Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Oh, my, I love coffee! At night, when I go to bed, I'm excited because I know that when I wake up, I'll have con au lait. Nicaragua is coffee growing country. Que bueno!

Have you ever tasted a bright red, ready-to-harvest coffee bean? I never had until Paulette handed me one and said, "Taste this." It was a burst of sweetness! Nothing like the taste of what we recognize as coffee. Lots will happen to that bean on its way to my cup. Mostly, before being roasted, it will spend a lot of time drying in the sun.

There are over 1000 coffee trees on the property that contains La Mariposa Spanish School and EcoHotel. When she bought the place, Paulette didn't know that. She didn't know it until months later when Ismael, in charge of the grounds, asked her, "What do you want to do about the coffee?" It was ready for the first harvest.

There are always two harvests of coffee beans because they don't all ripen at the same time. You can see in the photo that some of the beans are bright red and some are still green. The first harvest is more labor intensive than the second harvest because the ripe berries must be picked gently in order not to knock off those still ripening.

Well before my experience in Nicaragua, I knew that there is a strong connection between what happens in coffee production and what happens to wildlife and tropical forest diversity. I'm a bird lover. And so I make an effort to buy shade-grown coffee. In many coffee producing areas, great swaths of rain forest and other complex habitats have been destroyed in order to plant rows of coffee trees. Alone, in monoculture, coffee trees do not a forest make. When forests are cut, native birds lose their habitat, and migratory birds find that their sustenance for the journey has disappeared.

But coffee grows perfectly well in the shade, and in Nicaragua, I have seen many beautiful, lush forests with coffee growing under layers of tree canopy. In the photo at left, the leaves in the foreground are coffee trees. A little further back, you see bananas. Both are thriving in a complex ecosystem consisting of canopy, mid-story, and under-story. This is a place where wildlife can thrive as the coffee ripens and bananas take form. Harvesting the coffee is a little more labor intensive in these conditions, and so I pay a few cents more per pound for the coffee I buy in the U.S. I'm happy to do it.

I'm back in the States now. I did bring home coffee from a farm on the slopes of Volcan Mombacho, site of a marvelous cloud forest -- a significant nature preserve that is continually bathed in cloud, damp and dripping and green. On the way up the volcano in a park service truck designed for the steep haul, we stopped at the farm's coffee shop (Cafe Las Flores).

Now, dark, rich coffee from a land I am learning to love--shade grown, sun dried, deeply roasted, finely ground--waits on my countertop where I meet it joyfully every morning.

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