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Panama Travelogue, January 2006

Yet another trip to coffeelands, yet another travelogue. There is always something new. In Panama, the story is mixed; great new small-lot coffees like our 1800 meter + Carmen Estate, the Esmeralda Especial (ie. Gesha cultivar from the Jaramillo plot) ... and hopefully this year some Lerida Estate Peaberry. But the sad news is that land prices in Boquete have skyrocketed with the influence of US developers building gated suburbs in the area, mostly for gringo retirees. There are positive effects of this, some more cash in the local economy. But it threatens the agricultural way of life in the area. Some coffee farmers are going to cash out, others can hopefully find a way to coexist with the developers. It is as beautiful as ever, and that won't change any time soon. ( Click on any little picture to see the large version. )

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The Idea: A January coffee trip to revisit favorite farms and mills in Panama to see the harvest in process, cup early lots, and affirm our ongoing farm relationships. The Group (L to R): Plinio Ruiz Jr. who oversees production of the Ruiz mill and farms, Karen of Gold Rush Coffee near Eureka (in Petrolia), Plinio the Elder, Bob Fulmer of Royal Coffee, Myself (too jetlagged to stand without leaning) and Joe of Gold Rush.
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We start our trip in Boquete in the state of Chirqui, right at the border with Costa Rica. This is the Panama highland were small estates have been producing coffee since the late 1800s in the area centered on the volcano Baru. We are going to a few nights to visit farms around Boquete, then some time on the other side of the Volcan Baru to visit farms in the Bambito and Volcan region. Now, I used to rave about the Panamonte, and it is still nice. But my room that was $80 is now $135 a night, thanks to the invasion of the retirees from the US. ...
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Boquete Becomes Orlando: I was scared of what I would find after a 2 year absence from Panama. I heard the rumors for years; the gringos are coming and they have fat wallets. They have been saying it for years, and now it is true. There are supposedly 6 housing developments, same as you would find in any US suburb, with 200-300 units each. Valle Escondido = Lost Valley. I don't think so. Can you kiss old Boquete goodbye? Soon, my friend, very soon.
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Plinio Ruiz Sr. Looking across the valley, Plinio is a true Boqueteno old-timer in coffee. When a coffee retiree choses to build his house beside the roasting/packing plant, you know they have no intention of idling away the golden years. The other side of the house looks across the valley to coffee farms on the adjacent slopes.
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Casa Ruiz: The Riuz family has several farms, and offers expert wet-processing and dry-milling for many others. They roast their lower grade coffees for domestic consumption, offer a standard export grade called BEP, and then farm-specific Estate coffees at the top of the quality pyramid. Here are bags from some of the farms they have milled over the years.
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Ruiz Mill: It's big. I am standing at the wet mill side looking over at the drying patios, vertical pre-dryers (right) and finish dryers/hulling/preparation facility (left). Vertical dryers are not used in specialty coffee too often, but Ruiz uses them with care only as an initial process. They finish in standard Guardiola-type drum dryers.
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The harvest is still early in Boquete so many of the coffees coming into the mill are poorly picked, lower grown areas. These will be used for inexpensive blends. Here, a small truck pulls up at the dump station.
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Coffee cherry is dumped directly into the bin which equals (if I remember right) 10 Latas. A Lata is how coffee cherry is measured and how pickers are paid. One Lata is about the size of a cubic foot. This cherry represents fairly good picking, since the machines and flotation channels will remove the underripe, yellow-green cherry in the image. Then again those could be Yellow Caturra or Yellow Catuai cultivars, which are ... you guessed it ... yellow, not red, when fully ripe.
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You can peel the skin off coffee and separate some of the unripe green on ine step, or in multiple stages. Most mills use a Peeler, then a Criba to separate the slimy mucilage-covered seed from the pulp. Pinhalense makes a machine that pushes ripe cherry through a perforated drum, whereas the green cherry cannot pass through (green cherry is hard and the skin won't separate from the seed without a lot of effort).
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This is a fermentation tank - there are quite a few at the Ruiz mill to keep coffees from different estates and different quality levels isolated as distinct lots. Fermentation breaks down the mucilage layer coating the seed so it can be washed away. Think "rotting fruit". You ferment depending on altitude and temperature, usually 18-24 hours. The dark stuff in the tank is residual peel. Fermentation should not "flavor" coffee at all - it is simply to get rid of the mucilage layer.
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Plinio Jr. with the slimy coffee - Water is used to wash the coffee out of the fermentation tank when it is done. This water must not be returned to the stream until it is treated because the fermented content destroys the oxygen balance in rivers. It's natural pollution. All mills used to simply run off this dirty water back into creeks - now nobody does. Ruiz mill has an elaborate pond system to reclaim water.
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Whenever weather permits, coffee is sun dried on the concrete patios. If there are storms in the area, it is collected and put into the mechanical dryers. Patio dry is always preferred (by me at least) because it makes the green coffee more durable over time. But slow, careful mechanical drying is definitely preferale to soaking coffee in a rainstorm! Raining on parchment coffee ruins it. Here, the parchment coffee (pergamino) is collected and covered at the end of the day. Then it is run over by the forklift ... okay, that's a joke.
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When coffee is on the patio, it is raked often to allow for even drying. Some big mill have motorized rakes now, like rider lawnmowers in size, but Ruiz does it the old fashioned way. In fact, Plinio Sr. carves each rake handle by hand at night, taking into account the hand size of the particular employee. Okay, that's not true either.
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To collect the coffee at night they use a flat bladed shovel, or a street sign on a post, whatever is more convenient. Okay, I'll stop ...
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Inside are the large drum dryers, the preferred configuration. These are monitored to never exceed 130 f input air temperature, and keep the coffee in constant motion, basically imitating the environment of heat and raking on a warm concrete patio.
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Here is the batch of parchment coffee below the drier, each lot kept separate, dried to 12% moisture content.
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The dryers are heated by a combination of wood and coffee parchment peel. This is the back end of the furnace where the peel is blown into the ignition chamber.
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When the coffee is dried to 12%, it is left to rest (reposo) for varying degrees of time, allowing moisture to even out, and the coffee to stabilize. Bad lots might not be rested at all. Good lots are rested 30-60 days in parchment. Then the "preparation" of the coffee starts with this, the Peeler, that takes the parchment off the green seed. The skin is burned, as you saw, in the dryers, and the green bean is ready to be screened, and sorted by denisty.
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Not pictured is the screening machine, which basically forces the coffee through progressibly smaller metal screens to separate large seeds, average flat beans, peaberry, and broken bits. Here is the magic device called a density sorter, a tiled, shaking, air-bed for coffee that does amazing things. Dense coffee (the good stuff, shakes to the high side (left) and bad lightweight coffee falls to the low side (right). It's opposite of what you would think, but it's the effect of the air and the shaking motion.
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So here is a picture of the coffee on the high side of the machine you just saw ...a nd ...
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... here is the hideous coffee on the low side. Think about it, same lot of coffee going in, same farm, same picking. I couldn't use the flash so the image is a little grainy but you can see all the defects here.
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All this coffee in the image is like that crap at the low side of the density table. This is used (sadly) for roasted-ground coffee sold in the country. It really should just be burned, but coffee growers need every penny they can get. About 10-20% of ripe, well-picked coffee is lost on the gravity table. Add to that all the coffee remve in the wet-process part (immature, floaters, etc) and a pound of picked coffee cherry might result in less than 1/4 pound of good, top-grade coffee. But that is what Specialty Coffee is all about folks ...
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A+ artwork at the Ruiz mill. If only this bag would come to Sweet Maria's, it would hang on the wall of my office - brilliant!
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Ah, headed back to the Panamonte, the usual afternoon sun-shower results in the usual afternoon rainbow over Boquete. I can't blame the retirees for wanting to visit here. I just wish they would adapt a little, not just try to remake this place into another gated community....
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This is old Boquete, a typical board-and-batten house on the road. This use to be hidden back in the trees, overgrown, but I am sure the vegitation was cleared to catch some visitors eye, to be sold. Ah well...
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John Collins runs Lerida Estate, and the family will be opening a new lodge for tourists on the farm too. The Collins family goes way back in Boquete and has one of the highest altitude farms in the region, winner of several Best of Panama competitions in the past and a perrenial top 10 coffee.
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I marveled over this amazing book in the collection at the Collins farmhouse: Colombia Cafetera by Diego Monsalve. It is from 1927 and does not deal eniterely with coffee, but in addition it is an overview of trade, politics and the entire Colombian economy. Someone in the coffee trade was clearly supposed to be a person of letters (okay, probably a man), and have a broad knowledge base.
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The back cover, which helps you locate Colombia in case you are having trouble. The deco illustrations in the book are amazing.
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Bob Fulmer and a bucket of coffee wood. It surprised me to find out that the coffee wood pruned from Lerida trees is actually very dense and burns for a long, long time in the fireplace. I always thought coffee wood was very soft, but once again, I'm wrong.
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Next morning it was time for cupping at the Ruiz lab. Maria Ruiz is one of the 4 children of Plinio Sr and is in charge of quality. She is an amazing cupper, but actually has a PhD in a field too technical for me to remember or, probably, even pronounce. She also sports a very nice "cupping bonnet".

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