Panama Coffee Farm Visits, Boquete and Volcan Paso Ancho

A trip to visit coffee producers we source from in Panama (Back in March 2009)

It’s another brief cupping trip, or a string of them and it begins in Panama. In all it turned out to be quite a productive and educational trip despite hopping around to 3 countries in just 7 days. But it made me think about a few things, which are worth noting.

I started in Panama. The only option of a “direct” flight from SFO is Taca airlines, and I mean, they try, but they never quite get it right. I finally arrived from my red-eye flight, fighting with the local Air Panama to “please, please don’t leave my checked bag in Costa Rica;” it contained the spare parts our producers had requested (mostly for French presses so they can brew coffee for farmer tastings) and also GrainPro bags. These are the special plastic bags that we ask exporters to use as a liner inside the jute bags. We have had good results from them last year and are using them more extensively this year.

The main goal of the Panama leg of the trip was to cup coffee with Carlos Franceschi Aguilar at Carmen Estate, and to view the damage from the storms these past months. Rains and winds combined to wash out the bridge to the farm, splitter trees, and strip some coffee trees bare! I was also going to meet up with Daniel Peterson to cup some experimental Gesha separations at Hacienda Esmeralda.

Carmen Estate has been badly hurt by the infrastructure damage. He can only cross the river to his farm on foot or ATV, the coffee truck bringing the harvest down to the mill must take a 20 km detour on winding, pitted dirt roads. The crop is small as well. It seems to be the same story everywhere I have been, the wrong weather at the wrong time: dry when they need rain, rain when the flower is on the tree, knocking off the blossoms, high winds, etc. Luckily, the quality from Carmen was not affected. The samples we cupped were really nice, classic, bright Carmen coffee. We are making further selections to our 1800+ meter separation, and might have some interesting experimental lots as well.

We headed out to the farm before cupping, and with imminent rain, Carlos dug out a slicker for me and we headed over to the ATV. Carlos would drive, and I was to ride on the back; I am incompetent steering an 4 wheel ATV, as I found out in El Salvador a couple years ago. Since I have motorcycles, I am so conditioned in “lean-to-steer” so the ATV concept where you really turn the handle bars, just does not compute. I nearly went straight into a ditch then, leaning way out to the side, unable to figure why I wasn’t turning. I’ll try again, but not today. We crossed the footpath that still exists to the farm, and did the usual route to the highest section where our coffee comes from. I have been to this farm 3 or 4 times so I feel like I know it well, and can see it change and grow. Carlos showed me all the sundry places he has planted Gesha cultivar. Carlos is an optimist, and a bit Gesha-crazed. (Sorry Carlos, but it is true).

He has tucked Gesha into every nook of the farm to see where it might grow. Some of the shaded lower locations look good, but up in the cold and foggy altitiudes where Caturra succeeds (if suffering from low production and small fruit sizes), the Gesha looks so pitiful. The winds batter the coffee shrubs more up there, and the Gesha just can’t take it. Anyway, Carlos is like me, a hopeful experimenter, and I really like the fact he will try these things while staying true to the core of what his coffee is all about; extremely high-grown caturra coffee. He has also made great improvements in the coffee mill since my last visit, which is great to see. We pay a premium price for this coffee, and when you see a producer investing that back into their farm, it is gratifying.

The positive side of low production and increased local demand (always for the lowest quality arabica coffee) is record high prices for producers. I am not sure that is a blessing, since it can permit lower quality standards. I mean if farmers could indiscriminately “strip pick” ripe and unripe coffee alike, they might discover a better economic formula than in selective picking and careful processing (which involves better pickers, and a lot more time). This is the reason that the price difference between mediocre and quality coffee must be dramatic.

Talking about low production led Carlos to share a fact that startled me: the big local roasters Duran and Sitton is actually importing robusta coffee from Vietnam to make up for the shortfall from local producers. By importing Robusta from Vietnam for sale in Panama, local roasting operations looking for the cheapest coffee possible, support the very mechanism that has devalued arabica prices in Central America that led to the coffee crisis. The endless search for the most efficient production of undifferentiated commodities; I was shocked to see this happening in a producing country. By law, they are only allowed to import the amount they need that they cannot buy locally, but in the past no coffee-producing government would allow any importation under any circumstances; now they are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot.

Perhaps the difference is these companies are NOT shooting themselves in the foot. They are shooting their coffee farmers neighbors in the foot. Another interesting detail is they must import not green robusta, but half-roasted robusta. This is coffee roasted only to the point that it loses weight, but does not expand in volume. Hence it is lighter, yet not larger (the cruel logic of efficiency in commodity markets, indifferent to quality). Supposedly it also relieves concern of transferring diseases in green coffee, but I think it’s all about the bucks.

After a night at the mill, we headed over to the Hartmann’s Santa Clara estate for a cupping of Carmen and Hartmann experimental coffees. I love the Hartmann family; they are real coffee farmers, with 5 brothers and their father all living on the farm, running their birding and “coffee eco cabin” enterprise, but relying entirely on coffee for their livelihood. Sadly, they were badly affected by the storm winds. Yet there seemed to be a strong flowering on their trees, and they were optimistic about the volume of production for the next harvest.

On the way to Hartmann’s farm from Paso Ancho area near the town of Volcan, I stopped to smell the beautiful coffee flowering at the lower altitude farms along the road, and take a few pictures. The smell of coffee in full bloom is always such a treat that lasts only a few days. The Carmen coffees cupped beautifully and consistently except for a couple of the lower lots that were from the first harvest. They were still quite good, but a little dull in the acidity. The new lots were not rested, but showed great potential.

The Hartmann round consisted of myriad experimental processes: full natural coffees, pulped naturals, demucilaged with just a little fruit left on the parchment (yellow honey), and fully washed types. I was impressed with the sweetness and power of one of the natural lots, and we should have that in a couple months, after it is properly rested and is transported to Oakland. They call these Bellota here; Bellotas is a word for nuts, since naturals are dried to a hard round form and dusty brown color. In Nicaragua they are called Pelotas, which means balls.

Often Bellota coffee is of poor quality with unripe green cherries and what have you, but that’s not the case here. These lots were prepared in the middle of the harvest from all-ripe coffee fruit.

Now it was hand-off time, and I was the baton. We headed back to muggy, and sweaty, flat David, and then up into the mountains on the Boquete road. We were headed to the Peterson’s farmhouse, Hacienda Esmeralda, which is across the road from their coffee warehouse and cupping lab. I checked out their vacuum bag experiments (parchment coffee in vac packs?) and the Gesha and non-Gesha lots in the warehouse.

All of the harvest was basically done – only the final pickings remained to be done, what they call the rebusca, or repela in other countries, where they clean the tree of all cherry, ripe or not. This resets the tree to produce the next crop of flowers and helps suppress coffee berry borers (since they feed on the cherries). We did a cupping of an interesting separation experiment. It involved Gesha cultivar (Geisha as they write it) but am not at liberty to say exactly what it is … I think.

Afterward we zipped over to the new (well, new to me) SCAP office where all the SCAPPERS were pounding espresso in search of a winning blend for the Panama champion to compete in the World Barista Championship at the SCAA in Atlanta. We cupped some experiments in Gesha pulp natural, but basically I have been on a low caffeine intake lately, and this day was entirely too much for me. Even if you expectorate espresso, so much coats your mouth that you know you are getting loads of caffeine absorbed through the mucous membrane of your palate. That’s how it felt, and it was time to hit the hotel and retire myself to a beer and a book and some food to absorb all this caffeine!

That’s about it for Panama. No snazzy ending, just a ride down to David, which, it cannot be overstated, is flat, dull, sweaty, sticky, muggy, dusty and now full of malls and superstores (something like a Sam’s Club or Costco). While Boquete is quite scenic, the influx of retirees and runaways from the US, as well as Colombians and Venezuelans has changed the character quite a bit. It isn’t so different on it’s face since I first visited 8 years before, but the gated communities and subdivisions are tucked into niches away from the main street. And in a way, David’s new superstores and American-style shops and eateries (TGIFridays!) are a symptom of the colonization of Boquete by outside money. Every suburb with aesthetic codes has to have its tacky sister city where cheap shopping can be had. You won’t see a Chili’s or Burger King in Boquete, but I suspect that one or both will be there in David in due time.

It's a Pitty
It’s a Pitty – Panama
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