MATAGALPA Lesther Valladares, 32, grew up in the foothills of Nicaragua s prime coffee country. But like most other Matagalpinos, Valladares learned at a young age to reach for a Coca Cola to get his afternoon caffeine fix.
It wasn t until he moved to Guatemala City as a 20-something to find a job in a hotel that he became exposed to the world of gourmet coffee a world he had unknowingly left behind in Matagalpa. Working under the tutelage of a Guatemalan champion barista, Valladares learned the secrets to making a perfect cappuccino, espresso and mocha latte. He also learned the passion for coffee that defines all great baristas.
So when Valladares finally returned to Matagalpa last year, he was eager to put his new skills and knowledge to work in his hometown. After working for a while as the barista in the city s trendy new Artesanos Café, whose early success suggested that a local market for good coffee was possible, Valladares went solo five months ago and opened Café Barista, the newest in a nascent trend in coffee bars the northern highlands of Nicaragua.
At first he was afraid the idea wouldn t catch on. Even though Matagalpa s economy has been based on coffee exports for more than a century, the product didn t have a good reputation in town, Valladares says.
People were getting sick from coffee, but they weren t drinking good coffee, and it wasn t even from here, Valladares said of the cheap instant coffee that is sold in individual envelope servings in corner stores.
Plantation owners up on the fincas have always drunk good coffee, but here in the city people drank beer and rum.
Valladares, however, put the Field of Dreams theory to work at Café Barista and quickly discovered that if you brew it, they will come.
Today, Valladares moves gracefully behind his coffee bar, serving up flavored lattes, cappuccinos and ice coffees to a growing number of Nicaraguans especially students and young people who are starting to opt for coffee over soda. Valladares says he also enjoys sharing his coffee knowledge with customers, teaching people that fresh-roasted coffee is much healthier than additivelaced instant coffee or a bottle of coke, which is filled with sugar and has much more caffeine than coffee.
The barista also educates customers about coffee flavors, why certain coffees have body, while others are more acidic. He says the public reception to his new business and coffee classes has been positive since he opened.
International coffee experts say efforts like Valladares are extremely important to the future of the region s coffee industry and need to be multiplied on a national level.
Rodolfo Trampe, head of Mexico s coffee policy as the executive coordinator of the Mexican Association of Coffee Production, says that he and other Mexican producers came to the conclusion several years ago that the best way to promote the future of the coffee industry is through creating a new culture of domestic consumption.
Mexico is the seventh largest coffee producer in the world, producing some 4.6 million bags of coffee a year about four times more than Nicaragua s annual coffee harvest. But compared to Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam, which together produce 60 percent of the world s coffee, even Mexico is a minor global player.
The market dominance of the big three producers, according to Trampe, leaves very little room for other traditional coffeeproduction countries, such as Mexico and Central America. In addition, he says, traditional markets, such as the United States, are already saturated.
Seeking New Markets
Over the next 10 years, Trampe predicts, future growth in the coffee industry will be concentrated in three new markets: specialty coffee niches; emerging markets such as China and Russia; and untapped markets in coffee-producing countries.
Mexico, he says, has opted to focus on the latter, banking on the calculation that increasing consumption among Mexico s 110 million people is the best way to improve that country s competitiveness and stabilize market prices for producers.
The task of changing consumer culture, however, is not easy; Mexico, Trampe says, is also a Coca-Cola drinking country.
On average, Mexicans consume just 1 kilo of coffee per capita a year, about half the annual coffee consumption rate of an average Nicaraguan, and five times less than the average Costa Rican.
Still, if Mexico is able to increase its per-capita consumption rate to the Central American average of around 2.5 kilos, the country would reach equilibrium between supply and demand, Trampe says.
Mexico would consume all its coffee locally and stop exporting, Trampe says.
On a global level, he says, that domestic increase in coffee consumption would have a stabilizing effect on world coffee prices and allow producing nations to start focusing on more value-added initiatives.
We can t talk about value-added if we don t make the pie bigger, Trampe said during a presentation at last week s VIII Ramacafe conference in Managua, one of the coffee industry s most important events of the year. First we need to create the conditions so that demand grows, and then we can talk about value-added.
Without value-added, Trampe says, coffeeproducing countries will continue to be nothing more than providers of primary materials to international markets in the developed world. Despite important growth in the consumer-driven specialty coffee market, where consumers voluntarily pay more for a cup of coffee to help provide just wages to producers, the overall trickledown has been slow.
Trampe says that only $10 billion of the $70 billion generated in the global coffee market last year made it back to the producing nations.
Our participation as producer countries has diminished brutally in the past 15 years, Trampe says. The value-added is put on by the coffee-importing countries.
In Nicaragua, there have been several local campaigns by producers and coffee associations to promote domestic consumption, which has received a boost from new coffee-shop chains such as Casa de Café, El Coche, Café Latino, and On the Run cafes at the ESSO service stations.
Individual coffee shops have also popped up in recent years in the outlying tourist provinces, such as Granada, and in coffeeproducing regions such as Jinotega and now Matagalpa, which has seen three coffee shops open in the past year.
On a national level, events such as the annual Ramacafe meeting, the annual barista competition and the Cup of Excellence which pits 400-plus of the country s top producers against one another in a cup-to-cup competition to award the top harvest in the country have also had a tremendous impact on promoting awareness about the importance of quality and value-added initiatives.
The Cup of Excellence hasn t just given Nicaraguan coffee the international recognition it deserves, but each year the producers have understood the need to improve the quality of their coffee, says Julio Peralta, vice president of the Nicaraguan Association of Specialty Coffees. This is something all producers are now aware of, and they are trying to improve their quality something that 10 years ago was not common in the coffee-producing culture here.
But when it comes to actually getting a cup of freshly roasted Nicaraguan coffee into the hands of new consumers, it s baristas like Valladares who are on the front lines.
It starts here in the coffee shop, with clients getting a cup of good coffee, he says.
Then, many times when they leave the shop they end up buying a pound of gourmet coffee to take home with them.