Friday, February 20, 2009

The Path of the Geisha

The next morning Rachel picked us up at 9am. The weather was the same crazy wind and rain, but that didn't matter, we had a goal. Up past the swollen, raging river, directly past the brand new hotel with its foundation ravaged by the recent floods, up in the mountains we sought the source of delicious coffee.

So delicious, in fact, that it is one of the most expensive coffees on the planet. The reason for that, of course, is a combination of unique flavor and extreme scarcity. Geisha coffee grows best in a very small zone and the owners of Hacienda Esmeralda were fortunate enough to both own that part of the Earth and to recognize that they had something special there. Cupping it on Thursday afternoon was amazing.

It was originally collected in Ethiopia in the early 1930s by various British expeditions. The coffee had a low yield, but it was resistant to fungus, so it was used for hybridization. The path seems to be: Ethiopia (1931), Kenya (1931-32), Tanzania (1936), Costa Rica (1953), Panama at some point after that where it was found growing on the Peterson's land.

The Petersons were wonderful hosts and it was very interesting to learn that in their 35 years on the farm they had tried to grow nearly everything and anything. They found that grass grew best and so they raised dairy cows. Later on they expanded to producing coffee. However, it was in 2003 when their son Daniel decided to harvest and process some of the wild coffee that grew on their steep hillsides that the geisha was rediscovered. The delicate flavors in those beans have transformed their lives.

It was incredible to stand on the hillside in the morning and see and touch and taste those cherries. The cherries were mildly sweet and the raw seed inside was larger than I expected. A few of the bushes were knocked over under the weight of down branches or from the wind and that was sad to see. The rain lashed us sideways and the wind was fierce but that didn't matter at all. I had made it to origin and that felt great.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

First Steps

Okay! I think I've finally accepted the fact that I was in Panama, at a coffee farm, and had a chance to see the whole process from start to finish. I thought it was going to be a few years before I had a trip "to origin." Now I see it's something we can and will do every year. Hugh is next up! Caiti and Mom can go along! We gotta make it happen.

Landing in David, Panama was little wild. We could sense it on the approach as our 80seater hopped and floated through fierce winds.

"That was the scariest landing I've ever felt," Lu said to me, her fingers in my arm.

"It was a good one alright," I replied, easing my breath as the plane vibrated to a halt.

The taxi ride had just as much turbulence, both from the backroads we had to take around downed wires and due to the wind that was whipping down from the mountains. Several metal billboards lay crumpled on the side of the street, in many places wires crossed the road where poles were down.

The drive from David to Boquete took about an hour and as we climbed, the weather grew nastier. We crossed a raging river the color of frothy wet charcoal and scrambled into our hotel. I was thrilled Mat had reminded us to bring our raingear.

There was a message waiting for me. We had arrangements to be picked up in the afternoon at El Oasis to go and check out some local coffee farms, but the winds had other ideas. Cellphones were out in the Boquete region because cell towers had been knocked out or knocked over, but either way no calls were getting through. That meant no contact with our contact and so we sat stewing in the hotel wondering if we'd get through, or if we should just go stroll through town. Unfortunately, the town was being lashed by the Bajareque and not ideal for strolling.

Landlines still worked, though, and through the kind help of the hotel owner and the generosity of the Petersons, Lu and I were picked up and whisked away through microclimates and crazy rainbows to have a look at the operations of Hacienda Esmeralda. It was fantastic.

We had plans to visit the farm on the following day, but that afternoon they were going to be receiving some freshly picked berries and we would have a chance to watch them process the coffee. That was something we would not get to do the next day, but it is an facinating process and one I am very glad I got to see up close and in action.

So here goes:

Berries are picked by hand by workers. Workers bag their berries and tag the bag and then a pickup truck comes by to gather the bags. Bags are weighed when they are offloaded at the farm and then the berries are dumped into a deep, square concrete pit. The pit has a tube at the bottom. Water is pumped into the pit and then the tube is opened and coffee berry mousetrap ensues!

Berries flow in the water into another small holding tank where some float off and others flow through. The floaters are no good and are diverted. The good ones go into a circular mashing chamber where the pulp is separated from the seed. The pulp (mucilage) is sent one way and the seeds another, down another tube, into another tank where again good seeds go one way and floaters another.

In the end there's a big pile of coffee berry seeds but that's far from the last step before those seeds turn into the beverage you love so much.

More on that later...