Sweet Maria's Home Coffee Roasting

The Panama Cupping Competition 2002, Boquete, Chirqui, Panama

Sometimes, it is abundantly clear that working in the coffee trade has unique advantages over ... say... selling pretzels. It's not that I don't like pretzels, but chances are that your pretzel-oriented business trips are going to take you to Pittsburgh or Potomac ...But not into the beautiful highlands of Panama, temperature 66 to 68 average year round. I was invited to be a cupping judge at the 2002 Panama Specialty Coffee Association cupping competition in Boquete, Panama. There were 15 judges, mostly from the United States although there were 2 from Canada and 1 from Japan. The competition is held in Volcan on the Pacific side of Volcan Baru in the Boquete region, and in the town of Boquete (on the east-facing side of Baru). The Click on any small image to see the full-size picture.

Panama Overview Map

The flight from Newark NJ to Panama City is just 4 hours 20 minutes. Panama is in the Eastern time zone so for me there was no time adjustment. It takes a while to realize that Panama is aligned East-West, not North-South! The currency is the Dollar or the Balboa, which are the same size and weight and are used interchangeably.

Panama is much more than a canal! Mountain top view on the Hartmann Finca looking into La Amistad National Forest on the border of Panama and Costa Rica.

The temperatures in the mountains averages from 66-68 degrees year round! The dry season is December - May, and rainfall the rest of the year is 12-14 inches a month average. Visit this beautiful place!

To get to the mountain town of Boquete, you fly to Panama City, get a small plane flight on Aeroperlas to the coastal town of David on the Pacific, and then a bus ride up the mountain which takes just 30 minutes.

The Feria de Las Floras y Cafe is in January in Boquete, and is definitely the season and the occasion to visit! For a NY Times travel article on Boquete, click here.

The judging was Monday through Wednesday and the last of the judges arrived on Monday morning. There were 26 coffees entered in the competition and 1 had been disqualified for having a noticeable taint in the cup (rare among high quality Panamanian coffees).

There was a total of 16 judges and 6-12 cups were prepared from each sample ...So there was a lot of slurping going on. There were 3 cupping sessions, then a finalist session for the top scoring samples.

This was the first day after the first cupping session, and we are discussing our results.
The joker on the left of the frame is me.

Standing in front of a 20' tall typica tree on Finca La Fortuna. The farm was unkempt for several years and the trees were not pruned.

The coffee trees were in beautiful shape and still blooming although it was late in the crop cycle for this.

If you have never smelled coffee flowers, they are sweet -like jasmine but not as overwhelming.

Caturra tree with flowers in Boquete

There were actually new flowers on the same branch as very young coffee cherries. The abundant flowering is a good sign for lots of coffee cherry in next years crop, but the young seeds are not wanted at this time in the season - they make the tree expend energy that should be directed toward flowering and growth for next year.

In the mornings and afternoons we had breaks between the cupping sessions to look around. I woke up with the birds at 5 am every morning and wet running. This is a hilltop view of dawn in Boquete.

I love dogs so I couldn't pass up a picture at the local Catholic church in Boquete

It was the week after Holy Week and Easter, but the floats were still on the streets in town.

All the judges found Boquete's local cafe amusing. Peter from Starbuck's was one of the judges and he said he would send this along to headquarters as a joke. I knew he was kidding ... but I can't help but think it will end up on some humorless lawyers desktop and they'll send a letter out.

Finca Hartmann is one of the most naturalistic and beautiful farms I have seen. While not eco-certified (!), it has an incredible balance between shade-grown coffee, virgin forest and subsistence farming. There are small banana groves just to feed the Black Howler and Capuchin monkeys. The farm borders the La Amistad National Forest.

Sr. Ratibor Hartmann

A very amusing sign to warn hunters to stay off the Finca.

Sr. Hartmann inspecting coffee stored in parchment. This is his special wood bodega that, some say, imparts special qualities to his coffee.

To the right, from top to bottom:

Sr. Hartmann is a naturalist and was a scientific lab technician working with zoologists before taking over the family farm. He has an amazing collection of insects collected from the farm, including the incredibly huge Rhinoceros Beetles seen here, about 7 or 8 inches in length.


Here you can see coffee trees planted under tall shade trees. Some jerk stepped in front of my shot and messed it up... :-)


What is this scary photo? It's a Jaguar skin on the wall of Sr. Hartmann's home. Regrettably, this jaguar was killing all the dogs and other livestock in the area some years ago, and the farmers feared it would kill a child (they all walk the to school or down long farm roads to the bus).

Sr. Ricardo Fernandez is another longtime Boquete coffee producer. His coffee is known as Grand Del Val and they also own Finca La Fortuna, a rustic farm with some 20' tall Typica trees, pictured above.

Sr Fernandez with Scott Merle of Batdorf & Bronson, Chris from Joffrey's Coffee, Hirsoshi Tsuchiya of Unicafe Japan, and Bill Seemers of Orleans Coffee Exchange


In Boquete, we stayed at the beautiful Panamonte Hotel. It has a restaurant with incredible food too. The hotel is one of the earlier buildings in Boquete, dating from the 1910's. It is owned by the same family that owns Finca Lerida.

They have a site at www.hotelpanamonte.com There is another wonderful coffee farm with lodging in the hills outside Boquete: www.coffeeestateinn.com

Price Petersen is a coffee farmer in Boquete and an outspoken member of the SCAA on environmental, farming and coffee market issues. He also drives a Hummer.




Panama has amazing birds and flowers, and if either of those interest you and you never visit Boquete, you are really missing out. Here are 2 great things together, flowers and in the background coffee trees.

Price Petersen shows "skeleton" pruning method used on his farm.

There are some beautiful dogs in Panama too! This one fits on a dashboard.

La Berlina is a beautiful farm near the Horqueta river outside of Boquete. The farm was founded in 1905 by a Sr. Diaz as a land grant for his service in the Colombian military (remember that Panama was under Colombian rule.) In 1996 the farm was sold to the Ruiz family, one of the most respected coffee families in Boquete.

View of La Berlina farmhouse and mill from above.

The original family farm house was on top of the mill. This is the second story interior with beautiful woodwork from trees harvested and milled on the farm.

I love graffiti. Here is some markings on a shed on Finca La Fortuna

Coffee pulp and mucilage is rather nasty stuff if it gets into the water supply. One one of my early morning runs I found this pile of decomposing coffee pulp from a wet mill. This is one sound way to avoid contamination: dry it in the sun.
Coffee pulp drying away from water supplies.
Another new method to wet-mill coffee avoids the entire fermentation process by forcing the pulp and mucilage off the coffee. This method protects the water supply, uses almost no water in the process, and seems to have great results in the cup!
Coffee de-pulper and de-mucilager at the wet-mill for Cafetalera Fernandez.

Oh, back to the cupping! On the first day all us judges spent quite a lot of time "calibrating our palates." Because we all cup and have our own idiosyncratic ways of doing things, its important for everyone to get of the same page in both terms and technique.

The cupping was exhausting considering that there was 6 to 12 samples per lot (26) and then the final re-cupping of the highest rated coffees.

Aaron and John of JG Bean in Vancouver, as the judges calibrate palates on a test sample.

Peter of Starbucks ponders his scores. While some question Starbucks retail practices, they are heroes among coffee producers for the high premiums they pay and long-term relationships they sustain with growers.

From top to bottom at right:

Scott Merle, green coffee buyer for Batdorf & Bronson does some spittin'



Scott Reed of Royal Coffee gets something out of his eye... behind him is the other Scott and in the red is Bob Fulmer of Royal Coffee



James of Royal Coffee New York was the head judge for the cupping, and did an outstanding job! Here he is doing the cupper's sucking and spitting routine.

As a parting jab, I suffered a bit of karma for all those bad Canadian jokes I tried to pass off on the trip. The National paper from Panama City, reporting on the cupping competition, included a photo with me in their layout, and labeled me as "from Canada!"

Some Links of Interest:

Cafe Ruiz -Coffee grower and roaster in Boquete

La Montana y El Valle - The Coffee Estate Inn

Isla Verde Cabins

Chiriquí Rafting

Boquenet.net a Spanish language site with information about Boquete.

www.cometoboquete.com a Boquete real estate developer's site with selected information about his real estate, activities, hotels, restaurants and tours

PanamaInfo.com General Panama info including Boquete


PS: These are my pictures on this page - please don't use them for anything without asking!

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