Thursday, February 07, 2013

Kotowa Coffee

Kotowa Coffee Plantation, Boquete, Panama

    Boquete, Panama, is sometimes called the Napa Valley of coffee, as it's known for producing some of the world's finest coffee. Its "eternal spring" climate combined with rich, volcanic soil and the proper altitude makes it ideal for growing coffee. We couldn't pass up the chance to tour a coffee plantation while we were in Boquete. We booked the tour through Boquete Tree Trek, and it ended up being a good deal since they didn't charge for the kids. They provided transportation from town up to the plantation, high in the hills above Boquete. We rode in the back of a canopied truck, bouncing along a deeply rutted, rocky road through thick jungle. We arrived at the plantation and were treated to a gorgeous view of the valley beneath us while more verdant mountains rose above. The air was clean and cool, while clouds raced by in a brilliant blue sky. The weather shifted rapidly from warm and humid one moment to cool and drizzly the next. Come, walk with us...

We started out by crossing a suspension bridge over a rocky stream bed. It's summertime in Panama, and although there are streams and rivers everywhere, the water levels are on the low side. 

This was the view from the bridge. I'm not a huge fan of suspension bridges, and walking across them with jumping, running children makes them even less fun. Or more fun, depending on how you look at it!
Before we got to the coffee, our guide pointed out this little yellow flower. He picked some and had us chew the stem for a minute, which served to numb our tongues! He said the indigenous peoples used it as an anesthesia for mouth troubles. 
This was Dennis, our guide. He spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable, sharing lots of interesting information about how the coffee is grown and processed. 
This is a coffee blossom, and if you look behind you'll see some ripe coffee cherries. They are picked every 21 days throughout the several month harvest season, and on a single plant you'll see berries in all stages of ripeness. Most of the pickers are the indigenous peoples, whom, he told us, can make very good money picking coffee. 
Kotowa Coffee grows, among other varietals, the famed Geisha coffee. Panamanian Geisha from this area has won several prestigious coffee awards in recent years. The bushes produce very little fruit compared to other varieties, which contributes to its high cost. 
Dennis encouraged the kids to pick some coffee and showed them how each cherry must be carefully and plucked off its stem. Hand picking, while costly, allows for proper picking as well as selection of only the ripe cherries.
Here he showed us the coffee seedlings. Ketowa, which means mountain in the native language of the area, was started over one hundred years ago by a Canadian man. They practice sustainable and organic farming techniques.
The best coffee is shade grown, and the Ketowa plantation is nestled on a mountainside amongst tall jungle trees. The understory is lush, and I had to stop to admire the colors of this plant!
After we finished touring the plantation, we got to go to the coffee room and learn more about the history of coffee and how it's processed after it's picked. I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to see the processing operation, but it was done at a different location, so we got to see pictures of it instead. After our "lesson", we had a cupping where we got to try several different varieties of coffee.
The first step is to deeply inhale the aroma of the freshly ground beans. There were six or seven varieties, so we went down the line, smelling each and comparing notes on the differences and similarities.
The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel. Erik used to roast coffee, so I have a little familiarity with this, but it's all pretty crazy! There's more in that cup of coffee than you might think!
Step Two: Hot water is poured over the coffee grounds, then left to brew for a short period of time. The grinds rise to the top, forming a "crust".
Each cupper is given a spoon with which to sample the coffees.
After the coffee has brewed for a moment or two, the cupper takes a spoon and "breaks the crust", releasing a potent aroma. The grounds are gently stirred into the water and should sink, while the cupper notes the particulars of the aroma of each type of coffee.
Any grounds that continue to float are scooped off the top, and then it's time to taste the coffee. This is done with a loud "slurp", spraying the coffee across the tongue. I believe professionals spit it out after this step, but we just swallowed ours. Erik is really good at the slurp, but I couldn't quite get the hang of it. (He's done this before!) says, "It is important to aspirate strongly since you are trying to cover the entire tongue evenly. Aspirating strongly will also cause tiny droplets of coffee to be distributed into the throat and into the nasal passage. The nose can act as another powerful tasting tool. Most of the flavor observed in a coffee is a result of aromatic compounds present in the coffee." So there you have it; it's a sophisticated slurp. The coffee is evaluated for taste, acidity, body, and aftertaste. I'm not a coffee drinker, and to me, coffee usually tastes bitter and coffeeish, but living with my coffee snob husband all these years has helped me come to appreciate the nuances and subtle differences in different varieties and roasts. Some are fruity, some are chocolaty, or nutty. I'd personally rather just eat fruit or chocolate or nuts, but it was interesting to do the cupping and taste the differences, and I was pleased to be able to notice the particulars. The geisha was really nice, even in my opinion! 
We had a great afternoon at Kotowa Coffee. This was looking down towards Boquete from the plantation.
This is coffee, after it's been "washed" and the hulls removed, drying in the sun. These "green" beans are sold to your local roaster, who will roast them to perfection for your drinking pleasure! Roasting is an art in itself.

Follow this link to enter a contest to win some delicious coffee from my brother-in-law's roastery, Voyage Coffee Roasters.


  1. Yes, roasting is an art and Starbuck's needs to go back to school! I prefer Red Leaf Coffee here in our hometown. Organic, sustainably grown and the BEST coffee I've ever tried. Though I've never toured a coffee plantation and am unfamiliar with the sophisticated and involved steps of a true coffee aficionado, I am a coffee snob also and have tasted coffee in every town I've been to, and I still love Red Leaf!!

    Rebeca, has anyone ever told you that you are a fantastic writer?? All along your journey, I have felt riveted, informed, educated and entertained as you weave your words together to for a story!!

    LOVE IT!

    Have a fabulous day!!

    1. Thanks, Leanne, for your kind and encouraging words! Glad you are enjoying the journey!


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