Ever since I first set foot in Central America, I’ve wanted to go to a coffee finca. In Costa Rica, we never found the right time and in Nicaragua, we were never in the right place.
In Panama, we found ourselves in Boquete, a small town in the green mountain highlands famed for growing the finest coffee in the world. As well as industrial growers, there are many small, independent coffee growers in Boquete and it’s not uncommon to see locals and expats growing coffee in their own back gardens. My travels are powered by coffee and I can never start writing without a black coffee, so it was time to find out exactly how it gets from bean to cup.
Coffee beans grow in clusters
Despite loving the drink, I’d never actually seen a coffee plant growing before. The coffee finca we toured had eight different types of coffee, including Geisha coffee which is the most expensive in the world (except for the coffee from civet cat poo). Geisha coffee is sold mainly to the Japanese who love it because of its tea-like taste. Each coffee tree was slightly different, with distinct properties and personalities. The little coffee ‘berries’ grow in clusters along the branches. Inside the berries the bean is wrapped in lots of sticky layers, which are pretty tough to pull off.
When the berries turn red, they’re ready to harvest
The coffee berries will change colour from green to red when they’re ripe. While larger scale coffee growers use industrial machines to pick the berries, many of the independent coffee fincas in Boquete employ the local Indigenous people to pick them by hand. The average wage for coffee picking is $3.50 per bucket and a good coffee picker can fill between six to eight buckets in a day. This must be done by twisting the berry. If the branch is striped down then not only are the unripe berries picked but this can also damage the tree and inhibit growth. The coffee berries are thrown into baskets before being laid out to dry.
The beans look a lot like peanuts
When I first saw the bucket full of coffee beans, I thought they could easily be mistaken for peanuts. I posted the photo on Facebook to see if anyone else could guess what they were and was glad that I wasn’t the only one who would’ve mistook them for peanuts! The beans are then laid in the sun to dry out, a process very similar to that of the cacao beans. During this time they needed to be shifted around to ensure that they dry evenly. After the beans have been dried out and hulled, they’re sorted by size, weight and colour before roasting.
How to get light, medium and dark roast coffee
I’m not sure that you can beat the smell of freshly roasted coffee! The beans are roasted at a constant temperature in a cylindrical machine that rolls continuously over a gas flame. During the roasting time, the little machine started chugging out delicious coffee aromas, while a young Panamanian boy periodically checked the beans with a nifty spoon melted onto the end of a screwdriver.
Roasting the beans takes eight minutes for a light roast, 40 seconds more for a medium, and another 40 seconds for a dark. Precision is paramount to having perfectly roasted beans and just a few seconds too long can result in burnt beans.
Three things I didn’t know about coffee…
As an avid coffee drinker who consumes three cups on a good day, I was not happy to find out that I should be limiting myself to only two cups per day. You can, of course, become addicted and even ‘overdose’ on coffee if you’re not careful, so it should be drank in moderation.
My mum and Luke are always saying I have a mouth must be fire-proof because I love my food and my coffee so hot that it practically burns the roof of your mouth. Luke often catches me microwaving coffee brewed only five minutes before to maximum heat. But apparently you should never reheat coffee as this can cause stomach problems.
The third thing I learned is for the ladies. Enjoy your coffee by all means, but don’t drink the very last sip of coffee which has all the grounds at the bottom of the mug. This last sip, according to our guide, has been linked to breast cancer. I don’t know how true this is, though admittedly I’ve read other articles claiming there may be a link between caffeine and breast cancer.
Will I cut down to two cups per day? I’m trying really hard, though not that hard, but certainly I’ve stopped reheating my coffee from Rancilio Silvia and I never drank the last sip anyway. It’s really nice to know though, when drinking my coffee, just how it got to that freshly brewed stage and how long those little green berries were worked at before they got there.
Do you love coffee as much as me? Have you ever visited a coffee farm, would you like to?
Not too keen on seeing factory style production, we opted to visit an independent coffee farm. We booked our tour of Finca La Milagrosa with Explora Ya Eco-Tours. Our tour was in no way sponsored by either establishment. The total cost including transport to the finca was $28 per person.