The First Cup: Robusta Coffee
Boca de Cuiria, Coclé, Panamá
The first cup of coffee wakes you up; the second cup is for inspiration. The third is usually a mistake. This is one of the many rules that I learned the hard way during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Boca de Cuiria, a small community in rural Coclé, Panamá. Those two years were spent planting and pruning coffee trees, building bridges (both literally and figuratively), and repeatedly asking myself "What am I supposed to do now?" Confronting that question was the most challenging part of Peace Corps service. When faced with that overwhelming sense of directionlessness and existential dread, there was only one solution: get out of the house, take a walk around the community, and try to speed up the passage of time.
I had hit a wall. None of my projects were going well, and I was deep into the second-year slump. So i got off my hammock and headed out into the community to pasear. The literal translation of "pasear" is to walk around or stroll, but it really is a lost art and a fundamental part of Panamanian culture. This is how people live when they aren't secluded in tiny apartments in high-rise buildings, when people actually know their neighbors. Just walk around to people's houses, say hello, wait for the conversation to come to its natural conclusion, then let out a deep sigh and say: "Bueno.... ya me voy. // Well... I guess I'll be going now." Sometimes people will offer you food, or chicheme (which is like food, except that it isn't). More often than not, you'll be treated to a warm cup of coffee with an enormous amount of sugar.
In the lower altitudes of Panamá, they primarily grow robusta coffee for domestic consumption. When compared to its cousin arabica coffee, robusta is remarkably strong, bitter, and highly caffeinated. The coffee farmers in my community sold the sun-dried coffee cherries to a middle-man for one of the main coffee processing plants, who then processed it and packaged it in little 100 g plastic bags to sell it back to the producers. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of coffee farmers worldwide never actually taste the finished product. Almost all coffee farmers are losing money in this business.
On this particular day, I had pretty much run out of food in my house. I had to hike in all of my food from the regional capital of Penonomé, and it would only last about 3 weeks before I had to resupply. Locally, the only food that I could buy was rice and cookies. I was struggling hard. So I did the only thing that I could do; I got up, put on my muddy, off-brand Crocs, and headed out into the community, hoping that someone would help me out with some food.
"¡Buena, buena!" I shouted as I squeezed through the barbed-wire fence at Marcelino's house, snagging my shirt in the process. Marcelino was a leader in the community and one of my primary work partners. We had developed a very close friendship and he was somebody that I routinely asked for advice.
"¡Hola, hola!" came the reply from the front porch. Marcelino, his wife Maria, and their three younger children were seated in the shade of the porch, watching the coffee cherries drying in the sun. A chicken anxiously ensured quality control, pecking through the cherries and checking for bugs. The smell of coffee brewing filled the air.
"¿Quieres un cafecito? // Would you like a cup of coffee?" Marcelino asked me.
"Bueno, si hay // Sure, if you've got it," I replied, gesturing to the coffee laid out in front of us.
As a man, I was rarely invited into the kitchen. The culture of rural Panamá is based on clearly defined gender roles: the women do the cooking and the cleaning, and the men do the farming, the physical labor... and the drinking. So, when Marcelino's wife emerged from the kitchen with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee, I can't say for certain whether it was coffee from their farm or from a little plastic package. All I can say for certain is that on this particular day, they kept refilling my cup as we waited for the rain.
Three cups of coffee later, my legs started twitching. The caffeine began to take control of my body, creeping into my brain as it rushed through me. Feeling shaky, anxious, over-caffeinated, and in desperate need of a latrine, I excused myself and headed back home for a restless nap, just sort of shaking in my bed trying to outlast the effects of the coffee. It was in that moment that I learned the "two cups of coffee" rule. Very rarely should you drink a third.
The Second Cup: Arabica Coffee
Boquete, Chiriquí, Panamá
As with all rules, the "two cups of coffee" rule was made to be broken. When I arrived in the highlands of Boquete, the mecca of Panamanian coffee, I threw away the rulebook. Was it a mistake to schedule two coffee tastings for the same day? Perhaps. Has my sleep cycle been out of sync ever since? Yes. Do I regret it? Absolutely not.
For me and Vicmar, the perfect day in Boquete starts at The Perfect Pair, a little café dedicated to the magic of chocolate and coffee. The Cuatro Caminos Coffee Estate, which owns Perfect Pair, has 13 farms scattered throughout the hills and valleys of Boquete, ranging from 1300 to 1800 meters in altitude. These conditions are perfect for the cultivation of arabica coffee. Think of the difference between robusta and arabica as the difference between red and white wine. Arabica is characterized by playful notes of grapefruit, citrus, and vanilla in comparison to the darker tones of robusta: dark chocolate, caramel, black cherry. In comparison to robusta coffee, arabica is more delicate and aromatic, with a lower caffeine content. Botanically, arabica coffee is grown on short bushes, shrubbier than the trees that produce robusta. It is also more difficult to grow, and less resistant to pests and disease. Arabica is a notoriously finicky plant. The world famous Gesha coffee (named after the Ethiopian mountain where it was first grown) can only grow between 1700 and 1950 meters above sea level on an eastern facing slope. This is one of the reasons that Gesha is the most expensive coffee in the world, recently setting a record at $2500 per pound. However, the infamous Gesha is not the only varietal of arabica coffee grown here, and on this day Vicmar and I tried two different varietals: Pacamara, and Catuai (both washed and natural.)
The coffee grinder whirred into action, filling the café with the sound and aroma of coffee being made.
"Smells good," Vicmar said, inhaling deeply as the barista held out a cup of the freshly-ground coffee.
"Mostly I just smell the inside of my mask," I muffled.
"Did you try this one before?" Vicmar asked.
"I don’t remember. Last time I did it, I got the coffee flight with the Gesha. But, I don’t remember which coffees the other two were. I definitely want to try something different."
The barista, having set up all of her equipment, began to meticulously brew the coffee. As the water spiraled down the V60 filter, the coffee grounds began to bloom, growing and bubbling. "This first coffee is the washed Catuai. Now Catuai tends to be a little bit more chocolatey, with distinctive aromas and a heavier body. The second cup is the Pacamara- a very different coffee. It's much more delicate, softer. Closer to a Gesha coffee, but still you'll be able to note the difference in the taste and the aroma."
I finished the last of the coffee flight and checked my watch. My brain began to tingle from the caffeine. One tasting down, one to go.
Next stop, Finca Dos Jefes, whose specialty coffee, Cafés de la Luna, is grown in accordance with the phases of the moon. This ancient agricultural technique is built on the theory that, due to the influence of the moon, the earth ebbs and flows like the tides. While it's difficult to prove the tangible benefits of lunar agriculture, one concrete example comes from the bamboo used to build Dos Jefes drying beds. For two reasons, bamboo is only cut during the waning cycle of the moon: the first is that, because of the way that the sap moves through the plant, the bamboo is actually stronger during this period. The second reason, and arguably more important from an agricultural perspective, is that the insects leave the bamboo during that phase.
Richard Lipner, the owner of the farm, is a wealth of information about the economics of coffee. "I generally start the tour off with an overview of the coffee industry- and that’s the part where I complain so much." The coffee industry, he said, is an industry in need of major correction.
"Coffee workers are the lowest paid major work force in any place in the world... Panamá and Costa Rica have the highest salary standards for a coffee worker. We have a minimum wage here of $14 per day here, but even so you can’t live on $14 per day and have any kind of quality of life, try to bring up a family, try to, you know, put food on the table. It's not going to happen."
In Boquete, this inequality is felt most acutely by the indigenous Ngäbe people, who work many of the coffee farms in the area, but live in poverty even as Boquete becomes wealthier. Rich Lipner has dedicated himself to the principles of fair trade, treating his employees with respect and paying them above-market wages. He has partnered with Ngäbere coffee farmers, supplying equipment and more than tripling their profits by connecting them to Rösterei Vier in Dusseldorf, Germany, a direct-trade roaster that prides itself on its ethical position in the marketplace. Finca Dos Jefes has also focused on giving back to the indigenous community, supporting the construction of a school dormitory and the implementation and funding of school food program in the community of Hato Chamí in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé.
However, Rich states: "When you leave Panamá and Costa Rica and go to the rest of the coffee-producing world, the salaries drop dramatically. In Guatemala it’s $4 a day for a coffee worker. I spent a month in Rwanda and it’s $0.95 per day for a coffee worker. And this is part of my anger with Starbucks… You know you can go into a coffee shop anywhere in the world and order a $6 cup of Rwandan coffee and the guy who is producing it is making less than a dollar a day. It's just not right."
Behind all of the numbers and statistics, there is something deeply human about coffee. Coffee is meant to be shared; and, whenever anything is shared among friends, there is a certain ritual aspect that goes along with it. I can tell that Richard is fascinated by good coffee, but I can also tell that it's not why he is in this business. He fell in love with coffee the same way that I did.
"My story is this," Rich began, "and it actually leads into the story of coffee. My wife and I came here 20 years ago to visit Panamanian friends… In those days, Boquete was a sleepy agricultural community, and it was the friendliest place I had ever been. People would start talking to me, they wanted to practice their English with me, and ultimately, they'd invite me into their homes for coffee. I’ve never had that happen before, it was just amazing. We were really struck by it."
Coffee culture in Panamá is about generosity and abundance. Whether you're in Boquete or Boca de Cuiria, people share in the ritual of a hot cup of coffee. Every cup can be special- and it doesn't have to be a $1000 cup of Gesha. All that matters is who you choose to share it with, even if it's just you and the barista.