What I Learned From a Coffee Finca in Panama

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.

Highlands Boquete on the way to coffee finca - Charlie on Travel
The view of Boquete on the drive up the mountain to Milagrosa Coffee Finca

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.

Coffee One red coffee beans coffee finca Boquete Panama - Charlie on Travel
Coffee berries growing in clusters along a branch.

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.

Coloured coffee growing coffee finca Boquete Panama - Charlie on Travel
Some of the coffee beans are ripe and ready for the picking.

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 roasts of coffee coffee finca Boquete Panama - Charlie on Travel
Three roasts of coffee bean: light, medium and dark.

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. 

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

13 thoughts to “What I Learned From a Coffee Finca in Panama”

  1. I love the way that some of your post are an education all in themselves and with that personal touch of yours, just makes such an interesting read. When feeling tired, I drink coffee and will now have a greater appreciation of the work that turns that little bean into such an amazing drink, but I will never tire of reading your blog!

    1. Different strokes for different folks. True about what you say on the energy drinks. The additives and other things that they put into those can be really quite awful. If there’s one thing to say in favour of coffee, at least it’s only hot water added!

  2. The ever vexed question of how much coffee we drink! Most of the studies on this are observational and poorly controlled for confounding factors such as smoking. The longditudinal studies were not necessarily set up to observe the effect of coffee. How coffee is brewed makes a difference. I have seen reported (no reference available) that because of the lower temperature of the water in an espresso machine at very high pressure there are fewer ‘contaminants’ in the final brew unlike filter or ‘pour over’.
    There is probably no harm in taking four or five coffees daily though a weekly limit of 28 seems quite a common recommendation.
    The real issue is caffeine and how an individual responds to that. Some soft drinks contain huge amounts of caffeine and I have seen more than one patient with severe jitters due to excessive ‘coke’ intake.
    One review found that about 400mg of caffeine per day—5 standard espressos—is a safe dose for most adults (though it would probably take nearly 75 cups over a few hours to truly overdose).
    If coffee makes you feel more alert and better able to do the job that’s great. If you get anxious and nervous and issues with sleeping your intake is too high.
    My advice is, drink the amount of coffee you want up to 4 in a day, only if you can tolerate it. I wouldn’t drink more than 30 in a week. The best brew is espresso adding hot (not boiling) water for an Americano is fine of course. Make sure the beans are fresh and freshly ground. (You can store beans in the freezer). Pour over in a cafetiere is second best.
    The long term benefits and problems aren’t clearly known and are possible insubstantial as one gets older. Caffeine intake is associated with reduced alzheimer’s and reduced prostate cancer and as Charlie indicates possible increased risk of breast cancer. This last one seems unlikely. The evidence is very weak and given that coffee is a large source of antioxidants, coffee is likely to reduce that risk as well.
    All these so called health risks have not had confounding factors, such as life style, geography, diet, income etc allowed for.
    Here’s toasting you all with a coffee!
    Retired medic and coffee addict.

  3. I’m a huge coffee lover and addict too, I used to drink way too much of it especially when I was at university but I cut it down to one, maximum two cups per day. I didn’t know about the risk of drinking the last bit of the coffee, I normally don’t do it, but I’ll pay extra attention to it. I’d love to visit a place like this too and perhaps volunteer there one day, get my hands dirty to fully understand the art of this fantastic drink that I love so much!
    Franca recently posted…Feeling Like A Foreigner At Home – The Downside Of TravelMy Profile

    1. Oh yes, I drank waaay too many cups of coffee when I was at uni. I drank more coffee than alcohol for sure. It was total news to me and I never usually drink the last sip because I think it’s always too cold but Luke often got on at me about it being silly to waste the last bit. Now I have a reason! :p I’m not sure how much truth there is in it and couldn’t find anything to back it up online though. I’d actually quite like to do some coffee picking, but it looks like super back breaking work too.

  4. Interesting. I’m also a coffee lover who doesn’t know much about it. Frankly, I’m a little skeptical about all the ‘this could cause cancer’ links people try to convince you are true. Give me a valid scientific study – THEN I might cut down on coffee :)
    Polly recently posted…Walking Chistiye PrudyMy Profile

    1. I’m also skeptical about the cancer related things which people tell you about nearly everything, I don’t think you can live your life (or lower your coffee intake) based on that. Agreed, I definitely need some real research before I believe anything like that.

  5. Did I ever tell you about the paper I reviewed that was about how coffee had been linked to inhibiting depression in women? It was about Science in the media, and it was basically a load of bull. This just reminded me haha. The tour sounds delicious.

  6. Stunning photos! I was recently in Puerto Rico, and I had no idea they had a gorgeous little ‘coffee country.’ Panama has been on my bucket list, and this post bumped it up a few slots! Thanks for sharing! :)

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