Boquete  is coffee country, but as you look around you may wonder where they’re hiding the farms. Scanning the hillsides, all you see are shady trees, particularly orange trees. Look closer: If it’s a coffee farm, you’ll see tall shrubs below the trees. In the picking season, these will have ripe, cherry-red berries. The seeds are coffee beans.
Most of the coffee here is shade-grown, a traditional method in which coffee bushes grow in the shade of a forest or among trees planted by farmers. Farther west, especially around Río Sereno  near the Costa Rican border, coffee is grown in open fields. This method produces a greater yield, but conservationists say it’s a poor trade-off.
They argue that trees protect the crop from pests, produce natural mulch, preserve the chemical balance of the soil, and prevent erosion. Shade-grown coffee therefore requires less pesticide and fertilizer and is less disruptive to the environment. The money saved on fertilizer helps offset the lower productivity of shade-grown coffee.
Also, the trees provide a habitat for mammals and hundreds of bird species, particularly migratory birds. This habitat becomes ever more important as forests are cleared in coffee-producing countries. It’s a pretty efficient system. The pulp of the berry that surrounds the bean is even used as compost, and the dried husk encasing the bean is used as fuel.
In Boquete , orange trees are commonly planted along with coffee and provide an extra source of income for the farmers. This also helps make up for the lower productivity of the shade-grown method. You can almost always find good oranges in Boquete. Navel oranges grow eight or nine months out of the year. Valencias take over February–March.
But even eco-friendly coffee processing has its limitations. Processing uses a great deal of water, which is then flushed into the rivers. The runoff is filled with pulp and sugar compounds that upset the biological balance of the rivers and streams. In 2006, Panama enacted a law requiring the local coffee industry to purify their runoff before dumping it.
It’s also hard to grow coffee completely organically. Few farms in Boquete use herbicides, but the orange trees attract Mediterranean fruit flies, which farmers do fight with pesticides. Still, the main enemy in the highlands is fungal disease, not insects. Because it’s so wet up here, farmers plant coffee so that air flows through the rows of bushes, keeping everything a bit drier.
A large workforce of migrant Ngöbe-Buglé farm workers is critical to the coffee industry in Panama and harvesting is all done by hand. Try it if you get a chance — it’s not easy. And it’s tedious work.
Due to overproduction of coffee around the world, the market has become saturated in recent years. Prices became so depressed it sometimes cost farmers more to pick the crop than they could hope to make from selling it.
Hardest hit, naturally, were the coffee pickers. They’re paid by the lata (roughly 20 liters, or 5 gallons). In mid-2008 workers were making about US$1.15–1.25.
Still, a Ngöbe-Buglé worker can pick only an average of six to seven latas of beans a day. Do the math. Even in Panama  that’s hard to live on. As a result, there is an increasing labor shortage.
Coffee in Boquete  is normally harvested October–February. The beans of the best coffee are sun dried, a process that takes 8–12 days. The beans are then stored for at least three months to cure them. The whole process is delicate; any misstep from bush to roaster can degrade the quality of the coffee.
Coffee is ready to sell in late March or early April. That’s when the buyers come and the “cupping,” the coffee equivalent of wine-tasting, begins. The different farms compete to see who will have the highest-rated crop that year.
April to June is the best time to come to Boquete if you want to taste ultra-fresh coffee. Even then, you should aim for coffee that’s been roasted within the last two weeks, if possible. If you grind the beans, you’ve got two days to taste it at its best.
The two most widely produced types of coffee in the world are robusta and arabica. Robusta is a lowland coffee with twice as much caffeine and a more bitter taste than arabica, which is a highland coffee. Robusta has its defenders, and it’s often mixed with arabica to create espresso blends. But good-quality arabica beans are generally considered to produce a better cup of coffee than good-quality robusta beans. All the coffee in Boquete is arabica.
Coffee grown at higher elevations matures more slowly because of the lower temperatures. This makes for a more complex, less bitter brew. Generally, the higher the elevation, the better the coffee. Boquete coffee is grown at 1,000–1,600 meters, which is quite high.
Like many a would-be coffee snob, I’d always preferred hearty dark-roast coffee over the bitter stuff Americans traditionally consumed or the scorched water they now drink at Starbucks. As true coffee connoisseurs in Boquete  will point out, though, dark roasts are often used to mask low-quality coffee.
Gourmet coffees tend to get a lighter roast, allowing you, in the catchphrase of one Boquete grower, to “taste the coffee, not the roast.” If you like your coffee strong, just brew more beans per cup.
Those with sensitive stomachs should also note that dark roasts are more acidic. Another tip: Coffee made from somewhat coarse grounds often tastes better than finely ground stuff.
Learn more about Panamanian coffee by taking a tour of one of Boquete’s many coffee operations .