Coffee Centre of Specialty Coffee, The Interview by
Brian Clark, (PhD. in Psychology, USA)
Coffee Centre of specialty Coffee and Premium Whole Chocolate ‘Esquina de los Cafés’ – Celebrating Coffee Country.
‘Esquina de los Cafés’ a Coffee Centre for Coffee Business in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.
Esquina de los Cafés – Celebrating Coffee Country
by Brian Clark
“You go to wine country, you get the best wine. You go to coffee country, you get the worst coffee,” says Alex, the coffee-roasting savant behind Esquina de los Cafés, a specialty coffee roaster in Matagalpa Nicaragua.
Alex and his wife, Carla, who is in charge of Esquina’s finances and packaging, including artistic design, are on a mission to flip that “coffee country” dynamic on its head. They have spent the last five years building their business from scratch to offer high-quality specialty coffee for purchase at their storefront by locals and tourists. They also ship worldwide to tourists who fall in love with their coffees and return home wanting more. Full disclosure: I am one of those tourists.
Hard Times for the Market Niche
Being heavily based on tourism, Esquina and businesses like it have been hit hard by current civil unrest throughout the country, which has resulted in an estimated 215,000 jobs lost (a third of those from the tourism industry). At the moment, Esquina is looking into possibilities of distributing to Nicaraguan coffee shops or increasing sales through prospective US partnerships, and just very basically trying to keep costs down and the lights on. If and when the political situation restabilizes, Esquina intend to take back its tourist market niche, acquire new equipment to increase manufacturing capacity, and focus on new projects, like chocolate production.
Cornerstones of the Coffee Corner
Whether it’s coffee or chocolate, the cornerstones of the Esquina operation are originality, data, and control. Originality describes the product; it’s what is done. Esquina is about developing new and different takes on old stuff, like coffee and chocolate, which create new and different experiences for consumers. Data and control are how it’s done. Esquina develops originality through data about processes and experiences while controlling quality, quantity, and market niche. Alex draws on his experiences in Germany and the US and with tourists visiting Nicaragua from those countries to drive these fundamentals forward. He boils down his experiences into complementary foci. One focus is on the product itself – “make it right, make it honest,” he says of the German style. The other focus is on people’s experience of the product – “make it better, make it new,” he says of the American style.
As to why it’s done, the “coffee country” dynamic encapsulates Esquina’s purpose. There are two interrelated parts to the purpose: tourism and economics. Notwithstanding current sharp decline, tourism currently accounts for about 6% of Nicaragua’s GDP. To put that into perspective, that’s on par with the entire retail industry (motor vehicle, food/beverage, general merchandise, and other) in the US. In other words, tourism a pretty big part of the economy. Coffee was Nicaragua’s third largest export in 2016. So, coffee – also a big part of the economy. Coming to coffee country should maybe be, at least in part, about the coffee. However, there’s a lot of pressure to export the best beans away from where they’re grown, to roasters and retailers in more-developed countries.
Direct Deal is Fair
Alex bristles at the notion of “fair trade” and has little faith that it is actually fair. Carla knows this aspect of the business from experience working in client relations for a large exporter of coffee and other commodities that markets itself on principles of environmental sustainability and social responsibility, boasting numerous badgified certifications to prove it. Although such enterprises may do a decent job of curtailing modern forms of slavery, they may not do enough to keep economic benefit at the point of origin, and they definitely do nothing to celebrate Nicaragua, or other coffee-producing nations, as “coffee country.”
Esquina takes a direct trade approach, and to express it loud-and-proud but simultaneously tongue-in-cheek, they have their own “certification” badge emblazoned on their packaging: “Direct Deal is fair.”
Esquina’s “Direct Deal” involves working with local growers around Aranjuez – between Matagalpa and Jinotega in the Cerro Dantali El Diablo Natural Reserve – to source coffee fruit, paying them premium prices, and tying price to quality standards.
This is like any other direct trade arrangement, in that the roaster/retailer works directly with the grower to source beans, except that Esquina being a Nicaraguan roaster and retailer means that the entire supply chain and its economic benefit is kept at the point of origin. In other words, it’s pretty much the most direct that direct trade can be for coffee consumers. It also means empowering the celebration of Nicaragua as “coffee country.”
Better Coffee, Better Experience
Alex is unsurprisingly pretty critical of big roasters/retailers, like Nestle and Starbucks, for their economic role. But he also takes aim at the quality of their products, citing temperatures that are way too high, resulting in a burnt beans and acrid-tasting brew, not to mention mildly carcinogenic chemicals. A master of thermodynamics, Alex suggests that proper roasting procedure should keep the temperature of the roasting machine around 300° F (about 149° C) and shouldn’t really exceed 330° F (about 165° C). Contrast that with a typical Starbucks temperature of 400° F (about 204° C). It makes sense. When you burn the crap out of the beans, that’s what your brew tastes like: burnt crap. When you don’t burn the crap out of them, your brew opens a door to a world of interesting flavors and a great sensory experience.
Alex isn’t just a roaster. He’s an educator. He is in his element leading coffee farm and milling facility tours and teaching roasting classes. Even his tastings – cupping in the lingo of the coffee arena – are instructive. He doesn’t just pour you some coffee and leave you to your own devices. He guides you through an experience – an experience that is, in my opinion, well worth having.