In January I had the opportunity to travel to Boquete, Panama to visit coffee farms in order to educate myself and meet farmers and all of the people involved in producing coffee there. This is a little travelogue of my amazing stay there, tracing the roots of the coffee I serve in New York City!
Friday and Saturday:
I landed in Panama the night of the 11th and hung out most of the day of the 12th in the city. I paid a cab driver to drive me around and show me the sights. I saw some great views of the city as well as the canal. He dropped me off at Albrook Airport a couple hours before my flight so I wandered a little. I stumbled upon a small roadside coffee house called Kotowa, Coffee of Boquete. I stopped in for a shot and a cup of coffee. It was all right. They ground the espresso to order and the coffee was pretty rich but had been brewed a couple of hours before. They had preground, flavored coffees for sale in shiny bags. From there I got on a small plane and flew to David. From David, I got my rental car and drove myself to Boquete.
I was planning on staying with the Petersons on Hacienda Esmeralda so I followed the directions that Susan Peterson emailed to me. I got lost…many times. The journey that should have taken me one hour took three. I finally asked three farm workers on the side of the road if they knew where Hacienda Esmeralda was and they didn’t. I asked where Palmira was and they knew. They needed a ride off the mountain, so I gave them one. They took me to Palmira road and then into Boquete to drop them off. There was some big drug bust going on so I waited in line on the highway for a while but finally made it to the Petersons. I drove this little two-wheel drive Toyota up some awful mountain roads in the dark, mentally prepared to sleep in the back of the car on the side of a mountain with a flat tire in a foreign land — but everything turned out all right. Yay!
Susan and Price fed me sandwiches and beer and showed me to my casita (little house) which was situated in front of the main house. Susan and Price were so accommodating and pleasant to be around.
The next day I woke up to find cows right outside of my window. I hadn’t seen any of the land in daylight so I was blown away by the scenery. It was amazing! The Petersons have several dairies in addition to the coffee farms. One of the milking parlors was right across the road from my casita. I went into the house and Susan had brewed a pot of Esmeralda Geisha through a Technivorm. OMG it was incredible to drink coffee on the farm. Price had to leave early that morning for an SCAA meeting in San Diego so I didn’t get to see him after that.
After breakfast, Susan introduced me to Abel at the beneficio (mill). Abel showed me the process of how they remove coffee seeds from the cherries using machines which also separate under-ripe cherries from ripe ones. They then dry some of the coffee in huge rotating cylinders heated by ovens fueled by coffee husks (pergamino). Some of the coffee was dried on the patio until it reached 11% humidity. Workers continually raked the seeds so that they could dry evenly in the sun.
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| Patio and beneficio at the Esmeralda farm. |
| Beans dried to 11% humidity. |
Abel chewed on seeds to gauge the humidity level. I tried and guessed that one batch of seeds was at 20% humidity using my mouth. It was 19.9% on the machine. I rule! Abel showed me the cupping lab and what was this?…he started setting up a cupping! We cupped the new Geisha Mario 1 and a Caturra from the Jaramillo farm. It needed a little more ”reposo” (rest) but it was amazing to be cupping with the foreman at the beneficio. He didn’t speak any English but he spoke slowly so that I could understand his Spanish. The view from the cupping lab was beautiful! I think Folgers would have tasted good in that setting.
Later that night, I went to a small restaurant down the road called Gordon’s. Gordon was a Gringo who moved to Boquete and now runs a bar/restaurant and gives English lessons. He had coffee, bananas and oranges growing in his front yard. It was karaoke night at the bar and I had a chance to listen to some real Panamanian folk music. Wow! Just wow! Oh yeah, I shared the casita with many very large spiders. We got along.
This was one of the most significant days on my trip. Susan took me to the Jaramillo farm to work and hang out with my new buddy and foreman of the Jaramillo farm, Poldo. Poldo and I hiked all over the farm. He showed me all of the different sections of the farm including Mario’s valley where the Best of Panama Geisha is grown. According to Poldo, very few outsiders had ever seen this valley in person. I was a lucky boy. It was gorgeous. The Geisha plants carpeted the whole valley with hundreds of native trees poking through. He also showed me another section of the farm that had Geisha and Catuai growing in the same section.
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| Geisha clusters growing in Boquete. |
| Just a little anonymous coffee no one has ever heard of... |
| Geisha up close |
He had me taste the difference between the two in cherry form. The difference was amazing! The Catuai left a sweet, round, refreshing aftertaste while the Geisha left a slight sting down the back of my mouth and throat. Later, we rode around on his tractor and ran errands for the farm before lunch. The tractor only sat one so I sat on the fender and held on for dear life. The tractor was Poldo’s car. We even drove down the highway on it. I had lunch at the nursery with all of the Ngobe kids.
After a short after-lunch soccer game and photo shoot with the kids, it was time for me to do some cosechando (harvesting). I strapped on my bucket and went to work on a section of a field near the nursery. It was awful. It was important to pick only the ripe cherries and to twist them off to avoid injuring the plant. No stripping of the branch was allowed. So much work and care goes into harvesting Esmeralda. Since coffee cherries don’t all ripen at the same rate, the pickers have to circulate between different sections of the farm for months on end and keep picking the same trees. I picked 4.5 lbs. I only worked for a little bit and a couple of the kids from the soccer game came over and made fun of me, so I didn’t pick a lot. I was busy beating up little Ngobe kids. Not really.
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| Abel outside the Esmeralda mill. |
| Bagging sacks of coffee at the recibidero. |
I met back up with Poldo to pick up all of the coffee from the day at a couple of receiving stations (). Everyone else picked way more than I did. They laughed when we weighed my bag. After that, I helped load all of the bags into an old army truck to be taken to the Palmira beneficio. Some of the bags weighed 165 lbs. These weren’t the only bags the pickers brought. They would drop off a bag then go back down the road to grab the rest. Families picked together and the men would carry the sacks to the recibidero. The women were very good at picking because of their nimble, small fingers. We probably loaded 50 bags (give or take a couple). By the time we got back to Palmira, I was so beat and sunburned I couldn’t work anymore. I was also covered in a layer of coffee juice mixed with mud. I found a whole new “mud” reference to coffee. What a mess. I got cleaned up and had dinner with some neighbors of the Petersons.
Tuesday: I got up early to drive to Volcan, on the other side of Volcan Baru, to visit Finca Hartmann. This journey should have taken 2 hours but took me 3 because I got lost in Panama a lot. I finally made it. I was greeted by Alice Hartmann who spoke English very well. She gave me a tour of their beneficio and explained how everything worked and how they take special care to be good to the forests around them. They were situated on steeper terrain than Esmeralda so it seemed like they used more machines and had less room for drying patios. Panama can get pretty humid so they have to use the large cylindrical ovens instead of depending on patios. Their farm was heavily forested. It was beautiful. Everything was clean and colorful. They had some sun-drying racks out in the yard they were using for experiments for some of their customers.
Times are tough — they could probably make way more money using their land for dairy or beef, but Alice said that they wanted to grow coffee so they get by and make it work. I then drove to Cerro Punta, a very fertile, mountainous area opposite of Boquete on the Volcan Baru. They grew everything there! Strawberries, onions, potatoes, beans, orchids and oranges were just a few of the crops that thrived in this area. After that, I drove back to Boquete to hang out at Kotowa and wander around town.
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| The first pulper at Finca Hartmann. |
| Vertical drying machine at Finca Hartmann. |
| More drying racks at Finca Hartmann. |
I got up early and went down to one of the few coffee houses in Boquete, Café Ruiz. I was having a pretty good cappuccino when I looked into the back door of the warehouse and noticed that they were roasting coffee. I asked if I could have a tour. It was cool. They are one of the top producers in the area and I got to tour the facilities. I also got to meet Senor Plinio Ruiz, 86 years old — between his broken English and my broken Spanish, we had a great conversation. I also met Maria and Plinio Jr, Plinio’s kids. It was great! They sell 10% of their coffee locally and the rest all over the world.
They asked me to cup coffee with them but I had an appointment to cup some more Geisha samples back at Esmeralda with Rachel and Abel. What an honor! I drove back out to Esmeralda where we cupped three Geishas and a Catuai. One of the Geishas needed two or three more months of reposo in the warehouse. It lacked the floral qualities that Geisha usually has but it had nice acidity. It was a little out of balance though. The others were getting pretty close. They were more round, had great acidity and great floral aromas. The Catuai was good but very obviously not Geisha. It was a very balanced cup with chocolate and nutty tones. I had the opportunity to practice cupping with numbers. I haven’t really had very much experience scoring coffees. I decided to stick to descriptors on the flavor wheel, but I looked over and it was all in Spanish so I just slurped and nodded.
| View of Boquete. |
Today Rachel took me up an insane road to Canas Verdes (green canes) in the Isuzu Patrol. This is the highest point on Esmeralda. Back in a remote canyon lays their highest-grown Geisha. We hiked up to where we thought the Geisha was. I tasted a cherry off of a tree and said that it didn’t taste like Geisha cherries. Rachel called Daniel and he said that the Geisha was further down the hill. Poldo had taught me how to taste and tell the difference. Thanks Poldo! We found the Geisha section of Canas Verdes. There was little to no fruit on the trees. It will produce fruit in a year or two. We were at around 1800 meters above sea level. Coffee doesn’t really grow much higher than that, or so I thought. We went to dinner with the rest of the family and they invited me to the SCAP (Specialty Coffee Association of Panama) meeting/cupping the next day. I said “Yes, I would love to come to a meeting/cupping that may influence the entire coffee world with you tomorrow”.
I got up and went with Daniel and Rachel to the SCAP office in Boquete. I was supposed to meet up with Graciano Cruz (ninety-plus developer and producer of Honey Bean, Aurora and Nectar) that day so we decided to meet at the SCAP meeting. He showed up and decided that we should go do fun stuff until the cupping. He showed me so many amazing things that we ended up missing the cupping! First he took me to see his drying beds at Garrido coffee beneficio. They smelled amazing. They were pulped and dried by the sun on bamboo drying racks about 4 feet off the ground. Some of the newer beans were still sticky. I see why they call them “Honeys”.
| I see why they call them honeys. |
We did lunch and headed up to his house to have an after-lunch coffee. His house is right in front of a coffee farm with an amazing view of the mountains. He started adding the water to the press pot and said, “Ed, do you know what this is? It’s Nectar and Aurora mixed, that’s the way to drink it man!” as he laughed maniacally. It was delicious! I was sitting on the porch in front of a field of coffee plants drinking Aurora and Nectar. Unreal!!! After that, Graciano and I drove to Los Lajones and a couple of other farms. He was growing Geisha in completely forested land at 2300 meters above sea level! It looked nothing like a coffee farm. He had planted bamboo between each row of coffee. As the coffee and bamboo grew together, the bamboo could be used as wind protection for the coffee. You couldn’t even tell there was coffee growing there. The views were breathtaking!
We drove down to Dona Berta where we checked sugar levels of beans near the drying racks. This place had broken-down old cement boxes for pickers and their families to live in. Graciano had only owned the farm for a short time and he was redoing the plumbing and paint the week after I left. Graciano’s theory on when to pick a coffee cherry is to let the bean ripen to a deep purple. They have the most sugar and as long as no water is used during the processing, fermentation will not occur and it will produce a sweeter cup. I think he’s onto something. I know I have consumed gallons of Los Lajones Honey Bean.
Many other farms in the area use a lot of water and electricity to dry their coffees but Graciano uses man-powered pulpers, bamboo and the sun. He learned about this method in Africa and is applying it in Panama. He initially started because he wanted the Ngobe Bugle people (the indigenous people of the mountains of Boquete) to be able to grow and process coffee on their reservation without having to use power or water. He found that it worked for some of his farms too. That night we joined Graciano’s kids and their friends for some singing and hanging out before heading back to the house to sleep. This was another of the most incredible days of my trip.
Saturday: I woke up before Graciano, and made another pot of Geisha and sat on the porch with Gabriel, Graciano’s youngest son. I can’t even write the words to describe the incredible sense of appreciation I had for the setting I was in. We were just waking up to another sunny day on the porch in a coffee field, drinking Geisha. Later, we met up with Jose David Garrido of Garrido Coffee and Ninety Plus. Graciano had things to do so Jose David and I drove all over the place. He showed me many different farms including Mama Cata.
Jose David told me the story of the naturally processed Geisha: based on a dream, he decided to take an inventory of everything in his beneficio, including garbage. A day or two after that, Graciano Cruz and Joseph Brodsky (Ninety Plus and Novo Coffee Roasters) showed up and asked Jose David if he had any Geisha that was still in the cherry. He did and he knew it. They roasted and cupped it. It blew their minds. Jose David had more to show me but my stay in Boquete was over. I had to leave for David to fly back to Panama City and back to New York the next day.
| The author in the sunny glow of the Los Lajones farm. |
This trip was one of the most amazing times of my life. I thought I would learn mostly about the growing methods and science of coffee farming when I was there, but I feel like I learned a lot more about the people behind the coffee. I wanted to thank each and every cosechero (picker) for carrying those 150 lb bags of cherries up the mountains every day. I wanted to thank that driver who picks up all of the cherries 3 times a day to take them to the mill. I wanted to thank all of the mill workers and office workers. I wanted to thank of all the farmers and producers for taking such great care to make sure every detail is covered and that they make the best cup possible.
Thank you Susan, Rachel, Daniel, Price, Poldo, Abel, Graciano and Jose David. I’ll be back to visit soon.
Ed Kaufmann grew up in a small ski town in Montana called Red Lodge, where he spent the days drinking bottomless cups coffee at his parents' restaurant, Bogart's. After stints in Missoula, MT and Portland, OR, Ed landed in New York City where he is a manager at Cafe Grumpy's Chelsea location, working as a coffee menu developer, trainer and barista. The proprietor of sprodeo.com, Ed is also a bass player with plans to begin roasting coffee with Cafe Grumpy this summer.