Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coffee....From Field to Cup

High on the lush, steep hillsides of Boquete, Panamá sits the family owned and run coffee farm Cafe Ruiz.  Established in 1920, Cafe Ruiz has won awards for producing the Best Coffee in the World.  Although Panamá produces less coffee than any other countries, it is considered by "coffee snobs" to produce some of the finest tasting brew.  With it's rich volcanic soil, heavy rainfall and cool mountain air, Boquete is a prime location to grow coffee.

On a recent road trip to Boquete with friends, Clyde and I had the pleasure of visiting Cafe Ruiz.  Being a tea-toatler my whole life, I was not overly thrilled about touring a coffee farm. But after spending over 3 hours with our guide Carlos, I was truly fascinated by the whole process and even enjoyed the tasting at the end. 

Our tour begin in the field with Carlos as he picked a handful of red cherry-like fruits from a small tree.  Coffee is actually a fruit and in each red coffee fruit are two beans.  Carlos squeezed the fruit and the two yellowish beans appeared.  He popped one into his mouth as he explained that they taste sweet when sucked on, but can't be chewed, just sucked and spit out.  He passed some fruits around so we could all have the experience of sucking on the sweet beans. 

Our Guide Carlos, also from the
Ngobe-Bugle tribe

The red fruits are hand picked

The coffee plants are planted alongside
all sorts of fruit tree, it helps to
keep the bugs off the coffee trees!

Coffee Trees

The first step to coffee making is hand picking the fruits.  Since this happens to be harvesting season, we were lucky enough to see pickers in action.  Most of the coffee pickers at Cafe Ruiz are indigenous people from the Ngobe-Bugle tribes.  Children as young as age 10 are allowed to work in the fields during school vacations along-side their parents.  Pickers are paid by the amount that they pick, and a good picker in Panamá can make $20.00 a day.  Considering that minimum wage in Boquete is only $1.50 an hour, that's a pretty good days wages for the locals.  Cafe Ruiz also provides housing for the workers during the harvest and even has a small store on the farm where they can shop. Carlos began as a picker many years ago and admits that it's very hard work.  They work from 7am to 5pm, in hot sun and rain, deal with snakes and other critters, and carry heavy baskets of coffee beans on their backs.

Some of the women coffee pickers

Spreading the Beans
to dry in the sun

Next the fruits are placed into water and the bad fruit who's insides have been eaten out by bugs float to the top.   The good fruits sink and after the water has been removed, they go into the squeezing machine.  This is the first step in removing the outer red shell of the fruit.  After the beans are squeezed out of the fruits, they must ferment for 24 hours. Fermentation is necessary in order to remove the sugar from the beans.  Next the beans must be washed for 30 minutes, then pre-dryed for 3 hours which dries only the outside of each bean.  The full drying process comes next which takes 40 hours or about 6-7 days in the sun, and  removes 88% of the water.  Then the beans are aged and peeled again since there are 3 layers of shells on each one.  At this stage the beans are sorted by shape, size, color and density before going into the roasters.  After being roasted the beans go through the grinding process then get packaged and sent to their final destinations.

Worker shoveling the dried beans

Must dress like DORKS before being
allowed in Roasting / Packing area

Some of the original coffee roasters

Coffee Roaster in use today

Boquete has more expats that any other part of Panamá who enjoy the mountain vistas and cool spring-like temperatures.  As more expats move into Boquete, the demand for housing increases as does the price of land.  According to Carlos our guide, one hectare of land in Boquete sells for $350,000.  Because coffee farmers cannot make that much money from one hectare of coffee farming in a lifetime, they are selling out to developers.  As time goes by the coffee farms in Panamá are disappearing, as more and more gated communities of expats take over Boquete.  Mr. Ruiz, the owner of this family institution has vowed to never sell his coffee farm.  At the age of 91, Mr. Ruiz lives in a small house on the farm and still oversees the operation on a daily basis. 

This is the simple home of the owner, Mr. Ruiz

This is some of the housing for the pickers

This little girl was at the "general store"
She is one of the children of the pickers
from the Ngobe-Bugle tribe

Our tour of the coffee farm was amazing and the highlight of our trip to Boquete.  Perhaps I've never liked coffee because I've never tried really good coffee.  One of the lessons we learned at Cafe Ruiz is to never buy coffee already ground.  Some suppliers grind up sticks, pulp and other fillers into their ground coffee.  At the end of our tour was a coffee tasting and then we were each sent home with a one pound bag of Cafe Ruiz.  So tomorrow we'll grind up some beans (48 for each cup) and perhaps I'll become a "coffee snob" here along the gringo trail.

End of tour with Carlos

Can you believe she is drinking coffee?


  1. Great blog! Makes me wonder how the coffee drink ever came to be invented at all! Course, that's in the category of wh had the courage to eat the first lobster!


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