Oro Verde – Panama’s speciality coffee
“Una taza de café boqueteño enciende la magia de la vida”
A cup of Boquete’s coffee ignites the magic of life
The smell of coffee coming from the kitchen and perfusing the dormitories is filled with chocolate aromas and floral notes.
“Buenos dias!” Maria welcomes us in the lounge with a big smile and immediately pours us a cup of steaming hot coffee.
After a full day of cycling and not much sleep, we couldn’t be more grateful for that first sip that tastes like happiness with hints of citrus.
Still half asleep, we sit on the balcony soaking in the warm morning light and the stunning views.
Volcán Barú overlooks the green highlands, covered in lush coffee farms and thick jungle.
“Did you see the coffee plantations all around the volcano?” Maria comes to the balcony to let us know that our breakfast is ready.
“Us Panamanians need to be very creative when we cultivate coffee. We don’t have the luxury of a flat landscape so we have to grow plants wherever we can on the hillsides. It’s challenging, but the volcano makes our coffee taste really special”.
And that’s how our curiosity for the dark delicacy sparked and our quest started.
Researching the area around Boquete, it is clear that we are in “tierra del mejor cafe del mundo” – the land of the world’s best coffee.
Locals are incredibly proud of their cultivating traditions, passed down generations for more than 100 years.
Maria’s favourite blend of Geisha coffee comes from the oldest family farm in Boquete, the Don Pepe Estate, a few Kilometers up the side of the volcano and just below the cloud forest.
Before we realise it, our energy is refuelled, our bellies are stuffed, and we’re climbing the slippery slopes of the volcano in a rickety van to see why all this fuss about Geisha and oro verde – green gold.
“Don’t worry if you smell smoke – it’s totally normal. I hope you don’t mind pushing – it’s a good morning workout, my friends!”
Our guide, Ruben, knows how to keep us entertained during the journey through the jungle.
With great passion and specificity, he explains that what makes this land so exceptional is its unique combination of microclimates and fertile ground.
Volcán Barú is one of the highest peaks in Central America and is an intersection point for warm and cool winds from the Pacific ocean and Caribbean sea.
This dramatic change in temperature forms thick clouds which can suddenly burst into heavy rainfalls, to be soon followed by colourful rainbows, birds singing and butterflies fluttering.
Such an abundance of water is warmly welcomed, as it sustains not only the precious coffee crops but also helps grow juicy fruit and vegetables.
Thanks to the volcanic nature of the area, the soil is rich in vital nutrients that nourish the coffee plants with plentiful natural fertiliser.
Ruben is excited to tell us that “the ground in Boquete is so good that if you drop money, a money tree will grow!”
“Ah, my friends, I can’t tell you if that really happens – it’s just for the locals to know”.
No wonder coffee is compared to gold around here.
Over 5 generations and more than 100 years, this family has been grown different varieties of really excellent speciality coffee.
The cultivation is harder on the slopes of the volcano.
Farmers check the plants every day and harvest the red beans at their optimal ripeness.
“We have to do it all by hand, those machines can’t cope on the rough and uneven slopes of the volcano! It’s slow and we produce lower quantities than competitor countries, but it’s all worth it because our coffee is superior”.
“Also, we give back to the community by employing people”.
Ruben’s passion for oro verde is palpable and instils us with more excitement.
The warm summer light filters through the leaves of the luxuriant coffee plants as we make our way along the trails of the plantation.
Ruben points at a cluster of very tall plants on higher ground.
“The queen of coffee lives there”
Geisha has a special place in Boquete’s heart.
Because of her genetic characteristics, she only thrives at high elevation.
“Man, she’s a real diva! She needs lots of attention, specific nutrition and careful roasting. It took the Panamanians 35 years to develop a balanced diet for her and now we’re the only ones who can really bring out the best in this plant”.
As well as flourishing in specific, restricted areas and being difficult to cultivate successfully, she also yields much smaller quantities of beans than her Arabica cousins.
The end result is such an exquisite blend of flavours that is now one of the most sought-after coffees in the world and it can demand an incredibly high price.
The spectrum of flavours and aromas in coffee develops not only from the variety of the plants but also from how the beans are treated, dried and roasted.
It’s a complex process and requires care and attention.
The pulp around the bean is slimy and sweet, and while some are fully washed before sun drying, others get to keep their fruity flesh and all.
These will mature a sweeter taste while drying.
“Let’s go, my friends! Today I’ll make you taste the best coffee in the world”.
These are the words I long to hear. And it was not an understatement either.
Being Italian, I can appreciate good coffee but this was something else.
The wooden walls of the tasting room have the warm scent of chocolate and caramel, trailed by sniffs of citrus and flowers.
They roast small batches of beans in here, this lingering burnt and bitter aftertaste makes the other aromas even sweeter.
With meticulous attention and care, Ruben pours warm water into cups filled with dark coffee ground and aligned on the table, ready for tasting action.
What surfaces are lively bubbles and steam clouds that fog his glasses but that he welcomes with a satisfied smile and a deep sniff.
As we stand around the degustation table, fruity notes start hitting our noses and the excitement is palpable.
“Try this.” Says Ruben, as he hands me a spoonful of dark golden brown liquid.
By now, I got used to the mix of fragrances in the room so I don’t put too much thought in the smell before I sip the warm liquid.
And then it hits my tongue, and all my senses sing.
Bam. I’m windblown.
This is the best tea I’ve ever tasted. By far.
“My friend, this is not tea! It’s the Geisha coffee, I tricked you!”
“Wait, what? This is coffee?”
“Our Geisha is a smooth variety with a light body, gentle on the palate, and it tastes more like tea.
Have another sip.
Savour the fruity aromas of pineapple, mango and hints of Jasmine flower.
She’s a magical plant.
I know it sounds impossible. But in Panama, we make it possible.”
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