In January, I flew down to Panama with my son. We flew into Panama City and pretty much immediately headed out to see the Panama Canal. We went to Miraflores Locks and watched a cruise ship pass through the canal and then a ginormous freighter ship. It was all very fascinating, but other than that, Panama City wasn’t my kind of vacation destination.
The next day we began our long journey to Boquete. I’ll spare you the details of the journey itself, but suffice it to say, it was one long bus trip without healthy vegan food options along the way.
I was treated to a nice surprise upon arriving in Boquete. There was Mexican food, Falafels and even an Organics food shop! Whoo-hoo! You might think this was the highlight, but it wasn’t.
The next morning we went on a tour of ‘Cafe de Panama Finca La Milagrosa’ – the miracle coffee plantation. Raul picked us up in his dilapidated Jeep Cherokee and up the mountain we crawled. High up into the cloud forest, we finally turned into the coffee plantation.
Walking around the fields, we tasted many different coffee berries. The coffee berries are red when they are ripe and some have 1 peapod, some have 2 beans and others have 3. The ones shaped like a peapod hold their caffeine strength through the entire process, better than the other varieties. This particular plantation also grew the famous Geisha coffee, which sells for $100 per pound and $9 for a 12 oz cup at the local Coffee Shop!
After picking the ripe coffee berries, the beans must be separated from outer sweet berry. In the early days, this was done entire by hand by Tito, the owner of this plantation. If you taste the juice at this phase, there is a huge difference between the Geisha berries and the others. The Geisha berries are incredibly sweet!
The beans will then ferment for up to 30 hours. Any longer and you’ll have coffee wine. This is being done in some parts of Panama, but I’m not sure how successful they have been. After fermentation, the beans flow through a similar structure to the Panama Canal, locks and all. As the beans flow through, the higher density beans will sink to the bottom, then some will flow to the next lock and again, the higher density beans will stay put. There is a series of 4 locks, the ones that make it all the way to the 4th, will leave the process and become part of the organic compost that is put back out into the fields. The remaining beans have now been separated into 3 qualities of bean – premium, medium and average.
Finally, the beans are laid out to dry. Once they are dried, the outer shell is removed – again either by hand using a mocahete or a machine. In Brazil, the outer shell is sent off to be used as paper, but at this plantation, it is sent to the organic compost pile.
Now it’s time for the beans to rest. They are exhausted by that they have been through, so they get placed in burlap (or other breathable bags) and sent to dry for another 3 to 4 months.
For many plantations, this is the end of the road for the beans. From here they are often sold to other plants that will take care of the remaining process of roasting the beans, grinding the beans and bagging the beans. But here, once the beans have rested, they move right on to the roasting process.
If you take a small portion of beans and place it into a roaster and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes, you will have a lightly roasted coffee bean. Now, the amount of caffeine in that bean varies based on the type of bean (peapod or not) and the length of time it’s roasted. The less time roasting, means more caffeine. To make a medium roast, it only takes 2-3 additional minutes, then for dark roast another 3 minutes.
A lot of people think that the darker the roast of coffee, the greater concentration of caffeine, but it is just the opposite. When we were done roasting our beans, we took them to the grinder and finished up the process. This plantation also does its’ own silk screening of the bags, so they handle everything from start to finish. And at the end of our coffee plantation tour, we were given a small cup of coffee that was freshly roasted, ground and served by Tito! If you’re in Panama, I would highly recommend this tour. You can find out about it at Mamallena at the front desk.