Los Congos: Relationship Coffee from a Barista's Perspective

Written by Dylan McClain

The first time I worked with coffee from Los Congos, Nicaragua was in preparation for a small event I was holding at our Alberta Street café.  The idea was to create a little bit of coffee theater: customers could come in for a special tasting and more in-depth information on the coffees, and I would pull a few rabbits out of my hat in the process.  I think we charged eight bucks or something like that, which bought you an aeropress flight of the Los Congos Pacamara in washed and natural form, as well a tasting of the cascara and a cold brew of the coffees.  I also used the Los Congos in an ice-cold glass of Portland Lemonade, which is the stage name for a lip-smacking mixture of washed pacamara cold-brew and blood-orange nectar.

I remember during the preparation for that event feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of those coffees, especially the pacamaras.  All coffee professionals have stories to tell about a time when they fell passionately, madly, head-over-heels in love with a coffee.  This was one of those times.  But the challenge was real.  Here I was trying to put together a platform for our customers to peer into the soul of a coffee.  I wanted to dive to the depths of what that coffee had to offer, but I had the terrible luck of working with a coffee whose depth seemed infinite, bottomless, forever inexhaustible.  There was more to show than what I could fit into a twenty or thirty minute experience.  I had to focus on one or two aspects of the coffee that were speaking to me, and merely hint at the other possibilities.

Don Rene Paguaga

A month or so later, we held a second event celebrating the coffees of Los Congos, but this one was bigger.  Rina Paguaga was our guest at the Alberta café, and in front of a large gathering of coffee professionals and amateurs, all with glasses of cascara vodka in our hands, she gave a passionate telling of the remarkable story of her father, Don Rene, and his ongoing journey as a coffee grower and as the owner of Los Congos.  It is a journey that embodies so many of the challenges and triumphs of the coffee industry as a whole.  Here is a man who has been growing coffee for what, 70 years?  And he has had to start over from zero on three separate occasions during his career?  And the production at Los Congos keeps getting better and better.  We at Case Study are honored to play a small part in the most recent chapter of that long story--a story which is still being written.

The mill at harvest

Coffee is an industry of relationships.  The coffee family tree is built on relationships.  You see that in the branches that baristas build with their regulars, forming relationships that tie cafes to their neighborhoods and make it possible for coffee companies to become part of the cultural identity of a city.  And behind those scenes, you can find a thick structure of relationships binding roasters and suppliers and café owners and importers.  And down by the roots you can see relationships creating pathways for growers to adapt and respond to what’s happening all the way up at the tips of the branches.  All those relationships form the body of the coffee industry, and they are what make it possible for every part to continue to grow and adapt. As a barista I don’t always get to see where and how these relationships impact my work, but I am grateful whenever opportunities come along to form connections that go deeper into the heart of coffee.  It is so rewarding to be able to work repeatedly with such accomplished professionals as the Paguagas.  And we are just now bringing their beautiful coffees from Los Congos back into our lineup, so won’t you stop in to taste them again?  I think they’re better than ever this year.  And be ready for our next event showcasing this special coffee and this special relationship. 

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