Coffee has been an important part of the Nicaraguan economy since the 1850s when large-scale coffee production commenced in the northern hills, where climate and volcanic soils work together to create a great environment for coffee plants.
In Nicaragua, coffee is not grown on large monoculture fields. Instead, the coffee plants grow in a forest environment, in the shade of native Nicaraguan trees and next to a lot of other bushes and flowers. These coffee forests are important havens for Nicaraguan wildlife, such as mantled howler monkeys, collared aracari, three-wattled bellbirds, and jaguarundis. Many of the coffee forests are adjacent to nature preserves and, in their fashion, work as a kind of buffer zones.
The species of coffee grown in Nicaragua is Coffea arabica. Compared to the species Coffea canephora – which produces the robusta coffee bean – C. arabica produces a bean that is less bitter, more acidic, and not as highly caffeinated.
In Nicaragua, coffee is grown commercially in many different locations where the altitude exceeds 800 metres and the climate is not as hot as in the lower elevations of this tropical country. The climate requirement means that a majority of the Nicaraguan coffee forests are found in the mountainous northern and central parts of the country. A few examples of important coffee regions are Matagalpa, Jinotega, Nueva Segovia, and Chontales.
Large-scale coffee growing in Nicaragua started in the 1850s and quickly became a great success. By 1870, coffee was the main export crop of the then fairly young republic, which had separated from the Federal Republic of Central America in 1838.
The coffee industry prompted investments in infrastructure in Nicaragua, as coffee needed to be transported from the ideal growing locations in the mountains to ports from which it could be exported. Eventually, this led to the creation of the National Railroad.
In 1891, the Nicaraguan coffee harvest yielded over 5 million kilograms, produced from 31,000 hectares of land. During this era, a majority of the Nicaraguan coffee was exported to Europe, where it fetched a higher price than in the United States. From 1899 and 1900, the Nicaraguan coffee crop increased from 75,000 bags to 150,000 bags.
Throughout the 20th century, coffee remained a very important crop for the Nicaraguan economy. Production was hampered by the civil war of the 1980s, but the 1989 crop was still an impressive 42 million kilograms. In 1992, when the war had ended, more land was planted with coffee than with any other crop.
In the 21st century, coffee rust (roya) has been an increasing problem for coffee plants in Central America, including Nicaragua. The culprit is the fungus Hemileia vastarix, which gradually destroys the leaves of the coffee plant and can lead to the death of a coffee plant within a few years. Since the late 2010s, researchers from CIRAD have been using test plots in Nicaragua to develop a coffee hybrid named Starmaya which has increased resilience to H. vastarix.