Let's Drink: Just Coffee

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It was the late 90s. While most people were memorizing the words to Semi-Charmed Life, Matt Earley was in Chiapas, Mexico, building schools and befriending coffee farmers. The farmers were struggling. They were trapped in payday loans and forced to sell their beans locally at non-livable prices. Matt, sympathizing with their burden, began looking for roasters or importers in the States that would buy their beans at a higher, fairer price. But in the era of Folgers and Maxwell House, he was unable to find people who saw value in paying more than chump change for coffee, nor people who understood the value of building a direct relationship between buyers and farmers. Matt broke the news to the farmers, and instead of being discouraged, they heartfully told Matt to buy the beans himself.  

Thus, JUST Coffee was born. Matt and the team behind JUST Coffee believe that in an age of a global economy, the tangible connection between consumer and supplier is as firm as ever, yet harmfully elusive. JUST has committed, through honest relationships and outright transparency, to removing barriers so that their customers can be aware of the people behind their steamy mugs of caffeine, and so we all might be aware of how our consumer choices affect those who grow or make the things we buy. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, JUST partners with coffee growers around the world. One of these, Las Diosas, an all-women's cooperative in Nicaragua, is (alongside its parent organization La FEM, or The Foundation for Women) part of the greater feminist movement in Nicaragua.

Feminism and Nicaragua have been officially holding hands since the Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s. The emblem of the people’s party (the FSLN)—an image of a woman breastfeeding while a rifle, meanwhile, hangs over her shoulder—marks the progressive role of women in the revolution. The FSLN gave equal treatment to women, basing advancement purely on skill and merit, and women made up a stunning chunk—over a quarter—of the guerrilla revolutionaries. Through the FSLN, one of Latin America’s first successful women’s rights organizations was established (AMNLAE), providing a gateway through which women could enter the public sphere. Nicaragua, currently, lives boldly in the wake of these movements and though the country is run by a male Presidency, it is the First Lady who is praised, as she was in a 2007 headline, as the “power behind the throne.” 

It is not surprising, then, that Nicaragua is home to one of Latin America’s only all-women's coffee cooperatives, Las Diosas, which challenges the tight bind of a still prevalent machismo culture. In the coffee business in particular there is a heavy imbalance of ownership. Many believe that women should be confined to roles as homemakers and child-rearers; basically, they are “not cut out for business.” Thus, men receive the training and support needed to acquire ownership, further perpetuating the cycle of gender inequality. Las Diosas, however, provides women with the resources they need to be the subjects of their own development, giving them the opportunity for ownership over their work and economic independence.  

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Four thousand miles away from the charming forests surrounding Esteli, Nicaragua—the home of one of Latin America’s only all-women’s coffee cooperatives, Las Diosas—I watched my friend pour water at an impressively even stream over his glass Chemex. Esteli is known mostly for growing and processing tobacco and is one of the most important cigar-producing cities in the world. Between tobacco fields, the pine, oak, and walnut forests are interspersed with Nicaragua’s other lucrative exports: beans, flowers, corn, and coffee. Nicaraguan coffee is renown for its deep flavors reminiscent of nuts, caramel, and cocoa, alongside brighter notes of cinnamon, and especially citrus.

After a hypnotizing five minutes of watching water became coffee, we poured ourselves a cup of Las Diosas Nicaraguan single-orgin from JUST Coffee Coop. The first, admittedly geeky, adjective we used to describe the coffee was “transparent.” In the coffee world, this is one of the highest compliments you can pay a bag of beans because it suggests that the roasting is done so carefully that instead of tasting the toastiness of the roast, the pure flavors of the coffee bean shine through. In this case the coffee was perfectly Nicaraguan: meyer lemon and caramel opening up to burnt pecan, orange, and molasses. The flavors were striking. The acidity wavered on the line between overpowering and refreshing. Drawn to experimentation, my friend whipped up another cup, this time using the french press. I took a sip and was slightly dumbfounded.

Apparently, I learned in this moment, when making coffee using a filter method, you filter out, along with the grounds, a lot of the coffee’s natural oils. This makes the coffee “cleaner,” and also makes the acidity (usually perceived through citrus notes) more prominent. Often a coffee’s acid is pleasant enough that it can stand on its own. This coffee, however, benefitted from the presence and texture of the oil. It rounded out the sprightliness of the acid and gave the coffee an attractive overall balance. The orange became orange cream and the burnt pecan became pecan pie. What was, at first, a lively cup of wake-up-coffee became one that was elegant and composed enough to be enjoyable all day. JUST Coffee Coop will teach you how to make a perfectly pressed cup of coffee here And while you're learning, do your coffee-loving self a favor and pick up a bag of Las Diosas Nicaraguan or any one of JUST’s perfectly roasted bag of beans.

Many thanks to Mallory for her beautiful contributions to our blog. We've learned so much from you! Your voice and talent will be greatly missed.