On a recent backpacking journey through Panama, I discovered a charming little coffee town filled with gardens and year round spring like weather called Boquete. I decided to splurge above my self imposed budget of $35 a day to take a coffee tour. The tour is run by Café Ruiz, a local coffee dynasty with a long history in these parts. The day long tour is well worth the splurge and the highlight is, of course, the taste testing at the end.
Rumor has it, according to our guide, that the owner of a famous coffee chain that has a name similar to a
Battlestar Galactica character came to taste the coffee before he bought a large amount for the famous chain. He liked what he tasted but
then he asked.
"Before I buy this coffee, I would like to know how much you pay your Indian workers."
"Of course," Sr. Ruiz said. "But before I answer this question and before I sell you my coffee, I would like to
know how much it costs for a double grande mocha half caf latte in New York City."
Neither answered the question and both signed the contract.
Before this tour I was quite happy with the blend I had first tasted in high school. It was
instant Nescafe, with three cubes of sugar and heaping spoons of Coffemate – makes your cup of coffee taste great. But what I learned on this
tour came dangerously close to changing my regular cup of joy forever.
We were taken to huge pools of water – floatation tanks for the coffee beans. Those that float are
skimmed from the top and sold to instant coffee makers. Why? They float because worms have penetrated the bean and the holes
create the porousness that makes them float. I, who thought I knew what I was putting in my mouth, was horrified that I had been quite happy
to drink worm penetrated coffee. Could I ever go back?
Boquete is also home to the world’s best coffee, no kidding. I learned a few things from the
coffee tasting part of the tour. For instance, the bitterness of a coffee does not mean it is strong nor has high caffeine content.
It just means it was roasted longer. Armed with more information I was ready to try the world’s best – Boquete’s own, Esmeralda
Especial Gesha coffee. I would say it had some
hints of bergamot, plum, pear and marmalade, with a light but full citrus body. Ok, I stole that from the Web.
But what would happen if I became spoiled and could no longer be happy with my double grande mocha half caf. latte in New York City,
let alone instant coffee and Coffemate.
My next coffee tour got me back on track
After well beaten Boquete, I found myself in a small travelled area of the highlands – at
a little spot in the mountains called The Lost and Found. A couple of Canadians run a small eco-lodge for birders, hikers and backpackers.
Their place, believe it or not, is an old coffee finca nestled around lemon and orange trees. Perhaps they are too busy hiking to waterfalls
and day tripping to the Pacific to realize they are sitting on a potential gold mine, especially with the rising value of coffee. The Lost and
Found is one of the few places I have seen that really contributes to the local economy. Boquete’s fincas are run by coffee barons and foreigners,
and the coffee is sold on the foreign market. The Lost and Found offers an organic coffee and wine tasting tour with a local named Cune.
I ventured out to Cune’s farm on a guided horseback tour where he proudly displayed his organic growing techniques.
Cune has never met the owner of a big coffee chain, has never had a double grande mocha half caf latte and didn’t know what one was.
After the tour, he came with us back to The Lost and Found to bring some of his coffee to sell to the guests. He brought with him
tomatoes, carrots and some of the organic wine he makes as well.
That night we cooked up a feast. All of the ingredients were local. With the chicken we made a
delicious Panamanian chicken soup called San Cocho. The meat was a little tough – the chickens were free range. The
wine – a little like soft moonshine. The coffee was good, at least I liked it and
what the heck, I put Coffee-mate in it.
Cune did not stop asking me what I thought of his wine. "I like it," I told him. "I love it, in fact." He beamed. The soup, the wine, the coffee – it was true – I loved it because I could see the work this man
put into it. And I saw where the food came from that I was putting into my body.
The coffee had no hints of bergamot and plum and pear that I could detect. It was the pride that made it taste so good.