Ever had something that you resolve to do every day, and then every day you go to bed realizing that you let it slide again? Right now, the name of my procrastination is “blogging”, I'm not quite sure why, but what I do know that I really like having the record from my first year of 52 to look back and reflect on, and I’m bound and determined to get back on track and record this one in the same way. I’ve got two new things to write about since last I posted, one from the trip to Panama and one from last weekend. So here we go, with the first of the two: visit a finca and learn about coffee.
|Finca dos Jefes is a small farm that produces organic coffee (usually), much of which is going to Eastern European specialty coffee shops right now|
On this one I should start with a confession: I’m not actually a coffee drinker, so this is actually a new thing in more ways than one. Not that I’ve never drunk coffee – when I was a grad student it helped fuel some late-night writing spells and I like a super-sweet milk-saturated iced coffee in the summer just fine. But in the last few decades, I have rarely if ever had a full cup of basic brewed coffee, and going out of my way to taste and discern differences? That is new stuff for this palate for sure. At least we went to the right place. Unbeknownst to me, the non-coffee drinker, the Boquete region of Panama, where we spent the bulk of our trip is home to Gesha coffee, a "designer" strain that earned a perfect 100 at a "cupping" competition, thereby unleashing a frenzied re-discovery of Gesha coffee. Some places realized that they already had Gesha growing, others immediately planted some. In actuality, as we learned on our finca tour, coffee is actually like wine, and its flavor is very dependent on the conditions in which it is grown -- soil types, rainfall, temperatures, all that good stuff. But for an uninformed public, one Geisha is as good as another, and in Boquete they are happily growing Gesha to scratch the new itch that coffee connoisseurs have now developed.
|Jon and I took our cupping lesson very seriously, but alas, neither of us will ever be world-class (or even good) cuppers.|
So what is there to know about growing, processing and roasting coffee? A good bit, actually, and we got our lesson at Finca dos Jefes (Two-Boss Coffee Farm), chosen by Jon and I because they had been advertised as the only organic finca offering tours in the area. Sadly, we quickly learned that Finca dos Jefes has had to temporarily give up its organic designation because of an infestation of rust that has decimated the coffee crop of the area. In an effort to control the rust the finca has resorted to spraying with some non-organic compounds in the hopes that once the infestation has been controlled it can go back to its organic methods and in a few years regain its status. In the meantime, they struggle on, producing coffee and conducting tours like the one we did.
Obviously, the first thing to see is what coffee actually looks like on the bush. I had seen coffee growing once before, at the home of the parents of my Tanzanian friend African, in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. There, the bushes could barely be called that, and were interspersed among other plants so that at first I had difficulty even picking them out. Here, however, they were planted in rows, although again they had been deliberately inter planted with other bushes and trees, including fruit trees. We visited in early January, which is part of the harvesting season, so we were able to see the coffee on the bush, being picked by local members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe, which constitutes most of the picking labor force in the area. Finca dos Jefes pays above the national coffee picking minimum wage, works with the same group of pickers every year, and generally appeared to ensure reasonable work conditions -- though we heard stories of worse wages and conditions prevailing at some other area farms.
The coffee berries actually have a thin, sweet skin and pulp that must either be dried and pounded off (as Finca dos Jefes does) or soaked and worked off under water. We learned that the former method is more expensive and takes longer, but the latter, which is usually employed, results in highly alkaline water being dumped in the nearby rivers and harming the plants and animals that rely on this water.
|And there they are: coffee berries in all their glory.|
|The pulpy outside of the bean is surprisingly sweet.|
|Gary, the finca manager conducted our tour. Here he's showing Jon the coffee on the drying tables.|
|Jon checking out the big mortar and pestle used to take the skins off instead of soaking the beans.|
The dried, skinned beans are bagged and stored until it's time for roasting, which Finca dos Jefes does in small batches at high (400+ degrees F) temperatures. The roasted coffee can then be ground up and drunk -- either by "regular" consumers like us, or by "cuppers" who evaluate the taste, much like wine, detecting all kinds of flavors and undertones ranging from the pleasant (caramel) to the strange (tobacco anyone?) to the just plain yucky (mildew). We tried our hands at cupping and learned that we should definitely not give up our day jobs when we guessed wrong even on the level of roast of the beans. Still, for two individuals who are not big coffee drinkers it was great fun to learn new things about this commodity. It's always good to learn about the things we consume, both to appreciate them better, and to become more discerning consumers who choose our products based on how ethically and sustainably they were produced. Given that coffee is grown in dozens of countries around the world (though -- fun factoid -- Brazil is heads and shoulders the biggest producer), there are lots of opportunities when travelling internationally to visit a finca. I'd recommend it for sure.