The Incredible Coffee of Boquete Panama

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

panamasanfranciscanLast year, my friend Matt and I were fortunate enough to trek through Costa Rica and Panama, in search of adventure and coffee farms.

My father had once crossed at the same border crossing on foot years ago, and had warned me about how people in uniforms will try to fleece you for money, claiming that you need to pay certain “charges” and “premiums”.  It’s all a scam, and in the case of actual officials that do this, extortion.

I warned Matt not to make eye contact with anybody as we crossed this border for the first time.  Nothing could have prepared us for the procedure that followed

In Central American countries, you do not simply enter a new country – you must formally exit the country that you were in.  The office to leave Costa Rica is about a quarter-mile from the office through which you enter Panama.  In between these two offices is bedlam.  People moving in all directions, mainly migrant workers and those visiting family on the other side of the border.

panamacostaricaborderMaking every effort not to make eye contact with people in uniform, we went back and forth from one office to the other, struggling to understand the process.

Panama customs officer: “You cannot enter Panama until you exit Costa Rica.”
Costa Rica customs officer: “You must pay to exit Costa Rica at the machine in that room.”
Panama officer: “This receipt that shows you paid to exit Costa Rica is not enough.  They must stamp your passport.”
Costa Rica officer: “Don’t wait in this line.  Wait in that line.” (30 minutes later)

panama1panama2Fortunately for us, there is only one instance of an official trying to fleece us.  As we walked one of the many times to the Panama customs office, I looked up just in time to make eye contact with a man in the uniform.  I immediately dropped my eyes and picked up the pace.  I could hear him yelling after us about having to give him so many dollars to get by.  The irony is that he was just sitting on steps with another person who was not in uniform, before we came along.  Despite the uniform, we pushed forward waiting for the giant hand of the law to grab our shoulders.  But of course, this was no formal fee and we were under no obligation to pay it, despite all his yelling after us.

After crossing into Panama, we stayed in the city of David and from there, traveled into Boquete and the coffee country that surrounds it.  We toured coffee farms, and even had the opportunity to interact with farmers and their employees at work in the fields and in the processing facilities.  For the coffee lover, it was a phenomenal experience.  We even met locals in David who became fast friends and invited us to their family reunion.  It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life!

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When I began sourcing coffees to roast at the Make Good Coffee Co.,  I was so excited to get my hands on coffee that came from the very same region that my friend and I toured.

Central American coffees are prized for their brightness, and I was excited to perfect a medium roast of this coffee.  If it is roasted too dark, much of that brightness is lost, replaced with the smoky flavor that characterizes dark roasts.  I roast my Panama Boquete coffee lighter than any other coffee.  The result is a strong flavor of berry and other natural fruit flavors, coupled with some chocolate and caramel.  The aftertaste is sweet and clean.  The body smooth and creamy, and not too heavy.

Of all the coffees that I currently roast, this one is easily one of my favorites.  It was an incredible experience to make our way to coffee country in Boquete Panama, without guides or the experience of having done it before.  I truly think of this adventure each time I roast this coffee, and I know you will taste the difference that care puts into each cup.  This is a coffee drinker’s coffee!

Visit the Make Good Coffee Co. Online Store.
Learn more about the Medium Roast Panama Boquete coffee.

Make Good Coffee Co. roastery opening!

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee Gear, Coffee News, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World, Serving Coffee, Storing Coffee

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I’m so happy to finally announce that the Make Good Coffee Co. roastery is now open, and the online store will go live on November 9th, shipping throughout North America.

After blogging about coffee, traveling to coffee growing countries, and meeting and interviewing coffee roasters for almost ten years, I’m so excited to finally open my own roastery based out of San Diego, California.

There are two things I want to accomplish with this roastery, and both of them are behind the word Good in Make Good Coffee.

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“Good” should mean a quality cup of coffee that you look forward to making for yourself.  I go to bed thinking about how good the coffee is going to be when I wake up.  My goal is to know coffee roasting as well as it can be known.  I want to make the best coffee I can make, and never stop pursuing that goal.

“Good” should also mean that we can do good when we buy coffee.  In the coffee supply chain, there is nobody that works harder or makes the least for themselves than coffee farmers.  Many are dedicated to providing the best coffee, and if we help them remain sustainable by providing them with a fair price, then we help families and communities.  And in return, we continue getting the best coffee from them.  In my coffee travels, I’ve seen schools and health care facilities built in coffee communities that have been allowed to prosper.

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I’ve spent the year roasting coffee, from the Boot Coffee course in San Francisco last December, to home roasting all my own (and friends’) coffee, and reading as much as I can.  I can recite the owner’s manual for my roaster.  I’ve spent the last several weeks perfecting my first three coffees.  They will be:

– Medium Roast Panama coffee
– Dark Roast Malawi AA coffee
– Marc’s Premium: Sumatra Peaberry coffee

Come visit the Make Good Coffee Co. Store on November 9th, shipping throughout North America!  Take the Coffee Quiz that asks you a few questions about what you’re looking for, and recommends a coffee based on your choices.  And start making good coffee!

 

The Pacific Beach Coffee Scene

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee Travel

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UPDATE, 19-Jan: Everybody, thanks for your patience.  I’ve been traveling all over the place, but lining up interviews with local cafe owners in Pacific Beach.  Stay tuned, and learn more about the coffee scene here.

Two years ago, I moved to San Diego, California.  I only knew one person who lived here, so I decided to live downtown so that I’d be able to meet people.  I didn’t realize that downtown San Diego isn’t close to the beach, and beach is why I wanted to live here.  About eight months ago, I finally moved to the beach, specifically Pacific Beach, one of the nicest parts of the greater San Diego area.

In a nutshell, San Diego is so far south, it’s almost at the border with Mexico.  The airport is directly north of the downtown core, closer to downtown than in any other major US city I know.  Beyond the airport, the harbor morphs into beach, and eventually meets the Pacific Coast Highway.  The Pacific Beach neighborhood is 15 miles north of downtown San Diego.  It is a beautiful stretch of beach with a three mile boardwalk for pedestrians, cyclists, and skateboarders.

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PB was mainly known for its young residents and college students, but with a rising cost of living, the population has matured and is becoming more professional and affluent.  I live seven blocks from the ocean, but a few blocks away from the main street that divides PB east and west.  As my landlord says, “the zombies don’t come this far from the main street”.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be checking out the coffee scene here in Pacific Beach.  PB is becoming known for its bars and eateries, so it should have a good coffee scene.  If it doesn’t, let’s find out why not.

To identify the best cafes that PB has to offer, I went to Yelp and searched under “coffee” and my zip code.  As I visit and profile these cafes, you should also go to Yelp and carry out the same search.  I ranked the results both by how well-rated they are and how close they are to where I live.  I made my final list based on who ranked highly on both lists of results.  You could build a similar ranking and evaluate the coffee in your area.

In each case, I’ll try their coffee, and reach out to the owners to find out more about how they started out in coffee, and how they select the coffee that they serve.  Stay tuned!

5 Interesting Facts From Our Guatemalan Coffee Farm Tour

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

 

IMG_2760     Check out: Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country

My father and I recently returned from a trip through Central America, visiting the farmers, roasters, and other people behind some of the best coffee (and chocolate) that we often take for granted.

While we were there, we toured the coffee lands of Cooperativa La Voz, where guide Lucas Bizarro explained to us where coffee comes from, starting with a plant in the ground and ending with coffee in our cup.  I wondered what would be the best way to present just how much we learned on this tour.  I’ve written about origin trips and farm tours from trips to Hawaii.  And while the poverty in a country like Guatemala makes it starkly different from Hawaii, the coffee grows similarly.  Not to mention that my Spanish, while workable, misses a lot of the finer points of the tour.  Long story short, I hope you enjoy these five interesting facts that came from the tour.

IMG_2790     Fact #1: Coffee as we know it starts as a cherry

I still remember the first time I walked into a Starbucks and saw their display showing the coffee cherry.  I’d never heard of it, and didn’t believe it really existed.

The two pictures you see to the left both show coffee as it grows, in cherry form.  The cherry ripens from a yellow to green to red, and finally a dark red, at which point the cherry is best to be picked.  If it is not picked at this stage, it will overripen to a brown or black color.

Coffee workers are responsible for picking the cherry at the optimal dark red color to ensure the highest quality of coffee.

    

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     Fact #2: Inside each coffee cherry are two coffee beans

They’re not quite coffee beans yet.  However, the coffee bean as we know it today is one of two halves of the “seed” of coffee cherry.  As you can see in the picture to the left, if you break open the berry, you can see that it holds two coffee beans as we know them.

In the process of producing coffee beans, the red berry pulp that you see to the left is discarded, and recycled.  The “beans” are then cleaned, and dried in the sun.  More on that to come later.

 

 

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   Fact #3: Coffee workers are hard-working…and poor

I’ll take it a step further.  Coffee workers at the source are arguably the hardest-working and the poorest people in the coffee chain.  Regardless of what we pay for coffee, the worker receives a pittance.

We found these three children to the left sitting in the dirt while their mother and grandmother worked in the fields.  If they were tall enough to pick the ripe cherry from the trees, I’m sure they’d be working.

Their grandmother was standing beside me and I asked if she minded if I took a picture of her.  She politely declined.  When I turned around to see where their mother was, I found her “hiding” behind a thin tree that barely disguised her.  As you can see from the picture, while their parents were shy or possibly superstitious, the children were much less inhibited.

 

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     Rule #4: It is not always safe work

Hazards exist in any job.  In a work environment like this one however, there are few if any precautions taken with regards to those hazards.  To the left is a memorial for Victor Martin Canajay Cholotio, who fell to his death from the top of the tree cover.

Production of a quality coffee relies on many variables.  First, volcanic soil of which there is plenty in Guatemala, contains many nutrients that help produce a better coffee.  Second, altitude and sunshine provide optimal growing conditions.  A third factor is an optimal amount of shade provided to the coffee cherry while it ripens.  Lucas said the goal is 60% cover from sunlight.  Too much more and not enough sun will get in.  Too little shade, and there will be too much sun on the cherry.

Victor’s job was to climb the trees and prune the natural cover to achieve the optimal 60%.  He fell to his death, and this memorial remains on the grounds for him.

 

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Fact #5: Considerable care goes into each step to ensure a good coffee

It is not only hard work, it is precise work.  Think about it…

Growth of the coffee tree requires almost perfect growing conditions, which is why it is limited in where it can be grown successfully.
– For the best coffee flavor, the cherry needs to be picked when it is the specific dark red color.  If picked too soon or too late, the coffee won’t be as good and the farm’s reputation is based on the quality of its coffee.
– The 60% natural cover for perfect sunlight of the tree and cherry.

Finally, the processing of the coffee beans after they’ve been picked.  My father and I watched two girls on their hands and knees over rows and rows of sundried coffee beans, looking at each one meticulously to pull out those with visual defects.  One bad coffee bean can ruin a lot, and the farm cannot afford to ship a bad lot.

Don’t take coffee for granted!  It isn’t until you see the process at its source and watch the workers themselves that you truly develop an appreciation for everything that has taken place before it gets into the hands of your roaster.

Antigua Guatemala, coffee capital of Central America

in Buying Coffee, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

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Coffee lovers, join me as I walk through the cobblestone streets of the coffee capital of Central America, if not the world (sorry, Portland Oregon).

My father and I just returned from a trip through Central America, in part to visit coffee roasters and farmers in Guatemala.  After spending a couple days on Guatemala’s breathtaking Lake Atitlan, we proceeded by bus to Antigua.  My father has made this trip before.  It would be my first trip to Guatemala, and to the amazing city of Antigua.

Check out: Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country

IMG_2926     Antigua is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well-known for the ruins of colonial churches that remain standing throughout the city today.  Around and between these ruins, a city and popular tourist destination has grown, including restaurants, cafes, shopping, and a central park square.  There are less than 40,000 people that live in Antigua, down from its peak when it was once the country’s capital – Antigua Guatemala translates to “Ancient Guatemala”.  Earthquakes destroyed much of the town in the 18th century.

IMG_2866     My father and I arrived in this vibrant city of bilingual shop owners and employees, local shoppers, and tourists.  I was struck by the number of independent cafes on every block.  I think there may be more cafes per capita in this city than in any other, and great news, not a Starbucks in sight to diminish the experience!  Not so great news, they allowed a few American fast food places in that are limited in how big or colorful their sign is allowed to be – smaller in size and less flashier than local shop owners.  That includes a Burger King and McDonalds with its McCafe sign.

IMG_2868     Antigua is also well-known for its chocolate makers and while there, my father and I toured Choco Museo, both a chocolate shop as well as a museum teaching the history of chocolate and how its made, with emphasis on its Mayan roots.

Among the many cafes that we visited was Fernando’s Kaffee, that I will write about separately.  Fernando was recommended to me by two people, my friend and roaster extraordinaire Dave Cook of the Fire Roasted Coffee Company, and a friend’s cousin who lives in Antigua.  Fernando was gracious enough to give us some time for an interview, and it was a pleasure to meet an Antigua coffee man in person.

Due to its popularity among tourists, Antigua is usually accessible from any cruise that stops in Guatemala from both the Atlantic and Pacific.

IMG_2887     If you love coffee and ever get the opportunity, make a point of visiting Antigua, Guatemala.  Naturally, a country’s tourism department can only promote themselves in so many places, and Guatemala has not focused on the North American tourism industry.  Don’t let that deter you.  Tourists abound in Guatemala, and it is a truly beautiful country and people.  If you’re a coffee lover, you need to see Antigua for yourself.  I’m also told that Easter is an especially impressive celebration, where local parishes organize processions through the streets.

2013 Coffee Year in Review

in Brewing Coffee, Buying Coffee, Coffee News, Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

2013 was a big year at MakeGoodCoffee.com.  Let’s take a look at what went down.

THE GOOD

  • Published in Roast Magazine

IMG_0658     In 2012, I traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island with Dave Cook, friend and owner of Fire Roasted Coffee in London, Ontario, Canada.  While there, we saw first-hand the damage being done by the borer beetle (‘la broca’ in Spanish) on coffee farms.  La broca is a common pest hurting coffee crops around the world and was positively identified in Hawaii’s Kona region in 2012.  This has been hurting supply of Hawaiian Kona coffee, and Dave was even turned away at farms when trying to buy from them.  Roast Magazine picked up our story and we were published in this year’s May/June issue.  Click here to check out the article in Roast Magazine.

  • Official Media Blogger at CoffeeCON

IMG_1619     This year, I was invited to be an official media blogger at CoffeeCON in Chicago.  To my knowledge, it’s the only coffee show for the coffee lover rather than the coffee professional.  It’s OUR coffee show, featuring workshops on coffee tasting, coffee making, and coffee roasting.  It was a well attended and informative event.  At the show, I had the pleasure of meeting coffee giant George Howell, one of the founders of the international Cup of Excellence coffee competition, and founder of Terroir Coffee.  Terroir was eventually sold to Starbucks as their way of expanding into the Boston market.  My interview with George lead to literally months of content here on the site.  Check out the Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013, or click here for all of the articles that came of my talk with George Howell.

  • Central American Coffee Origin Trip

IMG_2790     I’ve recently returned from an amazing adventure with my father, visiting coffee farms and roasters in Guatemala.  We traveled Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize together by foot and chicken bus to learn more about the origins of coffee and chocolate.  Along the way, we enjoyed the freshest of each, and a great bonding experience.  I came back from that trip just a couple weeks before holiday travel started, so stay tuned for much more on this trip.  For now, check out my abbreviated summary of the trip, Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country.

portland1     THE BAD

This year, it was with mixed emotions that I moved from Portland, Oregon, the coffee capital of North America as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not sure which city has more roasters per capita between Seattle and Portland, but Portland is a little warmer and it rains a little less, so I vote for Portland.  My home in Portland alone was a stone’s throw from three excellent roasters.  I can’t complain about my new home in San Diego, California.  Having said that, it’s never easy to move a little further from new friends and great roasters.

IMG_2951     THE UGLY

It pains me even to bring this up, but while my father and I were in Flores, Guatemala (see Central American Origin Trip above), we needed a coffee in a bad way and couldn’t find a cafe on the island.  We crossed the causeway to a Burger King that we could see from the island and we -gulp- had the coffees that you see pictured here.  Guatemala is one of the world’s producers of excellent coffee, and while there, we had coffee at Burger King.  It’s sad but true.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to coffee lovers everywhere!  I’m looking forward to new adventures in 2014, and sharing many, many cups of good coffee with you.  Make good coffee!

How to cross Central American borders…like a Boss

in Coffee Travel, Coffees of the World

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ex·tor·tion (ikˈstôrSHən/)

noun

  1. the practice of obtaining something, esp. money, through force or threats.
synonyms: blackmailshakedown;

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hondurasborder2     My father and I recently returned from Central America, where we went deep into coffee country, and enjoyed the freshest coffee we’ve ever had.

This was my first trip to the area, but my father has been there a few times before.  He was our guide.  The first time that he visited Central America, it was with a retired friend, and the two of them toured by mini van.  My father had told me that one problem is when you cross borders on foot, as opposed to flying into the country and dealing with customs officers at the airport.  Without the cameras, many other people, and management around, customs officers at the border crossings take advantage of the opportunity to ask tourists like us for a few extra bucks for themselves.

hondurasborder1     These extra bucks are not legit.  This is extortion, not an official charge that they are collecting.  From his first trip, my father tells stories of having to deal with many different officers at a single crossing, each one asking for 5 or 10 dollars.  At one crossing, he paid a total of $50 before noticing an English speaking woman talking to a priest.  He asked the woman if these payments were normal, and she was shocked at what he had paid.  She asked the priest to talk to the young officers about it.  When the priest came back, he said to my father, “The officer has to save face.  He insists he did not take any money from you, and will not give it to me.  But, you will not be paying money to any more officers at this crossing.”

This is all I could think about as our taxi driver from Punto Barrios, Guatemala dropped us off at the Honduran border.  There is an entry fee of 3 US dollars to enter Honduras, and we could see this clearly on a sign on the wall and a formal printout that the customs officer gave us.  I gave him $20 to cover both my father and I.  When he gave me $4 back instead of $14, I turned to my father to ask how we should handle it.  After all, I don’t need to get tossed into secondary inspection and have them take more than $10 of things out of my bag.  Maybe that’s harsh, but the guy did just stiff me 10 dollars.  Seeing that there was a sizable staff at this crossing, and many other people around (granted, we were the only non-locals), my father suggested I say something.

guatemalaborder1     I pointed out the mistake to the customs officer in Spanish.  Almost immediately, he acknowledged it and then created a bit of a scene behind the glass trying to find the right change in US dollars to give me.  He couldn’t find it, and was becoming flustered.  I suggested to him that he give me my change in Honduran Limpiras, since I’d need some.  In his frustration, he put his hand in the till, grabbed a random handful of Limpiras, and handed them to me.  There were so many hundreds of Limpiras, I didn’t know if he was giving me more or less money back.  My Dad said, “Good enough.”  As an aside, he gave me more change than he was supposed to.

The next hustler we’d encounter on our trip was at the Guatemalan border, as we made our way back from Honduras.  This time, it was a small crossing.  There were only two officers, an older experienced man, and a boy likely in training.  This poses a different kind of problem.  If you are asked to pay a bribe, the common advice is to ask for “el jefe” (the manager).  But if the guy asking for the bribe is el jefe, what do you do then?  As we waited in line, my father asked me to check if anybody ahead of us was being asked for money.  I let him know that nobody was paying any money to the officer.  We seriously did not have any money on us, and planned to hit an ATM in Guatemala City once we arrived there.  This ended up coming in handy.

guatemalaborder2     When my father stepped up to the glass for processing, el jefe asked him for 5 dollars.  My father pulled out his credit card, and indicated it was the only way he could pay.  El jefe told him he couldn’t take a credit card.  A Honduran boy behind me in line that spoke perfect English also told me that they wouldn’t be able to take a credit card.  And, of course!  This isn’t a legitimate charge, so they aren’t going to be able to process a credit card.  When my father reiterated that he had no cash, el jefe asked the other officer something, who looked out the door window at me.  I believe el jefe asked either if anybody was traveling with my father, or if there was anybody else in line that could see all this going down.

Whatever the boy answered, el jefe asked if my father was traveling alone.  I stepped up, said in Spanish that we were traveling together, and he asked for my passport.  He stamped both of them and gave them back.  I grabbed my father’s arm and told him we needed to walk away.  We realized we may have cracked the code.  If you don’t have the cash, they have no way to get money from you.

centralamerica     We had one more crossing on this trip before getting to Belize, and that was to exit Guatemala.  On our bus ride there, a couple American backpackers sitting behind us asked the bus driver if we would need to pay anything to leave Guatemala, since neither of them had any money.  The driver paused, then said no.  The pause was all I needed to hear – it meant they weren’t supposed to ask for money, but the bus driver wouldn’t know if they would or not when we got there.  One backpacker told the driver that she had heard that they ask for money at these crossings.  Again, the driver paused, then said no.

I had a few US dollars left, that I took out of my money clip and put into a different pocket.  I had a plan.

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When we walked into the border crossing, the two officers were a man in his 40s and a woman in her 50s.  We could hear that they were asking for 25 Guatemalan Quetzals from each tourist.  My father got the male officer, and I got the female officer.  Maybe I just want to think the best of people, but it felt to me like this woman didn’t even want to ask for the bribe.  I imagined that if her colleague was doing it, she felt pressured to do it as well.  If you’ve worked in a unionized environment, you know what happens if you grab a broom and try to clean up after yourself.  Your coworkers tell you to stop, and eventually, you just start doing whatever your coworkers are doing.

With my passport in hand, she very meekly asked for 25 Quetzals in Spanish without looking up at me.  Here was my plan.

IMG_2639     Because she asked so quietly, the first thing I was going to do was pretend that I didn’t hear her.  I thought that might make things awkward enough that she not ask again.

If she did ask again, my plan was to ask her “por que?”, why are you charging me this?  What is the name of this charge?  It doesn’t have a formal name, because it’s extortion.

If she came up with some reason to charge me this or if the male officer intervened (he seemed more assertive), then I would pull out my money clip so that they could see that it didn’t have any money in it, and ask her if she accepts Visa or Mastercard.  I already knew she couldn’t accept either.

The standoff began.  I didn’t answer her, and she was holding my passport without stamping it.

After a few awkward seconds, she finally looked up and quickly made eye contact with me before looking back down at my passport.  I maintained eye contact, without making any comments or asking any questions.  The standoff continued.

After another couple awkward seconds of no progress, she stamped my passport and handed it to me.  I said gracias, and walked away briskly.  I won!  Marc 3, crooks in customs 0.  We stood eye and eye, and she blinked.

The moral of the story: I am darned lucky we didn’t get tossed into secondary inspection and robbed at any of those three crossings!