since I picked coffee on a plantation, but here I am, in the mountains of the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua, filling a basket with coffee cherries.
These are two-year old coffee trees. There are large fruit trees in the background providing shade. The foliage from the big trees fall down and become mulch on the ground. This is important for the health of the soil.
This dark crimson red coffee cherry (it is actually a berry) is perfectly ripe and ready for harvesting. You can see that there are still some green cherries on a few branches. The coffee pickers must be careful to only pick cherries which are ripe, since this will lead to an improved taste in the brewed coffee.
This tree produces ripe yellow coffee cherries!
Coffee Mike: This is uncommon and is produced by a different botanical variety than most other coffee trees.
Here I am next to a nice coffee tree, which looks like it is about four years old.
I met these two women who work the fields picking coffee. I visited them at their village later in the day.
As you can see, the landscape is very bushy, making it difficult to navigate all day. This coffee branch has cherries with different levels of ripeness.
At the end of the day, the coffee is weighed to check how much is harvested, which will determine the amount each coffee picker is paid.
The coffee is poured in the bucket so it can be measured. This way they know how many buckets a coffee picker harvested. Coffee pickers get paid 30 cordobas per bucket.
After the coffee has been weighed, the next step is to work the ‘de-pulper’, a machine that removes the skin and mucilage of the coffee cherry to get to the precious coffee seeds inside. Manually turning the wheel for hours at a time is hard work.
Coffee Mike: The technology differs depending on the size of the plantation. Some coffee estates have much more money at their disposal, and therefore have more modern equipment. But these large coffee estates are not the norm in Central America.
Here is the other side of the depulper machine, where the extracted coffee seeds (still in its parchment) are funneled to be washed. When I grew up, the small plantation I worked on didn’t have this machine. In those days, the whole coffee cherry was sold to merchants in town.
The large green bucket is full of water. They use the water to wash the sticky parchment coffee. There are two coffee seeds (what we call coffee beans) in each coffee cherry, and these seeds are protected by a thin parchment. You can think of it like a coffee bean exoskeleton. These men work all day de-plulping and washing the coffee, from 7am to 4 or 5 pm.
The drying beans have all the pulp removed, but the beans are still in its parchment. The parchment will need to be removed before selling and exporting the beans. The wooden and mesh beds (called ‘raised beds’) are for holding and air-drying the washed and recently de-pulped coffee bean. These wooden beds are cheaper to maintain than concrete patios which more modernized farms use (see my Guatemala trip for photos of that). Coffee is dried for a week or sometimes longer. It is stirred a few times per day with a spatula or shovel. If the coffee is not dried correctly, it gets moldy (and gives off a characteristic moldy scent which is not desired). Whenever the rains are about to move in, the drying coffee must be covered with tarps.
I’m smelling the dried parchment coffee. The coffee smells fresh (‘nascido’) and free of mold.
I was on my way to the village when I saw this house which looks like it’s barely held up by a few sticks. Believe it or not, the locals told me that a man actually lives in this house.
When I arrived at the village, I only saw children playing around. Most of the adults and parents are in the fields picking coffee all day. Some of the children help with the coffee picking, while others stay back at the village. The eldest child of the group looks after the rest.
I met the woman I had spoken to earlier on the coffee plantation. She is standing in front of her home. She explained to me that they often do not know when they are going to get paid for their labor. Since money was the most pressing need at the moment, I gave each them 3 days pay in cash. Whenever I go to Central America, I bring cash from the proceeds of Cafe Elba, to distribute among the coffee pickers that I meet.
Here I am with a former coffee picker, who cannot work on the fields anymore because she is too frail. These days, her sister goes to the plantation while she stays home.
This is the son of a coffee picker. These kids grow up without adult supervision for most of the day, while their parents pick coffee. He is keeping guard of his family’s home.
The wooden frame you see is actually a bed frame, commonly used in Central America. A petate is a bedroll used in Central America. The word ‘petate’ comes from the Náhuatl word petlatl. I grew up sleeping on these beds. They are more airy than other types of beds, which is preferable in the really hot weather.
On my way to another coffee estate, I saw this beautiful old church!
Upon arriving at the new coffee estate, I saw this poor infected coffee tree. It has a fungus called ‘roya’ (rust in Spanish) which has devastated many crops throughout Central America from 2012-2015 (see my El Salvador Trip for more photos). This tree’s days are numbered. The tree must be cut down and the farmer must wait for 3 or 4 years for a new plant to produce coffee. Coffee diseases like roya have a tremendous economic impacts. The coffee pickers usually face the worst consequences, since their livelihood depends on good harvests.
Now that’s much better! Notice the healthy dark green leaves from the coffee plants…this means the soil is good and the plants are healthy. There used to be large coffee trees here, but they have been cut down, due to the roya fungus. You can see the banana trees spread throughout, with their big sprawling leaves.
This is something you don’t see often in North America. A picture of a red banana flower!
I took this picture because it shows the small shoots of new leaves from the coffee trees which have had all their branches cut off (due to the roya fungus).
Since I came to Nicaragua later in the harvest season, you can see there are only a few coffee cherries left on the branches of the trees. The coffee pickers usually pick in three different waves, separated by about 3 weeks, in order to get all of the cherries when they are ripe. This takes more time, money and effort, but it produces the best taste in the brewed cup of coffee.
Storing freshly picked coffee cherries in a cement basin, ready to be de-pulped.
Here I am amongst a mix of old and young coffee trees.
Here I am roasting coffee in Nicaragua, the way I was taught to do it growing up in El Salvador. This is technically a form of dry-frying rather than roasting. But in the coffee industry, any method of cooking the beans is called ‘roasting’. Truth be told, this is not one of the better ways to roast coffee, since the beans are unevenly roasted unless it is constantly stirred with a large spoon.
The smell of freshly roasted coffee alerted this parrot.
My friend’s husband is showing me the proper way to cool the coffee that we have just roasted.
We layed out the freshly roasted coffee on the table to cool off.
In this trip, I have gone full circle. I picked coffee from the trees, I watched as it was de-pulped, washed and dried. The coffee beans were then hulled, and finally, I roasted my own coffee over the stove top, and brewed it for a nice cup of coffee.