Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Tale of Two Coffee Tours - Boquete VS. The Backpacker Hostel

Whether we would like to admit it or not there was a time in our lives when we stuck everything interesting we could find in our mouths. At one time or another we have tasted everything our bodies could produce. And now we have grown out of that right? Now we know what we put in our bodies.


On a recent backpacking journey through Panama I discovered a charming little coffee town filled with gardens and year round spring like weather called Boquete. I decided to splurge above my self imposed budget of $35 a day to take a coffee tour. The tour is run by Café Ruiz, a local coffee dynasty with a long history in these parts. The day long tour is well worth the splurge and the highlight is, of course, the taste testing at the end.

Rumor has it, according to our guide, that the owner of a famous coffee chain that has a name similar to a Battlestar Galactica character came to taste the coffee before he bought a large amount for the famous chain. He liked what he tasted but then he asked,
‘Before I buy this coffee, I would like to know how much you pay your Indian workers.’
‘Of course,’ Sr. Ruiz said. ‘But before I answer this question and before I sell you my coffee, I would like to know how much it costs for a double grande mocha half caf. Latte in New York City.’

Neither answered the question and both signed the contract.

Before this tour I was quite happy with the blend I had first encountered in high school. It was instant Nescafe, with three cubes of sugar and heaping spoons of Coffemate…. Makes your cup of coffee taste great. But what I learned on this tour came dangerously close to changing my regular cup of joe forever.

We were taken to huge pools of water… floatation tanks for the coffee beans. Those that float are skimmed from the top and sold to instant coffee makers. Why? They float because worms have penetrated the bean and the holes created the porousness that makes them float. I, who thought I knew what I was putting in my mouth, was horrified that I had been quite happy to drink worm penetrated coffee. Could I ever go back?

Boquete is also home to world’s best coffee… no kidding. I learned a few things from the coffee tasting part of the tour. For instance the bitterness of a coffee does not mean it is strong nor has high caffeine content. It just means it was roasted longer. So armed with more information I was ready to try the world’s best – Boquete’s own, Esmeralda Especial Gesha coffee. I would say it had some hints of bergamot, plum, pear and marmalade, with a light but full citrus body. O.K. so maybe I stole that from the Web. But what would happen if I became spoiled and could no longer be happy with my double grande mocha half caf. latte in New York City let alone instant coffee and Coffemate.

My next coffee tour got me back on track.

After the well beaten track of Boquete I found myself in a little travelled area of the highlands -- at a little spot in the mountains called The Lost and Found. A couple of Canadians run a small eco-lodge for birders, hikers and backpackers. Their place, believe it or not, is an old coffee finca nestled around lemon and orange trees. Perhaps they are too busy hiking to waterfalls and day tripping to the Pacific to realize they are sitting on a potential gold mine… especially with the rising value of coffee. The Lost and Found is one of the few places I have seen really contributing to the local economy. Boquete’s fincas are run by coffee barons and foreigners and the coffee is sold on the foreign market. The Lost and Found offers an organic coffee and wine tasting tour with a local named Cune.

I ventured out to Cune’s farm on a guided horseback tour where he proudly displayed his organic growing techniques. Cune has never met the owner of a big coffee chain, has never had a double grande mocha half caf. Latte and didn’t know what one was. After the tour, Cune came with us back to The Lost and Found to bring some of his coffee to sell to the guests. He brought with him some tomatoes, carrots and some of the organic wine he makes as well.
That night we cooked up feast… all of the ingredients were local. With the chicken we made a delicious Panamanian chicken soup called San Cocho. The meat was a little tough – the chickens were free range chickens. The wine… well a little like soft moonshine. The coffee was good. You know… I don’t know if it was good or bad but I liked it and what the hell, I put Coffemate in it and I like it.

Cune did not stop asking me what I thought of his wine. ‘I like it,’ I told him. ‘I love it in fact.’ He beamed. The soup, the wine, the coffee… it was true… I loved it because I could see the work this man put into it. And I saw with my own eyes where the food came from that I was putting into my body.

The coffee had no hints of bergamot and plum and pear that I could detect.
It was the pride that made it taste so good.