Sunday, January 10, 2010


January 8

The internet has been down for two days, so I apologize for not getting this up in a more timely fashion.  One learns to go with the flow.

Today was the day of the coffee tour with my host. How could I have been so lucky, to find a host who also owns a finca (farm)? This one is named Finca Dos Jefes (Two Bosses Farm). Every farm has a name, which is not necessarily the same name as the coffee product from it.

We set off early in the morning, and spent about two hours talking about the process from beginning to end. He uses the “Natural” method, whereas the large growers use the less labor-intensive “Wet” method to process the beans from the cherries.

Here are some highlights of the process. If you want to know more of the details, come to Panama and stay with my hosts. They will be glad to give you a tour too.

The Trees

There are several varieties of coffee grown around Boquete. The essential ingredients are a rich soil, high altitude, shade and constant care. There can be large differences in flavor among coffees grown in different places and with different methods. Finca Dos Jefes uses organic methods and farms sustainably. They analyze the soil every year and replace the nutrients used.

Coffee trees, like all other trees, have a definite lifetime.  They require approximately three years to begin producing fruit, and continue to produce until they are approximately ten years old. Then they need to be replaced with new trees. So proper planning on the finca should account for the future replacement of the current trees.

Shade is provided by taller trees planted with the coffee, if the land is in an open position. Many of the fincas I have seen here are fortunate to be under natural shade cover.

The coffee cherry, as it is called, is ripe when it turns red. Not all the fruit ripens at the same time, so it has to be handpicked. This is true of all the coffee in the world. The harvest season has just started here and will continue throughout the dry season. The Nagöbe Buglé families come down from the mountains to do the picking.

The fruit tastes surprisingly sweet:

Each cherry has two seeds (beans):

The Process

In the Natural Method, the cherries are laid out over permeable plastic mats and sorted by hand to remove the inferior fruit.  By the way, this is the husband/father of the Nagöbe Buglé family that lives on the finca.  He is a gentle man:

Then they are wrapped in the plastic, protected by an impervious plastic film on top which is held down by rocks and large bamboo logs, and dried until they are about 14% water:

As you can see, this is a “crude” process by American standards. But it is elegant when you consider the beauty and simplicity of it.

The dried cherries are agitated to separate the fruit from the beans, and the skins are put back into the soil. The beans are dried further to separate their silvery skin and further inspected by hand. Now the green beans are ready for roasting.  By the way, the beans in this picture include some inferior ones for purposes of illustration.  The dark ones and round ones (formed by incompete separation of the two seeds during growth) would be rejects:

We went back to the headquarters of the Finca to hear more of the story of coffee.

The Grading

There are international coffee competitions where roasted coffee is scored by certified "cuppers".  In the cupping, ground beans are placed in a small round bowl, then covered with boiling water.  The finer grounds form a crust on the top.  After a few minutes, the cupper breaks the crust, moves it to one side, takes a spoonful of the hot coffee and slurps it down, much like a winetaster.

Coffee is scored in a complex system that contains several major categories, such as acidity, fruitiness, etc.  Acidity is not necessarily a bad thing - it is what gives the cup a "crispness" or "clarity".  Over-acidity is undesirable, however.

So the cuppers record and add up their scores.  The composite score is the grade of the coffee.  Most coffees score in the range of 60-80 on a 100-point scale.  The better coffees are 80-90.  The best coffees are 90-95.

Last year, the famous gesha coffee from the Hacienda La Esmeralda scored a 100 for the first time in history.  This coffee is from a small portion of its finca and represents only 3% of its crop.  It is famous for its mild, citrus flavor, more like tea than coffee.  The crop that scored 100 sold for over $300 a pound wholesale, again a world record.  You can learn more about this unique coffee and how it is produced at

Back to Dos Jefes

Here is the view from two directions of the porch:

An old mortar and pestle for separating the green beans from their skins sits next to the door, and is still in use from time to time.  It's difficult to see in the picture that it is waist high:

Everything was just perfect, inside and outside. I was not expecting it to be so nice. There is even a wireless internet network!

The rest of this story is how I personally roasted a batch of the soon to be world famous Café de la Luna coffee.

Betty La Tostadora

Here is the roaster, definitely a commercial version. We pre-heated it to 340 degrees F:

It is gas-fired with all sorts of buttons, switches, chutes  and levers.

First you weigh out a precise amount of beans for roasting. Today we are roasting four pounds. The beans will lose some weight in the roasting, so we hope to get about three pounds in the end:

Then you put the beans into the hopper of the roaster:

Next you turn off the heat to let the beans absorb some of the existing heat. This will bring the temperature of the roasting chamber down, in this case to 232 degrees. Once the temperature has stabilized, you turn the heat back on:

 and test the beans every minute or so for doneness:

Are They Done Yet?

Ahh, almost done!

When the beans are ready, you quickly empty them into the rotator:

 Then you stir the beans for a few minutes to begin the cooling process:

Next you empty them into a pan to be cooled and rested overnight:

Here is a shot of the beans from different stages of roasting, from left to right. The finished beans have a layer of oil on the surface, which makes them look somewhat shiny:

The roasted beans will need to air for a day or two to bring out more oil. Then they will be packaged into Café de la Luna’s beautiful foil bags and will be ready to enjoy:

I’ve been drinking Café de al Luna coffee every day at the casita. But not the coffee I roasted. This is destined to take back home for me, my son and his girlfriend, one pound each. What a wonderful souvenir!

I also purchased some of all the merchandise for sale: T-shirts, polo shirts, coffee mugs and baseball hats. They are top quality, like everything else at the Finca.

The end result of my tour: I am now the official photographer of Finca Dos Jefes, in exchange for the coffee I roasted.

What a lovely way to do business.


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