Estate-grown coffee has always had cachet among aficionados, who can appreciate the unique taste each plantation brings to its beans. The uniqueness is blended away when beans from many farms are combined to sell to large-scale roasting companies.
Importers Miriam and Hector Morales of Dedham know the taste of one plantation well. It’s El Recreo Estate Coffee, the 364-acre family farm in Jinotega, Nicaragua, in the north central region of the country, where Miriam grew up. Coffee beans take on the fragrance of the taller trees — orange, lemon, grapefruit, and cacao — that shade the coffee bushes. “The coffee plants will be influenced by the surrounding trees,” says Hector, who was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“We grew up drinking coffee with milk, brewing the coffee in a French press, boiling the milk, and combining them together,” says Miriam. “But to taste the real coffee you do black. You can taste the chocolate or orange or nutty fragrances of different beans. Most customers just drink it, but it is nice when you know how the beans, even from the same country, have these nuances.”
Hector, 49, and Miriam, 46, can explain exactly how this happens. He has degrees in physics from the University of Puerto Rico, and in geophysics and hydrology from Brown and Boston University. She studied industrial engineering at Northeastern. But the two benefited from the wisdom of Miriam’s parents, Carlos and Leana Ferrey, who talk coffee endlessly on family visits.
Hector met Miriam in church in 1991. They moved to Dedham in 2004, looking for a neighborhood in which to settle down with their kids, Hector Jr., 16, and Monica, 13. After 20 years as ministers of Church of Christ, they decided to become coffee importers in 2011.
“We started contacting coffee roasters [that] August,” says Hector, “and had almost a year to line up orders before the first container arrived at Port of New York in late May 2012.” This was the first time El Recreo coffee had come to the States under its own brand name and not as part of a blend.
A container can hold 250 “prograin” plastic-lined burlap bags, each with 153 pounds of coffee inside, or a total of about 38,000 pounds of green beans. The plastic, two layers with a vapor barrier between them, protects the beans from humidity changes on the trip and in the warehouse. El Recreo brought in another container-load this spring, and plans to import three more by next May. The farm can fill 15 containers per harvest. When the coffee is sold, it’s packaged in 1-pound bags ($12 regular and $14 decaf) and 2-pound bags ($22 regular and $24 decaf), both whole bean and ground.
The family connection is also a good selling point. “When Miriam calls and says she is the daughter of the owners of the farm, that’s a hit in the mind of the coffee-roaster owner, that they are talking to the direct connection, and not through a series of brokers and warehouses,” Hector says.
“When I was introduced to Miriam Morales, I was excited to explore the possibility of dealing more directly with a grower,” said Al Cripps of J.P. Licks in Jamaica Plain. “I did test roasts, and was impressed with the quality and flavor of the beans. They produce a cup that has medium body, slightly sweet, with citrus notes, with just the right brightness. It’s one of my favorite coffees.”
The farm, Rainforest Alliance-certified for its commitment to the environment and to the farm workers, uses composting, wastewater treatment, and recycling. It supports schools for workers and their children, a health center, dining facilities, and a company store for low-cost purchases of basic goods, says the couple. The heads of several roasting companies have visited the farm.
El Recreo is the first Nicaraguan exporter of family-grown coffee to New England. More will probably be appearing. In Central America, smaller farms are forming co-ops that can do roughly the same thing, potentially doubling or tripling profits per pound of coffee without raising price.
The Moraleses now sell to roasters and cafes in 17 states and appear at farmers’ markets year round. “For my parents it is a dream come true that, after more than 40 years, the coffee is being imported now and recognized as El Recreo Estate Coffee to customers here,” says their proud daughter.
EL RECREO coffee is available brewed and in the bean at J.P. Licks, 659 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6740; Mystic Coffee Roasters, 30 Riverside Ave., Medford, 781-391-0042; and Atomic Cafe Coffee Roasters, 45 Mason St., Salem, 978-910-0489. Miriam and Hector Morales sell beans and brewed hot and iced coffee at the Framingham farmers’ market (Thursdays), Milton (Thursdays), Newton (Tuesdays), Quincy (Fridays), Sharon (Saturdays), Winchester (Saturdays), or go to www.elrecreoestatecoffee.com.Rachel Ellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.