In international competitions, the best coffee isn’t a brand you know because these best coffees are grown and roasted in small quantities and do not sell to the mass market.
I wanted to understand what makes an award-winning coffee, so I visited a high-quality coffee farm in the highlands of western Panama, close to Costa Rica. Usually black coffee has a slightly bitter taste to me. Not so for the coffee made at Finca La Milagrosa (Miracle Farm) run by proprietor Tito Vargas, in Boquete, a town favored by ex-patriates for its cool climate despite being in the tropics and close to the equator.
Vargas bought a five hectare dairy farm during the years of Panamanian dictator Manual Noriega and converted it to coffee production. Five hectares was too small to interest any bank as collateral, so without the ability to borrow capital, Vargas had to make his own equipment with old motors from discarded washing machines. Even if Vargas had been able to borrow money, under the dictatorship individual proprietorships were not allowed to operate, so it was best to fly below the radar. Vargas chose to rely on the financial support of his parents [ROsa Y (and in Spanish) ALberto] instead. In appreciation he named his coffee brand for them, ROYAL.
Miracle Farm exports to Japan, Taiwan, Norway, United States and Canada. Only 20,000-25,000 pounds are produced annually. The farm has eight varieties of coffee that are mostly blended, except for the highest quality variety, Geisha, which sells for around $100 per pound. The name Geisha derives from the name of a Nigerian valley where the variety originated, but it helped launch the brand in Japan where Geisha’s light roast color and a flavor that resembles a combination of jasmine and mandarin citrus makes it extremely popular.
A tour of the farm takes you from coffee tree to coffee tasting, with Vargas keeping a watchful eye and active hand on it all, obviously enjoying his work. You see beans being sorted for quality and roasted into light, medium and dark roasts. Contrary to popular belief, the darker roast has the least caffeine, but the strongest taste. So espresso coffee actually has less caffeine than a light roast.
The processing area has three roasters, a 1-pound, a 5-pound and a 40-pound roaster, each handmade by Vargas. The 1-pound machine is a gas burner cobbled together with an old kitchen waste disposal unit for the roasting chamber. Vargas uses the 1-pound roaster to demonstrate roasting to tour groups. During and after roasting you’d better not touch the beans as this will adversely affect the taste. A metal spoon is used to move the beans through the roasting process.
The coffee trees themselves have a lifetime of just 20 years, and it takes 10 years for the first harvest. All beans are hand-picked, mostly by indigenous people who get paid by the pound.
Two natural layers of the coffee bean are removed during processing, the outer fruit and a coating around the bean. Neither goes to waste. Both the dried coffee berry and the skins of the coffee beans are used as fertilizer for future plantings. Two drying processes are required. The first takes 15 days followed by a period of fermentation and sorting. Then a second drying takes place in a shed for three months. In all it takes nine months after harvest before roasting can begin. Much of the exported coffee is exported unroasted; the roasting being done at the destination.
As we left, Vargas shared a tip: using paper filters to brew coffee denigrates the flavor. Best to use a process like a French press. Whatever you do, you probably won’t be doing it with his uber-expensive, hard to find coffee. I left the tour with an entirely new perspective on the art of a cup of java.