From Coffee Bean to Coffee Mug in Boquete
I did not expect to enjoy Boquete, a largely indigenous community in the mountains of Panama that has been rated one of the best places to retire by AARP. The town itself goes to sleep by 10:30 p.m.! Far from retirement age, however, the lush green mountains and the flowers that bloomed in the town's perpetual spring weather still enchanted me. In fact, Boquete is so beautiful that it commands a certain level of reverence- you simply have to stop and take it all in.
Life slowed down during my week in Boquete. I’d walk around the small town, stopping along the way at small artisanal shops, marvel at the variety of flowers, or stare absently at the sky, daydreaming. I ate lunch at El Sabroson for no more than $3 a meal, only to then splurge on mouth-watering desert at Sugar & Spice bakery, and often went to happy hour after class at Mike's Global Grill to unwind completely. More slow-paced than Bocas del Toro, Boquete provided so many gardens to simply sit and reflect with just the sound of the Río Caldera and birds chirping to accompany your thoughts. I strolled around the fairgrounds on my first day, a quick walk across the bridge from town.
Another day, I visited Mi Jardín es tu Jardín and sprawled out in the grass to do my homework before my afternoon Spanish class at Habla Ya's Boquete campus (I am now at the forth level of Spanish!).
Upon reflection, there were two aspects of Boquete that were the most memorable for me. The first was the Lost Waterfalls Tour that I described in my last blog post. It was both physically challenging and rewarding.
The second most memorable aspect of Boquete was the Coffee Farm Tour with Expora Ya Eco Tours. Each time I visit a farm, I gain a newfound appreciation for how our goods and products make it onto the shelves of our grocery stores. Even though I'm not a coffee drinker, it was undeniable that the sweet smell of coffee lingered in the air in the mountains of Boquete. Panama's coffee- specifically the kind grown in Boquete- is considered some of the best in the world. The mountainside is dotted with coffee farms, large and small. On my tour, I visited Sr. Tito’s small and quirky 5 hectare farm called Finca La Milagrosa. This farm produces 100% organic specialty coffee, including the famous Geisha coffee- a brand of specialty coffee prized for its delicate tea-like smooth taste and hefty price-tag ($9+ for a small cup). If I were to compare it to shoes, Geisha are the Louboutins of coffee (it's not for everybody, even if you can afford the price tag).
On the tour, our guide walked us through the entire coffee making process. Far from the dark beans that end up being grounded into your mug, coffee actually begins as "coffee berries" that nurture the seeds we know as coffee beans within them. The process for going from coffee bean to coffee mug is laborious. Once ripe, the beans are picked by hand individually for harvesting. A good picker averages approximately 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker's daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid based on how much they've picked that day. Thus, on smaller farms, entire indigenous families often share the burden and pick the beans together in order to make a couple dollars.
On Finca La Milagrosa, the beans are sun-dried using the age-old method to maintain the organic standard. Depending on the weather, this process can take for several weeks for each batch of coffee before the beans are processed.
We ventured inside the makeshift factory to see the production process; i.e, where the magic happens. From an old washing machine to an old car engines, Sr. Tito had outfitted a variety of machines into the tools he needed to process the coffee bean, and compete with larger farms on the international market. Finallly, the beans were roasted in order for us to be able to try a cup of the coffee that we had learned so much about.
This entire process- from coffee bean to coffee cup- is what distinguishes a cup of coffee from Panama from Starbucks or Nescafe (or Notcafe) as our tour guide referred to it. The roasting process is the final factor in making your cup of coffee memorable:
- Having been brewed for a shorter period of time, light roast coffee maintains a higher level of acidity (and some say caffeine as well) and a more delicate taste.
- Medium roast maintains a balance between body and acidity that maintains the original coffee flavor.
- Dark roast loses the original quality of the coffee, leaving you with the taste of the roast itself.
I was impressed by the complexity of the coffee-making process. Now, knowing how much labor went into a single cup of coffee, however, there was still one question that lingered in my mind, "Do the Panamanians enjoy the coffee grown here or is it mostly exported," I asked our tour guide. Are they able to enjoy the fruit of their labor? "Of course we do. There are no Starbucks here in Boquete. I wouldn't drink anything other than Panamanian coffee, " he assured me.
Read my first blog post about Boquete here.