The first time I met Juan Ramon Diaz, he probably thought I was a maniac. We chatted a bit before cupping a few coffees from their past crop and a few samples I brought from the DoubleShot offerings. There was a bit of bravado in the air, sort of a master-student formality that I’m not a fan of. We slurped and spit our way around the table, and I found myself bored, underwhelmed, and more than a little concerned about the coffees I was attempting to purchase from these young producers. I went and sat outside in the dark on a plastic chair, wishing I were in the woods, enjoying a few moments of solitude. The Nicaraguan farmers took their time analyzing each sample, asking each other why their coffees tasted so good and mine tasted so bad. To say I was offended would probably be appropriate here, and frankly I’ve developed a pretty good palate for cupping coffees over the past twenty plus years, so listening to people make nonsensical comments that don’t jive with my reality can be tiresome. Juan Ramon remained on the fringes of this charade, and I watched him with curiosity. I eyed all of them with a fair amount of skepticism and considerable concern because their coffees weren’t great, but even more because they didn’t seem to know it.
A couple days later, we all met at a nice house on the outskirts of town, where we drank beer and ate an abundance of grilled meat. Sitting out on the patio, the group of farmers I’d cupped with wanted to know how much coffee I could buy, how much I could pay, what type of coffee I was looking for, and how all this would benefit them. I did my best to explain to them that I wasn’t going to offer a price for the coffees based on quality or cupping score; but that I’d only buy the coffees if they were really good. (In other words, a lot of roasters will buy lower-scoring coffees for a lower price, and I had no intention of buying the coffee at all if it didn’t surpass my expectations.) Samuel, most adamantly, wanted to know that I would still be there for them if they had a bad year, and that he didn’t just want a buyer, he wanted a relationship with a roaster. They didn’t just want to dance, they wanted to go steady. The conversation got pretty lively and I may have raised my voice a few times, emphatic that this relationship would only work if they pulled their weight and put some very good coffees on the cupping table. Juan Ramon sat quietly listening, and I asked him what he thought. He told me he was just talking it all in. I told him I’m just like him, normally listening rather than talking. They all laughed in disbelief.
Six months later I was back in Nueva Segovia. A couple of the producers I’d met drove all the way across the country to pick me up at the Managua airport and take me back to the northern mountains where their coffee farms soared high above the distant communities. We got straight down to business the next day, meeting at Juan Ramon’s house to cup the coffees these guys had worked hard to produce. I could feel the heaviness in the room from the passing of Juan Ramon’s father, overlaid with anticipation as we prepared for my final and ultimate judgment of each of their coffees. It’s serious and important, and the environment can be charged with the gravity of my imminent opinions and decisions. I cupped fourteen coffees in all: three from a young guy named Norman, three from my friend Sergio, a few one-offs, three coffees from Juan Ramon, and two from Samuel. I made some calculated decisions about which coffees I was interested in buying, and we talked about my tasting notes as they revealed what each lot was.
From here, it’s a matter of discerning how many pounds each lot comprises and then negotiating a deal with each producer. So here’s how it went down. Samuel had two coffees on the table, but he really only wanted to sell me the one I didn’t like. The good one he was hoping to sell at the Cup of Excellence auction. This guy who was insistent I make a long-term commitment withheld his best coffee and put it out there on coffee tinder (and he did place fifth in the competition, earning him $17.30 per pound and a dance with a large Japanese food and beverage company). Sergio and I made a deal in the car, and then I made the same deal with Juan Ramon. Norman managed to sell me the most coffee of anyone, surprisingly.
Months passed and we finally managed to import the coffees. I cupped each one again, in my office this time. And Juan Ramon’s Java Natural won the day, a real cup of excellence.
I must say that I’m really impressed with these guys. They’re learning how to produce specialty coffee in today’s environment. Things are changing at an accelerated pace. Think about this. According to Mark Pendergrast, coffee cultivation in Nicaragua began in the last few decades of the 19th century, when German immigrants took up the trade. From that point forward, coffee was basically produced in the same way, neighbors teaching neighbors, and any adaptations were generally because small producers couldn’t afford to do things the “right” way. Nothing really changed from a quality perspective because producers were solely concerned with quantities produced. Cup of Excellence first came to Nicaragua in 2002, and likely spurred farmers to put some effort toward quality, but for around one hundred and forty years, production methods were basically static. And then suddenly, over the past ten years there has been an upheaval of that system. Young producers don’t want to just sell commodity coffee, they want to do something meaningful. They’re learning more and more about coffee production, varieties, and processing methods, and they’re experimenting with small lots. The more they know and the more they are connected with roasters like me and consumers like you, the more zealous they are to keep iterating and improving.
Mark Brown and I have been cohosting the AA Cafe podcast for several years now, and traditionally in the last episode of the year we each do a “ten things” list. This year we decided to do “simple pleasures” as our theme. And as I got to thinking about what that actually means – both simple and pleasurable – I thought of one thing that probably should be at the top of my list. No, not a really good cup of coffee (though that’s on my list). It’s seeing people overcome. Seeing people get through tough challenges or prevail against the odds. It gives me a deep sense of pleasure even when I’m not involved in the situation.
It’s striking to me that I asked four young coffee farmers in October to produce excellent naturals for me to cup in April, and they took up the challenge, changed and learned and came through with really nice coffees.
Simple pleasure? Watching Juan Ramon, the introvert, listen to me bloviate about coffee quality and relations with farmers. Seeing Juan Ramon a couple days after his father died suddenly, standing up and being a leader for the family, seeing this project through, and being a kind host to me during an extremely difficult time. Cupping Juan Ramon’s coffee and tasting the care he put into its cultivation and processing. Designing the packaging for the Montelin Java Natural, roasting the coffee, and putting it on the shelf for you to buy and enjoy.
Maybe it’s not so simple. But it is extremely pleasurable.