By Nora Burkey
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
For many coffee-lovers, drinking local coffee at origin can sometimes be, well, depressing. Very exciting is the realization that the coffee we are drinking is finally, truly, local. Less exciting is the reminder that what stays in local hands is the coffee of lesser quality. Everything else has usually been exported to richer consuming countries.
Having been raised on instant, non-exportable coffee, some Nicaraguans tend not to mind, or notice, low-quality coffee. But for those who want something better, there is indeed a growing café scene in the country’s larger cities. Matagalpa, the major city in the department of Matagalpa, where a lot of coffee is grown and sold, boasts several coffee shops where the staff is trained to make lattes with hearts and rosettas, discuss the varieties in their espresso blends, and make educated drink suggestions to curious customers. Most roasts still look and taste a little on the dark side, but for those who’d rather satisfy their own personal coffee cravings for light roasts, you need look no further than the newest addition to Matagalpa’s coffee scene: Bésame, an ice cream shop in Parque Dario.
Sheena George first came to Nicaragua years ago on a mission trip. Upon returning home to California, where she lived with her partner, Ben George, Sheena told him they were moving to Matagalpa ”eventually. Every year after that, the couple returned with their church, and Ben led school trips, until they built up enough equity to finally pick up and move once and for all.
œInitially we planned to open a bakery, Ben says. œWe wanted to sell a product that we knew people would buy, and eventually we came up with the idea of ice cream sandwiches instead. They started practicing their ice cream making skills in Lindsay, Calif., and when they couldn’t keep their ice cream from disappearing out of the fridge, they realized they had gotten pretty good at making it. Something else they are pretty good at making? Cold brew and pourover coffee.
Ben said he was introduced to coffee through friends in California. œI was drinking burnt coffee all my life,” Ben says. “I knew it was bad, but I guess I didn’t really care until my friend made me a pourover. Serving coffee like that in our ice cream shop in Nicaragua just seemed like a no-brainer.
They are currently working with a local roaster, Silvio Mendez, who has been roasting in Nicaragua for 30 years. Third-wave coffee, Ben explains, is not a well-known concept in Nicaragua. “A majority of customers just want a ˜regular’ cup of coffee, but we’re collaborating with Silvo on lighter roasts. Mendez is gladly tailoring his roast to match the third-wave preference, while Ben says they are still fine-tuning their own process at Bésame.
Part of this is because Sheena and Ben are not just tailoring to what Nicaraguans want. œIf we did that, says Ben, œWe’d have frozen coffee drinks with lots of sugar in them, or all fruit ice cream. Instead, we’re making what we know tastes good, and the response has been incredible.
œWe listen to what people say and hear their suggestions, says Sheena, “But we’re also showing them new things. On our second day of business, October 26, we sold out of ice cream by 7 p.m. They had 30 repeat customers in one day ”that is, people who came in the first day they were open and came back hours later for more. œPeople weren’t expecting what they just ate. Ice cream here typically has cheaper ingredients.
To cover the expenses of their unique inputs, Bésame‘s prices are admittedly high for Nicaraguan standards. However, Sheena has noted families coming in and sharing one ice cream between the lot of them, or young men bringing girlfriends for date night. œUsually the boys buy one ice cream for their girlfriend, until they taste it. Then they come up and get another one for themselves.
They don’t sell much coffee yet at Bésame, Ben says, but the consumption has been picking up. œWe had one guy just staring at our cold brew set up. He’d never seen something like that before. Ben and Sheena’s cold brew comes on a block of wood with personal pitchers of milk and liquid sugar. Pourovers also come on a block of wood with a mug and personal pitcher of coffee. They’ve noted that local hipsters are coming back for the coffee again and again. œHipsters love blocks of wood, Ben jokes, “No matter what country they’re from.”
Of course, Ben and Sheena’s motivation for coming to Nicaragua wasn’t to introduce the concept of cold brew to the masses. œThe real reason we came to Nicaragua, Sheena says, œwas to open homes for abandoned and abused children. We are accredited to open a foster home, and once we are profitable, we will be focusing on that. The problems they face in reaching their goal of opening a foster home, however, are good problems to have. They can’t make enough ice cream right now to satisfy the demand. They are awaiting a second ice cream machine, but in the meantime, they run the risk daily of running out of ice cream before they shut their doors. They can’t produce enough ice cream to begin selling it to accounts that want to buy from them in Managua, Granada, and elsewhere in the country. œThe minute we opened our doors, production doubled. We thought it would take months to get there. We never thought we wouldn’t have enough ice cream in the first month to satisfy the demand, so now we’re doing our best to double our capacity, Ben says.
Indeed, it is a very good problem to have.
Nora Burkey first began working on development projects in the coffeelands in August, 2013. She is currently working with NGO Planting Hope in San Ramon, Nicaragua, helping them to develop, monitor, and expand their Coffee Camps program, which offers children of migrant coffee laborers an alternative to working with their parents during the harvest. She has also spent time reporting from cooperatives in Peru about coffee and development. She hopes to connect more roasters, importers, and coffee shops to development projects they can directly support in order to strengthen existing relationships throughout the supply chain.