Whilst in Boquete, Panama, we had the opportunity to visit the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation. It lies about 1400 meters high on the slopes of the Baru, the highest volcano in Panama.
There we learnt about the whole process of growing coffee, harvesting, roasting and brewing it into a great cup that wonderful aromatic drink.
A couple of interesting facts: Coffee is a plant of the cherry family (did you know that? I didnt!)
It originally comes from Africa but is now grown in many tropical regions around the world. Brazil is one of the biggest producers. Peru, Kenya, Ethiopia are other major suppliers. The higher you grow coffee the harder the seeds/ beans are because they grow more slowly and coffee afficionados say this makes for better taste.
Basically there are two species of coffee plant: Robusta and Arabica. Both need a lot of rain to thrive.
Robusta is easier to grow than Arabica and can be raised best between sea level and 800 meters high. It tolerates harsher conditions and temperatures between 24 and 30 degrees C. It has smaller cherries and is higher in caffeine and more bitter tasting than Arabica
A cup of Arabica contains around 85 mg of caffeine compared to tea with 30 mg or hot chocolate with 4 mg. It grows in bushes in the higher regions, at lower temperatures than Robusta, it’s harder to grow and smoother tasting.
At Finca Dos Jefes they grow seven varieties of Arabica coffee organically and in sync with the lunar cycle, hence the name Cafes de la Luna.
With the exception of some areas of Brazil where big fields and mechanised harvesting exist, coffee is mostly grown on hilly areas and has to be handpicked. They certainly are doing this at this plantation.
A typical coffee tree produces 2-4 kg of cherries and a good picker can maybe collect 45-90 kilos a day (which will yield 9-18 kilos of coffee beans), either by strip picking, ie taking all the cherries of a coffee branch in one go, or picking selectively, ie only taking the ripe cherries, which obviously takes a lot longer and is primarily done for the finer Arabica coffees.
The harvested coffee is then dried. Traditionally this is done by spreading the whole cherries – after sorting and washing them – out in the sun and letting them dry naturally on bamboo tables, turning every so often. This takes about 4 weeks.
The dried cherries are then stored for 3 months before they are hulled, i.e. the outer layers are removed, and the inner green coffee beans appear, ready to be sorted and graded. Finca dos Jefes prides itself in this traditional method as it preserves the best flavour of the coffee cherries.
The flavour of the coffee is hugely influenced by the roasting process. The temperature and length of the roasting determine the colour of the coffee and the intensity of the aroma. Usually roasting drums (like big barrels lying on their side) are used with a heat source underneath. After roasting the beans are left to cool to room temperature.
Here they roast almost every day and it’s the combination between one of their seven varieties of Arabica and the roast (light: 203-207 degrees, medium: 214-218 degrees, or dark: 227-230 degrees) that produces the distinct flavour of each of the finished coffee products.
Eventually the coffee is ground, how finely depends on the intended use of the coffee: Espresso machine, filter, instant, they all have different grain sizes.
Coffee is big business: An estimated 25 million farmers in the world live from coffee alone, mostly in developing nations. Brazil is the top coffee exporting nation, mainly of Robusta.
Europeans drink about 5 to 10 kg of coffee per person per year. The top coffee drinking nation is Finland with 12 kg coffee per head! Americans aged 25 to 35 spend about 2000 USD a year per person on coffee.
Whilst coffee is expensive at home, the people producing it get only a very small fraction of the money we pay for it. It’s therefore very important to buy fair trade coffee where a larger share goes directly to the farmers.
Of course different countries/cultures and people have different ways of preparing coffee: Cafetiere method, Espresso machines, non-filtered Scandinavian style, Filter, Turkish coffee, spiced coffee, instant coffee . . . . . . . . . .
So is it good to drink coffee?
Research on the internet says the health benefits of coffee are that it’s high in antioxidants, contains minerals, can boost physical performance and brain function and can help your metabolism to fight excess weight. It is supposedly helps to prevent Alzheimers, Parkinsons, Diabetes and Depression. Coffee drinkers statistically live longer. All of these are based on 2-4 cups of coffee a day, ideally grown organically and brewed as filter coffee.
There are disadvantages to drinking coffee, too. It can be toxic (it’s all the chemicals that are added during growing or processing that are bad for you), too much caffeine (20 litres of coffee for example) will actually kill you and of course coffee can cause insomnia and aggravate anxiety, the maximum recommended a day is those 4 cups.
So overall it sounds like it’s actually good for me to have some coffee, as long as it’s not too much, organic and not mixed with too much sugar.
At the plantation we got to taste their Cafes de la Luna and it was absolutely wonderful. I’m definitely going to be a more discerning coffee drinker from now on.