Tour of a Panamanian Coffee Plantation

We started at the Café Ruíz Coffee Shop. Miraculously, like the coffee tour I got at La Selva Negra almost two months ago, I was the only one to show up.

The guide, a polyglot named Carlos, told me that the day before there were 12 people on the excursion. I didn’t consider myself lucky, but I did deem myself to be on the proper side of a lopsided coincidence.

Because Carlos always gives his presentation in English, it seemed that he preferred to do it in Spanish. Upon asking what I preferred, I just said:

Que sea.” (Whatever)

He spoke slowly and articulated well. He stopped at times to translate words like aftertaste:regusto’, bitter:amargo’ and coffee beans:granos’. For the latter, it would be easy for a non-native Spanish speaker such as myself to mistake granos for the word ‘frijoles’ as this word refers to the fiber-rich beans that people eat every day in Central America.  Granos is very easy to remember as it’s similar to ‘grains’.

Throughout the three-hour-plus stint, Carlos provided me with endless information. Although it was a lot to process in either language, even with my pen and notebook in hand, I realized that I need to develop better shorthand skills, and a keener ability to comprehend Spanish. The last mentioned, I realized already, but not the former.

The fact that Carlos spoke Spanish was great training for me. Another pro to the Spanish is that now, processing an English presentation will seem much easier.

I found Carlos to be extremely ‘niche-knowledgeable’. Around town, the word is that he knows as much as anybody about all things having to do with coffee. Although I can’t recall everything that he said, I’m still sure that I can provide you with some  solid enlightenment regarding Java .

The Most Grueling Job

Picking the beans by hand is the most important part of the process. Indigenous people perform this grueling task. Carlos worked as a picker for four hours a day from the age of 10 to 14. This certainly helped to develop this specialized knowledge.

He explained that the reason these tours are given is to show people the work that goes into the coffee that they drink. Most people consume the hell out of coffee, while remaining oblivious to the incredible amount of toil that goes into it.

The picking is the toughest part. The picker must walk up and down steep, hot, volcanic slopes, while being aware of various insects, spiders and venomous snakes. As the hours go on, the laborer must lug a bag which is constantly increasing in size and weight. At the end of the day the bag weighs 100 pounds or more. These guys work from 7am until 5pm six days a week.

Floating is the next stage in the process. This is where beans are divided by size, density and weight.

The next step is squeezing, followed by pre-sorting, fermentation, washing, pre-drying and drying. All of this takes around six months to a year. Like wine, the longer coffee is aged, the higher quality it is.

Ex-Pats Buying up Coffee Plantations for Breathtaking Views

Mr. Ruíz, the owner, will not sell any of his 19 plantations. However, there are many farm owners who enjoy the financial benefits of selling. Foreigners currently pay $350,000 per hectare (2.47 acres) to those interested in parting with their finca. There’s only a one time 10 percent tax to pay.

The foreigners in turn construct golf courses and dwellings.  Carlos informed me that Americans tend to build gated communities while Europeans build castles.

Carlos told me a story about a man who invested millions in building a golf course, only to have it erode away late last year due to flooding-induced land slides. Is there a Landslide Karma God? Unfortunately there isn’t as these earthfalls destroyed crops throughout Central America; thus pummeling the poorest of the poor throughout the region.

There are pros and cons to everything. The ex-pats bring a ton of money into Boquete. However, building on coffee plantations produces horrendous ecological concerns locally and abroad.

Carlos told me that Panama currently produces approximately one percent of the world’s coffee. However, this number is dwindling due to more and more plantations being bought up for the sake of breathtaking views.

Señor Ruíz

Casa Ruíz is the producer and Café Ruíz is the brand name. Señor Ruíz, the owner, is 89 years old and still working. Apparently he drinks a lot of Joe. It’s this copious consumption that keeps him strong. During the tour I had the random privilege to shake his hand and say:

Mucho gusto!” (Nice to meet you).

He smiled, nodded and reciprocated. Café Ruiz has 11 farms. They sit between 1,200 and 1,700 meters (3,937 to 5,577 feet) above sea level.

The farms contain 90 different types of plants. This biodiversity aids in the integrity of the growing process. There are tall trees for birds that eat insects.  Various fruit trees sit beside shade plants. Insects will eat fruit before they eat coffee.

Having a biodiversity as opposed to only coffee plants provides an eco friendly balance and in turn, better quality beans.

Some More Things That I Was Fortunate to Learn

● Boquete, Panama has some of the best coffee on earth. This is evident by the many awards that coffee of the region has won over the years. Two main reasons for this great coffee is that it rains every day, and the plants are grown on volcanic soil which is more fertile than regular earth.

● There are two types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans require higher altitudes, are more susceptible to disease and yield an acidy cup of coffee. Robusta beans require lower altitudes, are less susceptible to disease and yield a bitter cup of coffee. The word robust in coffee terms means bitter as opposed to strong. Thus, coffee companies have been deceiving us by using the word robust to describe their coffee.  I thought: Surprise, surprise.

●  Brazil produces more coffee than any other land.  However, everything they produce is the less qualitative Robusta.

● All the coffee from Boquete is of the Arabica variety.  Arabica plants need lots of water and require high altitudes.  Arabica also requires deeply rooted shade plants.

● Unlike many coffee producing lands, the common Panamanian people drink the eminent coffee of Panama. In Nicaragua , outside of Ometepe and Matagalpa, the locals drink instant coffee.  Most of them don’t know that premium coffee exists, or, if they do, they can’t afford the tourist prices.

● Boquete boasts the most expensive per pound coffee on earth, Arabica Guessha, pronounced Geisha. It has nothing to do with Japanese culture. This plant originated in Ethiopia. Sold green or not roasted, it goes for $179 a pound. Roasted or brown it goes for $450 a pound. They offer cups for $9 at the Café Ruiz coffee shop.  

● When the bean is red, it’s ripe. If it’s green, it’s not ready yet.

● Coffee is a fruit.

● Every piece of fruit contains two beans.

● The people of Boquete have a nickname for Nescafe.  ‘No es café’ translates to: It’s not coffee. I personally am not a fan of instant coffee either.

● Coffee referred to as European blend has brown beans. French blend has dark beans and Latin blend has a color in between the European and the French. Contrary to popular belief, the European or brown bean has more caffeine than the French or dark roast.  This is because the dark beans are roasted longer.

● Espresso beans are roasted the longest, thus having less flavor and less caffeine. This is why it takes double the normal amount of coffee to make a flavorful cup of espresso.

● One cup of coffee generally requires 48 beans.

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There are many companies that offer coffee tours of Boquete. It  typically costs $30.

There are morning and afternoon tours that last three hours.

The morning tours starting at 8:30 and 9:00 are preferable as the air is cooler at this time.  Early afternoons can be hot and muggy in Boquete.

At the end of the tour I was given three types of coffee to sample: The European blend causes the front of the mouth to experience the most intense flavor. The Latin roast has a longer regusto or aftertaste. The Italian or Espresso blend has a smoky aftertaste.

Included in the $30, I was given a Ruíz Café storage bag, a generous sized bag of brown European coffee beans, a small bag of peanuts (like what the airlines sometimes give out), a trial package of ‘Maria’ cookies and a postcard showing eight exotic birds of Panama.

The tour was great. Carlos’ impeccable reviews are well justified. He’s very pleasant and is a walking coffee encyclopedia.

The only gripe I have is the amount of coffee that I consumed. The tour started at the Café Ruíz. A cup to begin would have been great. Then another cup to go for the ride would have been ideal, and yet another during the tour would have been even more ideal.  🙂 What can I say. I love coffee.

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