Whether you’re an espresso fiend, a daily instant drinker or merely a dabbler with the odd cappuccino, learning about where your coffee comes from is fascinating.
Following the coffee crisis of 1997, when the US opened its trade routes with Vietnam, coffee bean prices and subsequently their production plummeted in Latin America. Many plantations either farmed a different commodity or were simply abandoned. So in 2001, when Richard and his wife retired to Panama, they bought an old coffee plantation at a bargain price.
Swiftly bored with merely retiring, they decided to breathe life into the old plantation. As they learnt about coffee’s production and the ever-fluctuating market price of the green bean (coffee’s raw product) they decided to roast in-house. Finca Dos Jefes was born and now gives tours and tastes to lucky visitors. After a decade of drinking coffee, I knew absolutely nothing about it.
Coffee and its environment
Climate plays an important role in coffee’s evolution. It originated in dry Ethiopia and even now, coffee trees will only produce fruit within a certain distance of the equator. This area (roughly between the lines of Capricorn and Cancer) is known as the bean belt. Altitude also matters, as the flavours of the bean will change dependent on differences of as little as 100m.
However like all farming, coffee can also make a negative impact on its surroundings. Countries along the bean belt that have more rain than sunlight during the growing season, or who mass-produce their coffee, often use the washing method to extract the beans from their cherries. The nutrient-rich run off is then put back into rivers, causing algae blooms that take the oxygen and kill the fish.
Interestingly, Costa Rica is the only Latin American country so far to impose regulations on coffee growers so that local rivers are protected. While it may be a few years before Panama recognises the same rules, Dos Jefes chooses to minimise its footprint by adopting the traditional Ethiopian drying method.
Production and roasting
Choosing to dry the cherries naturally takes time. The coffee cherries lay in the sun for 20-40 days and then get stored for about three months, before being taken into the local town, Boquete, to be shelled.
After this, the green beans can be sold to market. In Dos Jefes’ case, this is mostly local, although a few pounds of every harvest go directly to a niche German coffee shop chain.
A little like wine and its grapes, the variety of coffee cherry does affect the final flavour of the cup. Although the majority of the distinction in coffee’s taste will come from how it’s roasted. Qualified roasters walk a fine line in their timings to create the perfectly roasted bean. The difference between a light and dark roast is often only 10 degrees centigrade.
High-ends and new trends
As well as helping the local environment, drying the beans in their husks has other benefits. Indigenous people have been drinking Gascara tea for centuries but now western chains have discovered a new hipster demographic that will pay upwards of $5 per cup. Ironically, this fashionable resurgence of Gascara (technically a by-product of the production process) has meant that market prices for the husks have sometimes overtaken the bean itself.
Speaking of pricey cuppas, some of the best coffee in the world can now be found in Panama’s highlands. While the Geisha variety of bean is grown widely, the market price for the perfectly grown, harvested and roasted Geisha can be worth hundreds of dollars per pound. While my pallet isn’t sophisticated enough to taste the difference, there are benefits that this high-end market brings to individual coffee farmers in developing countries like Panama.
As a simpler alternative to fair trade initiatives, by striking up direct partnerships with small European chains where the demand for quality is high, farmers can ensure a secure buyer for their beans at a price higher than the market average. This means that while there’s still a long way to go before the pickers at the bottom of the chain see the economic benefits of high-end bean harvesting, wages are gradually increasing.
In turn, these demanding clients will make sure they only work with plantations such as Dos Jefes, who can prove not only that they engage fair working practices, but also that their production impacts the environment as little as possible.
How do you take yours?
As I opened up to the group about my coffee habits – no more than two cappuccinos a day with a sugar if I’m really feeling fragile – I wondered if perhaps these partnerships are the way forward for local farmers, international buyers and a global race of wired coffee drinkers.