Coffee is Not Free: Hitting the ground running with Ben Weiner of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers

by Eli Masem

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The text on my phone at 11:00pm, read, “I’m on my way back to Matagalpa right now. Can you meet me at my office at 7:00 in the morning?”

I had just completed a fun first day of hiking and exploring Matagalpa after a long day of traveling the previous day to get there, from Asheville, NC.  This was my first visit to Nicaragua and I was in town for a day and a night before my host would be back in town.  It was good to have a day to acclimate to a new place.  I was in Nicaragua to spend the week shadowing one of our long time producers, Ben Weiner, of Gold Mountain Coffee Growers.  The goal was to tie together the intricacies of the journey from crop to cup that we have been mutually involved in with for so long with Gold Mountain. We have been buying coffee from his farm, Finca Idealista, for 3 years and while the attention to quality has always been evident, seeing the extent to which Gold Mountain goes to assure this level of quality is both impressive and inspirational.  In my opinion, one of the biggest revelations that can be taken away from traveling to origin is how many ways things can go wrong in the journey from seed to cup and how few ways things can go right.  It may come off as pretentious to not offer free refills of coffee at our shop but I know what this coffee costs, how much work went into it, how much is at stake, and what it’s worth, every step of the way.  It’s undoubtedly more than what we all pay for it.  Great coffee is complex, hard to cultivate, process, transport, and brew properly, and so, deserves more than to be given away for free.

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When I arrived at Gold Mountain’s office right off a busy road on the edge of Matagalpa on the way up to the mountains, I was welcomed to the flurry of activity that is Ben Weiner’s life.  He was answering phone calls from current and prospective customers, furiously texting employees and partner producers, while simultaneously packing his backpack and filling his water bottle to prepare himself for a day running errands that would take us up two separate mountain ranges, a busy market in town, his wet mill, visits to multiple producers, and two separate visits to the dry mill where much of his coffee is dried, sorted, and stored for export.  His office manager, Jaqueline, was typing up receipts for coffee delivered by various partner producers while her 5 year old son, Diego, was playing with possibly the loudest remote control car ever produced.

I dropped off my bags and we immediately got into his truck and headed out.  We had to go to the large and chaotic market in Matagalpa to pick up 30 bags of fertilizer.  The five minutes that the fertilizer was being invoiced to us was probably the only time I saw Ben Weiner sit still in the week I was with him.  The market was a maze of tiny alleys, one way streets, blocked traffic, butchered animals, fresh produce, and kiosks that can get you pretty much any item that money can by, some of it produced and acquired legitimately and some of it from questionable origins. The fertilizer was going to a partner producer who had received a loan from Gold Mountain last harvest and due to various factors hadn’t come through with the expected yield.  Ben wasn’t ready to give up on the producer, so this time around he chose to provide material support in the form of agricultural supplies instead of cash money.  He even did the producer the solid of picking it up himself and dropping it off (thankfully it was already on the way to Ben’s wet mill and to the land of another producer we were picking up coffee from that day).  Lending money and other resources are one of the riskier sides of Gold Mountain’s business model and possibly more altruistic than fiscally responsible.  It puts the needed capital in the hands of producers so they can get what they need to complete their harvests.  Lending is either rare or extremely predatory in Nicaragua and sometimes the helping hand of Gold Mountain can give a producer the leg up to bring in an exceptional crop, that will get a great price, and help a farm grow and prosper.

Immediately after buying the fertilizer, we went into the market to pick up 200 of the large red bags into which all of the producers load their daily lots.  While Ben marched into the labyrinthine market to search the bags out, I was left to guard the fertilizer from theft.  While Nicaragua has a pretty low violent crime rate, it is still an extremely poor country where theft is commonplace, People have been known to jump on the back of the truck, grab what’s not strapped down, and run for it.

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When Ben finally resurfaced, we immediately took off for the mountains, rocketing out of the noise and diesel smoke of Ciudad Matagalpa into the lush green mountainscapes of Las Nubes, surrounding Matagalpa like a protective wall.  After roughly 30 minutes we turned off the well paved highway and started winding up an increasingly steep gravel mountain road past tiny smallholder farms and collections of homes that would be a stretch to call villages.  

We pulled up to Gold Mountain’s wet mill where Ben checked in with his workers to make sure they were sorting out defect coffee properly and in a timely manner.  His wet mill where he processes his coffee is small, but truly a thing to behold.  It has the standard tanks and chutes for fermenting and washing coffees, not to mention the obligatory depulping equipment necessary for sloughing the meat and skin off the coffee cherry to get to the roastable and drinkable treasure inside. He also has an extensive system of water filtering tanks filled with volcanic stone to filter the used water from these processes back into the land without contaminating it and the surrounding natural water sources.  Also, by expanding his production of natural and honey processed coffees, he has greatly diminished his need for the amount of water needed if he was only producing washed coffees.  The tiny plot of land behind the wet mill also doubles as a coffee variety museum where you can find all variety of different coffee plants from around the region and around the world to see if they hold up to the conditions of that area for possible future cultivation at Finca Idealista or the farm of a partner producer.

We went from there up to the house of the producer needing fertilizer.  As we arrived they were getting the road, much of it a muddy wreck from recent rains, ready to accept our truck full of fertilizer.  After a slow and precarious climb to the top of the road to his small house where he lives with his wife and 10 children, we dropped the fertilizer off and drove to the next producer’s farm (Ronald) just a couple miles away.  This time it was a pick up, and we drove away with roughly 10 bags of parchment and a huge bag of oranges which we devoured for the entire week I was there.  

Now it was time to drive all the way back into town to bring the coffee to the dry mill.  If you are producing a lot of coffee from a lot of different farmers you need somewhere to finish drying and sorting it.  A dry mill has the space and expensive sorting machinery that is preferable, if not necessary, when producing coffee for export.  Unfortunately, many mills are owned by large companies and/or groups of investors, so sometimes focus on quantity over quality can be evident if you walk around their properties.  Coffee is dried on large concrete patios as opposed to raised beds which encourage more airflow and more even drying.  Coffee is often stored outside in the elements, stacked up tall in bags, getting rained on which then causes mold along with other very avoidable defects that bring down the quality and price potential for this coffee.

Gold Mountain needs the space and some of the machinery the mill provides but found the quality of oversight and processing lacking for what they were trying to produce.  Every time a coffee is brought through the gates of the mill, the first stop is at the scales.  The coffee is weighed and then a small sample is taken by the mill to give it a estimated percentage of how many defects there are in the overall lot.  All coffees will have a certain amount of defects but this will let you know approximately how much sorting and care was given to the coffee before it reached the mill.  At this point in the process, Gold Mountain veers away from standard operating procedure and dives headlong into their own hyper focused quality control program at the mill.  The coffee is driven from the scales by Ben’s own vehicles, to his own section he rents at the mill where all or most of the coffee is placed in raised beds to dry.  You can tell where Gold Mountain’s area starts and the mill’s are ends as Ben’s area is the only one with raised drying beds, with more raised beds constantly being built to meet the demand.  As mentioned before, the raised beds deliver better airflow and more consistent even drying which shows in the cupping quality of these coffees.  He even has his own employees stationed at the mill everyday to make sure his coffees are being taken care of as opposed to leaving it up to the mill’s employees.  Where most others drying their coffee at the mill store it in bags outside for long periods of time, he has his own specific rented spaces in the warehouse to store his coffee and keep it out of the elements and separated from less stringently produced coffees.  The mill has large machinery that is very useful for sorting the coffee by density, and a laser sorter that mimics the human eye to further pick out defects.  And yet, at the end of all this, Ben goes above and beyond and has his own workers in a room with black lights and conveyer belts further sorting the coffees by hand to get the coffees as close to perfection as possible before export.   

This oversight and attention to detail doesn’t begin at the mill as it is even more focused in the picking at the farms.  We stopped by the local all in one store (think a small Nicaraguan Walmart) and picked up a camping cot, a cook stove, and some cooking implements.  We then went back up to the mountains to pick up a person this time, not coffee.  We needed to pick up and drop off a member of what Gold Mountain calls their ripeness team at a partner producers farm for harvest.  These are Gold Mountain employees that stay on site (24 hours a day) at a partner producer’s farm during an entire harvest to make sure the farmer and the farmer’s pickers are only choosing the ripest coffee cherries. The seasonal pickers at farms are often paid based on volume picked so having someone on sight who will police what is getting picked is crucial so they don’t throw in under ripe coffee cherries that can bring down the cupping score, the taste, and ultimately the price of the coffee.  They coach the pickers and walk around with them as they are picking, testing the coffee cherries for sweetness/sugar content with Brix meters (refractometers), which are widely used in the wine industry for testing sugar content of grapes.  They also hand out ripeness bracelets to all pickers that are the exact color of ripe coffee cherries so they always have a point of reference when harvesting.  Imposing the presence of this third party inspector on another farmer’s property can sometimes be a hard nut to swallow for the producer but will result, long term, in higher quality coffee and will help curtail the shortcuts that can be taken in the name of fiscal necessity or fear by a producer.

Gold Mountain Coffee Grower’s Job is one that starts at sunrise and stops for a slight pause long after sunset. This doesn’t even include the time personally transporting the coffee with armed escorts to port in Honduras or the fact that when the coffee shows up at the warehouse in the U.S. on the other side, Ben is present to break the seal on the container to personally make sure the coffee comes off the boat exactly as it went on.

Gold Mountain is a lender of money, church of quality, champion of improvement, and arbiter of social and environmental change.  The labor, time, thought, and focus on the details, are what you are tasting when you have a cup of Finca Idealista or one their many partner producers.

Simply put, the vast effort put into producing an amazing cup is why coffee is not free.