Saturday, March 19, 2011

Finca La Milagrosa

This is going to be a long post, I worry.

I love coffee.... who doesn't, right? But I knew next to nothing about how it grows, how it's processed and how it gets to my kitchen. So we arranged the day before to visit Finca La Milagrosa, Panama's 2nd best coffee plantation, owned and operated like an almost 1-man band by a man named Tito.
Tito is the man in the middle. The one on the left is our guide through the plantation.

He is a legend among Panamanians and coffee growers because he did all this with no funding by a bank and using under 10 acres of land. Not bad.

Now, it didn't happen overnight and as he had limited funding, he made do with what he had available to him and this makes his coffee bean processing machine look something like a Rube Goldberg apparatus.

For example, it was explained to us that this wreckage was once his car that he stripped for parts to make parts for his roasting machine, and conveyor belts.

You'll see more of this later but first, here is coffee beans growing. Now this particular bean is a Geisha, the most appreciated bean in Panama and the No. 1 finca sells their beans for $170.00 a pound. One of our fellow tourists bought a pound of Tito's for $80.0 US. Now, I like me coffee something fierce, but I draw the line in the sand somewhat below that price.

Tito grows several other varieties and these are all blended together to get another coffee bean. Geisha stands alone.

The beans are inside this beautiful red berry and I was surprised how small they actually are! I thought the beans we see inside a bag of roasted coffee was the size you'd find in the bean but here you can see in this hand what the bean looks like fresh.

Here is Mo enjoying a cup of coffee that Tito brewed and passed out as the guide continued to explain how the coffee is processed.

I don't remember what this is used for, I think it helps remove the hulls, but don't quote me on that. What is interesting about it is the contraption is the drum from a washing machine!!!

(Just one of many chickens I chased around getting shots of. This one posed.)

But I do know they go through this hopper and the lots of the outer shell goes flying through wide tubes and out the other end some 50 yards away where chickens mill around scratching at the remains.

You can see the dried beans and the hulls that are loosening from the bean

Now, there are several steps involved with rinsing and soaking etc before you get to a bean that is ready for roasting but we will sprint ahead to that step at this point.
Ready Beans

Tito pours the beans into this roaster
The roasting doesn't take long at all. Again, Tito made the roaster himself and oversaw the roasting. Below you see his famous spoon that he welded to a stick to make a handle long enough to reach inside and not get burned in the process. He monitored carefully and once the beans reached an acceptable brown, he poured a third of the beans into that wooden bowl and continued roasting to two additional darknesses.

As you can see, the beans get larger again as they roast.

I asked why we sometimes open a bag of roasted whole beans and they appear to be oily and other times they look dry? That, he explains, is a sign that the beans were "burned" and allowed the oils to be released. The dry beans are correct. (I would have thought the other way 'round. Which is why I don't roast beans.)

The guide brings the bowl up to the grinding room and as he grinds each "roast" he has us bite into each bean and try to guess which roast we drank 30 minutes earlier. He also asked which of the 3 beans we preferred in taste and aroma.
He gets a kick out of telling us that, by his unscientific surveys, Americans by and large prefer the light roast, the Latin Americans the middle and the Europeans like the dark but what people don't know is the lighter the roast, the stronger the caffeine and it is his theory that Americans like to drink the light kind all day long because they work the hardest!

See all those bags behind him? They are bags of unroasted beans ready for shipment. Again, all exported beans are shipped out unroasted so the destinations can do it to the taste of the customer base. I remember walking down Decatur in New Orleans and smelling the strong fragrance of roasting coffee. It's been a long time since the last time.

So there you have it...... Panamanian coffee is well respected and Tito is a giant of a man. PS he also screenprints every bag and sack personally. He has become so successful, now bankers come to HIM and try to press money to crank up his operation but he has no desire nor need.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

HOW FUN! This is my favorite part of your trip so far. I feel coffee educated.