Editor’s Note: This personal essay is the final of a three essay series on a group vacation to Panama. It’s not a comprehensive article on coffee, coffee farming, or coffee culture.
“Today is the jungle,” Rolando, our Panamanian tour guide says. He’s buoyant with the childlike enthusiasm of a boy embarking on a ride at Disneyland. We’re here, I’m hoping, to see sloths and the indigenous Dr. Seuss-looking bird the Resplendent Quetzal. The juice-can sized bird wears a heavy rouge of vermilions and greens, the evolutionary equivalent of an avian drag queen. We pad across a narrow board, covering a small stream, and I notice a young man, maybe sixteen, beside Rolando.
“This is Josué,” Rolando says, introducing the man. Josué smiles and a gold capped front tooth peeks out. Despite the humidity, Josué is dressed in black Levis, a long-sleeved black shirt, and a backward, ball cap also in black. The hat is tucked so far back on Josué’s head, the bill is almost above his shoulders. A huge knife sits holstered to the outside of his thigh. It is the kind of eye-catching knife you might use should you need to gut and clean a bear. Since mountain bike tracks ribbon back and forth across the path and the trail is easily wide enough for four of us to comfortably walk-side-by-side, it’s hard to imagine the circumstance in which a bear-gutting knife might be necessary. Our hike is inside a valley, bordered by heavily treed mountains so green that when I close my eyes, purple afterimages dot my closed lids. Rolando wastes no time in whistling to call the as yet, absent Resplendent Quetzal.
“So how long have you been a jungle guide?” I ask Josué.
“Eleven year,” he says.
“Wait, eleven years?!” I sputter. “How old are you?”
He laughs, as though he’s asked rude questions about his age every day. “I have a four year old baby girl and two teenage boys,” he says. “I’m twenty and seven year.” He fires a long stream of spit with a “vvvvttt” sound into a giant fern. Josué picks up a spiky bush the size of a computer monitor from the ground.
“Air plant” he says and hands it to me. As I take the plant in my arms, I realize I own three of these plants at home. They’re displayed in glass balls, hung inside the frame of our windows, like bushy tears. I turn the cretaceous version of our houseplant in my arms and a purple flower with a forked pink tongue dangles from the pointed foliage.
“Wow,” I say holding it up for Tom, my husband to see.
“I paid thirty bucks a piece for those in Portland,” he says eyeing the plant, “and ours don't even have a flower.”
Rolando stops whistling and peers at me.
“Portland?” he asks, “Portland, where?”
“Oregon,” I say.
“My friend Juan works at Finca la Milagrosa!” Rolando says, excited. I mirror his smile though I have no idea what that means.
“It's a coffee plantation!” He grins, looking at me expectantly. I smile back though the confusion must have been evident on my face as he says, “You’re from Portland! Coffee!” he says again.
Ron gets the Portland coffee reference before I do, “A coffee plantation? Is it near here? Can we visit your friend’s plantation?” he asks.
I don’t know why I’m surprised that Portland’s indie coffee reputation has made it to Panama. I ran into a barista from one of my favorite Portland coffee houses in the Panama City airport two days ago.
“It’s not my friend’s plantation,” Rolando says, “He’s a Ngobe, a picker,” he pinches his fingers together as he says this, as if to show what picking looks like. “But I know the roaster, Don Alfredo.” He thrusts an iPhone from his pocket into the air, peering at the screen and then taps in a number.
“You like coffee?” Josué asks. He looks like a jungle ninja in his black clothes without a single drop of perspiration on his face. Rolando is on the phone speaking Spanish, he’s laughing as he gazes back at us with a thumb’s up sign. He pushes the phone away from his mouth and says, “I can get you a tour on our way home, no problem.”
We step off the Volkswagen bus for a second time today and wait for Rolando to tell us where to go. I have to tilt my head back up to meet his eyes—Rolando is a whole foot and a half taller than me.
“I have to find Juan,” he says.
I exchange an incredulous look with Ron and Tom and the three of us snicker. Since we arrived in Panama, we cannot get the “Juan Valdez” iconic image out of our coffee. Noah, Ron’s long-time partner gives us his sidelong stare. The one that says we’re behaving like children. The coffee plantation is not a tidy farm with neat rows of carefully manicured bushes, but like overgrown landscaping, draped within the foliage of the surrounding jungle. A two-story house in front of us has a tiny, white printed sign outside that says, “Finca la Milagrosa, Cafetales Don Milagro.” The roof sags, a rusted metal with an overlapping patchwork of aging, corrugated siding, wood panels, and a cyclone fence. Rolando points to a couple of panting dogs, reclined in the dust by the house.
“Wait by the dogs,” he says cheerfully and his yellow tee shirt disappears behind the bleached door of the house. A diminutive man with a sparse mustache and narrow eyes emerges a moment later with Rolando from inside the house. Aside from the blonde chicken in the crook of his arm, he’s the Panamanian version of Charles Bronson. The hen with puffs of white feathers, nestled in the man’s arm, she reminds me of an evil villain’s Persian cat from a James Bond movie.
“Hola,” he says to us, “Soy Don Alfredo y este es Myrtle,” he lifts his arm with Myrtle into the air. She purrs a barely audible cluck as he shifts her weight.
Rolando laughs and pats Don Alfredo on the back. “Let’s go see Juan, he’s checking the plants for fungus,” and he ambles over to a wall of tall plants with red clusters of grape-sized berries. Rolando takes a bunch of the berries in his hand. “These are coffee cherries” he says, “the bean’s inside here.”
“He’s taking my job,” a middle-aged man in camouflage pants materializes from within the coffee plants like a phantom baseball player from A Field of Dreams. He and Rolando give each other a hug and a fist bump.
“You're from Portland?” the man asks, clearly tipped off. We all nod. “I’m John,” he says in perfect English. “And yes, the cherries are the plant’s fruit, they feed the bean.” He picks a couple of cherries and gives one to each of us to put into our mouths.
I squeeze it. The flesh doesn’t give, it’s firm with a tough skin. I bite down, tearing the skin, but it doesn’t squish. If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would think it was a rose hip with the same tart, tannin-like after taste. As I chew the cherry, I crunch on a firm stone pit. I spit the seed into my hand. The ivory-colored bean split into halves is only recognizable as coffee by the dented cleft in the middle, covered in an opaque, silk pith.
“Those are seeds,” John says pointing at the spittle mess in my hands. “Beans are actually seeds,” he says smiling at me. Caught with spit in my hand, I throw the contents on the grown and wipe my palm on the seat of my shorts.
“We’re between flowerings,” he says, “There are two harvesting seasons for coffee in Panama. Before the cherries are ready to be picked, the plant flowers white blossoms.” We walk further, into the plants, “when the plants flower, they’re very sweet, like orange blossoms,” John says.
He grabs a coffee stalk, “there are about eight cultivars in Panama, but these…” he shakes the plant, “…are Geisha cultivars.”
“Geisha?” I ask, “Like a Japanese…” I hear the words “courtesan,” “escort,” and “prostitute,” in my head and I’m at a loss for how to finish my sentence.
“Yes,” John says raising his eyebrows up and down provocatively, “Like the Japanese woman,” he winks, “it’s one of the most flavorful cultivars. But it takes three years before they yield harvestable cherries.”
We huddle in the middle of the plantation now, all seven of my travel companions and I, as well as John, Rolando, Josué, Don Alfredo, and the chicken. The foliage is dense and feels a lot less like a coffee farm and more like what I imagine a marijuana field might look like. This thought occurs to me when I recognize a familiar skunky, smoke on the breeze. I turn around, toward the aroma vaguely similar to burnt lawn clippings and face plant into Rolando’s chest. He smirks at me and stirs the air with his index finger, “The pickers are on break.”
“Does picking or roasting require the operation of heavy equipment?” I ask. Rolando steps around a plant in front of me and withdraws a coffee branch.
“Naw,” he says “the roaster is Don’s job,” we walk through an arch of branches that opens into the back of the plantation house with eight, long-tented huts. “The workers just pick, tend to the plants, and rotate the beans. He points to the huts, “These are for drying beans.” I run a hand through the beans.
“Once the ripest cherries are picked and the pulp is removed, they’re spread out on the drying racks in the sun and then covered at night in the drying huts.” He thrusts his whole arm under the beans and pushes them forward like he’s plowing snow and then smoothes them out flat.
As if on cue, my travel group: Tom, Brad, Josh, Noah, Ron, Rod, and Scott, all walk over to the closest drying rack and each excavate bean piles with their arms. The beans sound like pebbles as they swish into a flat layer for the sun to blanch dry. Don Alfredo with Myrtle retreat into the metal building, and from the doorway he waves to John to bring us inside.
The nutty aroma of roasting coffee mingles with the moist air inside the production building. We duck under clotheslines of red, metallic bags, with white lettering, hung like shirts to dry. Don Alfredo prints his own labels. Each bag lists the coffee type, the roast: American, French or Italian, and the plantation name, Finca la Milagrosa. Rolando herds us further into the production house to a little room with the coffee roasters. They are two. One looks like a clothes dryer covered in a foil fiberglass wrap. The other could easily be a mistaken for a small pot-bellied stove without a front door. The circular hole puffs a steady stream of chalky smoke. Inside the charred opening, beans tumble around a rotating metal grate. There’s a discernable shift in temperature in the room, scintillating fever. The air is visible, like rings of a tree. Each step toward the roaster is a denser ring of convection smog. The aroma is tawny, not just coffee but chestnut, like roasted oats. Sweat pearls travel along my hairline in an oily path down my temple toward an ear. Don Alfredo, sans chicken, tucks a long spoon into the mouth of the machine and extracts a spoonful of smoldering beans. He drops them onto a wooden tray.
“American roast,” he smirks, impish as though he’s telling a joke, “mild taste,” he says.
After another minute, he pulls a second spoonful from the roaster “French roast,” he says closing his eyes and leaning over the smoking beans, he inhales, “medium, full-body,” he says. Still smiling, Don glances up at Rolando and mutters something in Spanish.
Rolando chuckles and says, “Don Alfredo says his wife is French roast.” There is a chorus of chuckles.
Don Alfredo pulls a final spoonful from the mouth of the roaster. Dark, inky beans dribble onto the wooden tray.
“Italian roast” Don Alfredo says and pinches his face in distaste, “burned.”
Rolando playfully chastises him, “Dark roast Don, dark roast.” In mock Italian he says, “Molto gusto” and laughs, “Robust roast, like me” and beats his chest.
Don Alfredo puckers his lips and lets out a long exhale, “Poooofff.” He nods his head in acquiescence, “Ohhhh kaaaay,” he says “Dark roast” and then through a smile he says under his breath, “Burned.”
An attractive, young woman with dark hair tied in a ponytail quietly waits in the hallway. She balances a full tray of demi-tasse cups in one hand and a large French press in the other. John runs over to take the tray and the French press from her and sets them on a table in the back of the roasting room. Rolando follows the woman down the hall and returns a moment later with another tray. This one has two more coffee presses, a clean jam jar of tiny spoons, and a sugar bowl.
“Now you try the coffee,” he says “Pick your favorite: American, French or Italian.”
We all stand, like eight Goldilocks before the three coffee presses of mild, medium, and robust roast. John pours a cup from each pitcher, setting the cups in front of their respective press.
“Try,” he urges “All of them.”
As a psychologist, I have spent hundreds of hours studying personality, temperament and character. And yet, here in Panama, in this small roasting room with seven of my closest friends, I wonder if personality, like coffee, can really be distilled into three categories of mild, medium and robust.
“Hey,” I say, shoving my hand in front of Noah’s mouth as he tries to take a sip from the American cup, “shouldn’t this be a double-blind test?” Noah pushes my hand aside, “Listen here professor, this isn’t an empirical test. Take your coffee and just enjoy it.”
“Do you think they have soy?” I whisper.
“Honey, I love you,” Noah says, eagerness in his voice, he pushes the cup to my lips. Tom rolls his eyes at me. The aroma of my coffee is masculine—peppery, protective, and leather but with sharp edges. I take a sip. My mouth fills with the earthy, blameless flavor of soil, copper and walnuts, the bouquet yawns in my throat, a soothing soup.
In between each cup, we sip water and I consider all of my friends’ personalities and how their temperaments may filter into their preferences. Noah with his fondness for mid-century modern furniture and a collection of highly-coveted Fornasetti collectible plates, he is my advice guy. Always honest when you need it and nurturing when you don’t. Ron, a cardiac nurse, his kindness hits straight on, in the face. When Tom and I first met Ron, he introduced himself with a gift, an offering of friendship before we even sat down to dinner. Scott our polyglot is the most planful of our group. He researches and constructs every itinerary to excite the passions and interests of all of his friends. His partner Rod has an extroverted humor and silliness reminiscent of a fraternity brother, but with the social responsibility and sense of civic engagement more typical of the Joan Baez crowd. Brad is our jetsetter with the features of a young, healthy version of Jack Kerouac and a playfulness so palpable his sister refers to him as “Uncle Fun.” Josh, the hardest to know, with a Robin Williams wit, he was the only one among us who elected dancing to sleep on New Year’s Eve. Tom my husband, with long curls swept back behind his ears, he’s both yachtsman-pretty and yet exudes the manly air of someone who works in the trades. He is the most maternal among us, the first to defend and protect his friends. And there’s me, the tough-talker despite a first aid kit that easily occupies a quarter of my suitcase. I try to imagine who among us is the American, French or Italian roast. This gustatory measure of personality – like reading tealeaves or throwing chicken bones. Roast as temperament.
I’ve forgotten all of the coffee designations. I look to Tom for guidance. But he, with the rest of my group moved on to another table of fresh-roasted beans. They listen to Rolando explain the nuances of each flavor. They sample now from a tray of beans, gingerly crunching as they compare the flavors to chocolate and wood chips. I’m still tethered to the trays of cooling coffee, sucking the brew through my teeth as though I were a sommelier appraising the finer points of front verses back-of-the-mouth flavor. Josué sips from his cup, insouciant, watching contented. I raise my coffee cup to the coffee press at the far right. “This one, this one is my favorite,” I declare, confident.
“Which roast is it?” I ask.
“Come on,” he goads, “Take a guess.” He smiles at me and I feel strangely vulnerable, as though my choice is a litmus of my inner person, unmasked. My hulking first aid kit comes to mind and I realize what is no doubt my taste profile. All of my neuroses, an obsessive attention to detail, my false bravado, but limited self-control and I sigh, “American.” I say, resigned.
Josué raises an eyebrow. “No pequeña,” he shakes his head, “You’re robust, the robust roast.”
The term cultivar describes the cultivated coffee varietal.