Coffee has long formed an essential part of my morning routine (extremely essential on certain days) and over the years, I’ve graduated from a simple caffeine-dependent to an actual coffee fan.
Joe and I like buying beans to grind fresh at home, ready for the whole deliciously drawn-out process of preparing coffee in a cafetière; something warm and mellow for the mornings, a little stronger and more robust for that post-lunch pick-me-up.
So when we got to Panama, the first of several coffee-producing countries on our Central American agenda, we were determined to go to the source of this beloved beverage, and visit a plantation.
Panama is, in fact, just a drop in the coffee ocean when it comes to international production: only around 0.1% of the global total, according to 2013 figures. But, thanks to some excellent harvests in recent years – most particularly of the hallowed Geisha bean, one of the most expensive coffees in the world – today the country is more firmly on the coffee connoisseur’s map.
The heartland of Panamanian production is Boquete: a mountain town on the Caldera River in the mountainous Chiriquí Province, where the cool, fresh climate has been helping locals grow great coffee since the early 20th Century.
We booked in for a tour at Finca dos Jefes, a farm owned by Californian expats Richard and Dee Lipner.
Some will inevitably feel that visiting a farm owned by US-nationals isn’t an ‘authentic’ Panamanian experience – but I’m telling you, this is the place to go if you want the truth about the current state of the coffee industry here. These guys don’t sugar-coat it; they tell you how hard life is for coffee farmers, and how little they’re paid for their beans by the big international conglomerates who buy up the produce of all the small farms in the local collective, who can’t afford to strike out and sell on their own.
Richard was guiding our small group on the day Joe and I visited, and was eloquent on the subject of how hard it is right now for local farmers. He is trying to help and fight for fairer prices and better standards in the area, but it’s not easy changing an industry that’s been going for generations.
As we walked around the small farm, through white-blossomed coffee bushes interspersed with orange trees and palms, Richard told us his story.
The Lipners bought the land in 2003, after it had been abandoned as a working farm because of unmanageably low coffee prices. They originally planned to just build a home to retire there, but once they saw all the coffee they couldn’t bear it to go to waste. And so began their education and evolution into coffee farmers.
It was a long road, and required a great deal of help and advice from other more experienced growers, but today the finca is stocked with a successful mix of carefully rotated Caturra, Catuai, Criollo and Gesha trees, which are harvested in the traditional way – by hand and according to the lunar calendar.
Once picked, the coffee beans or ‘cherries’ are laid out to dry, and left to rest for three months before they’re peeled ready for roasting.
After our walk around the farm, we headed back to the main building to sit on the veranda and try out a couple of different roasts from the finca, whose brand is called Cafes de la Luna.
Once we’d decided on the flavours we liked, it was time to roast some coffee for the group to take away. I actually got the chance to help Richard out with this process, which was enormous fun and deliciously scented – although slightly nerve-wracking. No one wants to be responsible for burning several pounds of precious coffee beans.
Richard told me afterwards: “Honey, you’re a great little roaster.” Which is definitely one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
Tours of Finca dos Jefes cost $30 per person, with kids under 12 for free. Find out more at www.boquetecoffeetour.com.