Yesterday, Jonathan and I took a tour of Café Ruiz here in Boquete, Panama. Café Ruiz is one of the largest Boquete based coffee companies in Panama. They are also one of the best coffee producers around (based on my taste testing of 7 different Boquete coffees).
We showed up for our scheduled 9am tour right on time. It turned out that we were the only ones on the tour that morning. (Café Ruiz has two tour times: 9am and 1pm. You need to sign up for them at least one day in advance.) That meant that we got a private tour! (The private tour was really great, but we’re pretty sure that they charged us more since it was just the two of us.)
Our guide, Carlos, took us to one of the coffee fincas where Café Ruiz grows coffee. On this finca (farm), there is also one of their 3 processing plants. The first bit of our tour was Carlos educating us on coffee production, as well as a bit of history on Café Ruiz.
One great thing about Café Ruiz’s practices is that all their coffee is shade-grown. They do this because the coffee grows better that way, any bugs are drawn to the fruits in the shade trees, and it provides a wind / elements buffer to both the workers and the coffee plants themselves.
Then it was off for a tour of the farm. Carlos showed us what ripe coffee berries looked like, and the proper way to pick them. He also told us about the coffee pickers. Here in Boquete, many coffee pickers are indigenous people. They go around and pick the ripe (red) berries off the trees, leaving the green ones to ripen and be picked later. They put these in a bucket (roughly 2.5 gallons). As the bucket gets filled, they dump the berries into a burlap bag that they carry with them. The bag holds ten buckets, and when it’s full it weighs between 95-120 pounds. The picker then carries the full bag (from wherever they are in the farm) to the truck.
Have you seen our pictures of some of the coffee farms? Just to give you an idea – the coffee is grown on the side of mountains or volcanoes. That means that it’s steep! I cannot imagine carrying 120 pounds on my back all the way down a mountain.
They work from 7am until 5pm. Anyone can work, but there are laws for children working. They can work from age 10 on, but they have to be on holiday from school, and must work alongside their parents until they are 14. After 14, they still have to be on holiday from school, but can be off in the farm picking coffee by themselves. Carlos, our guide, began working as a coffee picker at age 10. Coffee pickers are paid approximately $8-$20 USD a day.
It takes a coffee plant 6 years to produce a crop from the time it’s planted. However, the best coffee comes from the oldest coffee trees. Coffee trees can live to be over 200 years old – they’re like sea turtles that way.
After the berries are picked, they are taken to a giant water tank and given a bath. Here the beans are separated out – the good from the bad. The berries that float are the bad berries, while those that sink are the better quality beans. (FYI – floating beans can float for a variety of reasons: they were picked too soon, bugs began eating the bean, fungus, etc. And, they can still be sold. Most of the cheap coffee that can be purchased is made mostly from these “floaters”. Folgers anyone?)
Then it’s time for the big squeeze. The beans are squeezed out of their shell. There are two coffee beans per red berry. The berry casings are taken and mixed with ash (from the fires I’ll mention later) and turned into compost for the coffee trees.
After the squish, the beans are fermented for no more than 24 hours. The fermentation process breaks down the sugars and the outermost coating on the bean. If they are fermented too long, the beans go bad and will taste like vinegar.
Then it’s on to another bath where the beans are washed to get all the fermentation juices off of them. Next – pre-drying. The beans need to be pre-dried. If the outside isn’t pre-dried, then the inside will never dry.
You guessed it, next comes drying. We toured the plant during the wet season. During this time of year the beans are dried in big rolling barrels that have hot heat pumped into them. During the dry season, they just lay the beans out in the sun to dry (it usually takes about 3 days). The barrels each have a small furnace attached to them to create the hot air that dries the beans. These furnaces burn wood (mostly taken from trees that have already fallen down in some way – a mudslide for example) and the parchment and silverskin of the coffee bean itself (more on this later.) Obviously, this burning creates some ash. This ash is what is mixed with the berries and turned into fertilizer with the help of some chickens.
Once the beans are dried, they are loaded up into burlap sacks again to age properly. Just like wine, coffee beans get better with age. They are aged for about 6-9 months.
Once they are aged, the beans are then hulled again. There are still two outer skins that need to be removed from the coffee bean – the parchment (which looks just like it sounds), and the silverskin. The parchment comes of pretty easily, while the silverskin is a bit more difficult to remove. Once these casings have been removed, they get bagged up again, and will later get fed to the fire to dry the beans.
From the last peeling, it’s time for the beans to be sorted. They are sorted by: size, density, shape, and color. There are machines that can sort the beans according to size and density. However shape and color sorting is all done by hand.
Why do beans need to be sorted? I’m glad you asked.
(I could tell you, but you really should take the tour, and find out that way.)
Finally after all this sorting has gone on, it’s time for roasting!
Here we are in our proper surgical visitation gowns (unfortunately the picture came out blurry) so as not to contaminate the roasting beans. While we were here, we also got a lesson in not just how beans are roasted, but in what the different roasts mean as far as coffee taste. Carlos also had 3 kinds of coffee for us to smell. One smelled chocolately, one smelled like vinegar, and one smelled like fish. We had to guess which was which.
I got them all right. Nanananananaa.
(I’m sure that comes from my years of smelling coffee while working at the coffee shop in Denver.)
Finally, finally, we were on to the last step – tasting! We were able to taste 3 of the different roasts of Café Ruiz. (European roast, Latin Roast, and Italian Roast (The one we didn’t try – the darkest roast – is French roast)). While Jonathan and I disagreed on our favorite of the 3 (Carrie liked European roast while Jonathan liked Latin roast), we have a much better appreciation for what it takes to make a great cup of coffee!
Some fun facts about coffee:
- 75% of coffee weight is taken out from berry to final goffee ground product. This means that to create 1 pound of whole bean coffee, 4 pounds of berries need to be harvested.
- The darker the roast of your coffee, the less caffeine it has – contrary to popular belief that darker coffee is stronger.
- In order to get a “stronger” flavor, you don’t need dark roasted (aka burned) coffee. You just need to add more coffee grounds in proportion to the water you add.
- Espresso is so much more expensive than regular coffee because you need so much more ground espresso to make one cup than you do to make one cup of regular coffee.
Any more questions? Just ask me… I now have lots of information I can share.