Most of us take our morning cup of coffee for granted, not realizing the amount of processing and preparation that goes on between seed and hot cup of coffee. During my trip to Boquete this past May, I was invited on a private tour of Kotowa Coffee Farm by Hans van der Vooren, who owns and runs Coffee Adventures along with his wife Terry. Aside from being an entertaining and enthusiastic guide, Hans taught me a thing or two about coffee and I’ll never look at my capaccino the same way. I decided to take a minute to ask Hans a few more questions.
Recently, several Panama coffees have won international coffee competitions. What makes Panama coffee so special? Is there something about Boquete that makes the coffee particularly good? Yes Boquete, on the south side of Volcan Baru has the climate. Its volcanic soil is perfect for [growing] Arabica coffee. Looking back, it also helped that panama had its fare share of political bad luck at the end of the Noriega era; a new coffee, Catimora, found its way into Latin America. Catimora coffee ended up having a disappointing taste, but a lot of coffee countries planted this coffee.
Not Panama. Panama was so poor it could not replant its plantations. The country was so poor that it stayed mainly with the old way of growing coffee: Small plantations close to nature and the old Arabica varieties. Next, there is a very good relationship between most of the coffee companies around Volcan Baru; in the last ten years especially, [they’ve] learned how to perfect the process together, and today Panama produces some of the best coffee in the world.
On that note, what makes a particular coffee “good?” Does it have to do with the kind of bean? Or does it depend more on the process? You cannot make a bad coffee good just by processing it right. Everything has to be done right, from the growing of the fruit to the roasting of the bean.
When I visited Boquete this past May and went on your coffee farm tour, I had no idea that the process of getting coffee from seed to cup was so involved, in many ways like the wine-making process. I think most people don’t realize how long it takes for a coffee beanto make it onto grocery store shelves; how long, on average, does it take between the time a coffee bean is picked and the time it’s ready to drink? For our specialty Arabica it will take about 6 months. An important part of the process is curing the coffee in for five months, like a wine.
You yourself have an organic coffee farm on your property; what motivated you to plant your own coffee, and how is it different from non-organic coffee farms in terms of yield and taste? The motivation for my wife, Terry, and I comes from one thing: The love for a good cup coffee.
In general, a non-organic commercial coffee is a cheap mass product; you simply use all means to produce the product as cheaply as possible. This does not mean it’s a bad product; it makes a lot of people happy, but it can be so much better! The coffee we grow on our estate is a hobby, so we can do things differently. We are only looking at the taste. We like to think we even surpass organic. [For the last 10 years] our coffee has been growing wild. We have not used any non-organic fertilizer. The coffee is planted beside the trees in the forest and the forest has to provide the nutrition and shade for the coffee trees. Next, we use a very old variety of Arabica called Tipica Criollo. We find it to be a very good coffee but also a very low production. A hobby.
Our coffee is only for guests staying at our lodge, Tinamou Cottage, here in the Jungle on the estate! (coffeeadventures.net/tinamou). We also will always bring our coffee on other tours like hiking and birding tours
Light roast, medium roast, dark roast; it all sounds fancy, but what exactly does it mean? What are the differences in taste, and how should I prepare each? Roasting is the moment the taste come out of the bean. In general you can taste the body, or basic coffee flavor, better in a darker roast, but you will lose the taste of the smaller flavors, which are characteristic to the variety of Arabica, such as nuts, fruit, chocolate, and caramel the darker you roast the beans. Therefore, we like to see a light roast as a “strong” and complex tasting coffee good for a drip and French press. If you like more body, the medium roast will work better. For an espresso machine, in general you will do fine with a dark roast, but with a good coffee, a medium roast will give you a more complex taste in your cup of espresso. The extra dark roast is also known as a French roast, and is good for coffee with extra added flavors, mostly in the form of a syrups added to the cup of coffee in the coffee shop.
I’ve heard the stuff you get at the grocery store is, literally, the bottom of the barrel. Is this true? No, but it’s a commercial coffee made as cheap as possible and mostly based on Robusta, a very easy to grow and produce coffee, but with a simple taste and in general, not a good aftertaste. More and more grocery store coffees are adding lower quality Arabica coffee, which makes the coffee somewhat smoother and more flavorful. We notice the world wants/likes to drink a better coffee.
Where can I get good coffee? A specialty store; just find a real coffee store.
How can those of us with an unsophisticated palette tell the difference between “good coffee” and “bad coffee?” Let’s start with this: A good coffee is a coffee you like, so you have to find the perfect coffee for you! A good coffee store will have a description of the taste of the coffee’s they offer and you have to look for the flavors and roast you like. This is also a part of the Kotowa coffee tour we organize here in Boquete. The tour is not just about how a coffee grows and how it’s processed; we will help you find your way in a coffee store! (www.coffeeadventures.net/coffeetour)
How did your passion for coffee develop? Was it something that started in Holland, or did it start when you moved to Panama? We always loved coffee but Panama made us coffee snobs, and we enjoy every moment and sip of our (coffee) life here in Boquete.
Your perfect cup of coffee? For us, it’s a cappuccino made from our own coffee in a medium roast, easy on the milk but lots of milk foam and a side of good Dutch apple pie. And just like wine, good company.