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What is competitive coffee? Interview with Berlina Estate

La Berlina Estate Coffee Farm (or Berlina Manor) originated from a romantic love story. A soldier from Colombia, after the war of independence, fell in love with a beautiful local girl and stayed here to build their own home. In 1920, they carved out a plot of land in the hills outside Poquette and gradually established the Berlina Manor. In the early 1930s, the Berlina Estate was sold to the Ruiz family, who managed the export of coffee, which led to the introduction of Geisha. In 2020, Don Clemente Vega, the manager of the estate, began to develop future planting plans actively. This year, Berlina also scored 91.75 points on the Best of Panama (BOP), ranking 14th.

Before China’s National Day holiday, we were fortunate to invite Don Clemente Vega to conduct an in-depth video interview. He talked about the history of the manor, planting experience, competition beans selection and other aspects, and all kinds of interesting knowledge about coffee.

Coffee Exchange (CEx) is a B2B marketplace that allows coffee producers to connect directly with roasters in China. Besides shortening the supply chain, we also help producers overcome language barriers and cultural shock. We also love to learn and share our partners' stories and experiences!

Who is Don Clemente Vega?

  • Over 30 years of experience in specialty coffee cultivation and management

  • One of the first people to get Q-grader qualification (total of 3)

  • Has helped several estates to be selected for the BOP auction list and have achieved good results: Elida Manor / Auromar Manor / Bambito Manor (2 times selected first place, 40 competition batches entered the bidding list)

  • President of the Panama Specialty Coffee Association (SCAP)

  • Jason Family Coffee Quality Control Manager

  • Experienced judge for different local competitions in Panama

What is the Berlina Estate?

Mau: ¡Hello, Don Clemente Vega! I'm Mauricio, from Coffee Exchange, I’m in charge of relations with the producers. The purpose of today's interview is to learn more about you and more about Berlina Estate. So, we would like you to start with a little introduction of the Estate.

Don Clemente Vega: Hello Mau, of course! Thank you for the interview

and for giving us the opportunity to show what Berlina Estate is all about! The Estate dates back to the 1920s, when it was founded around 1920 in the small town of Los Naranjos in Boquete. The Estate covers an area of nearly 100 hectares and has two treatment plants, one with an annual output of 3,000 tons and the other with an output of 500 tons. This is one of the best factories in Boquez, with vertical integration from top to bottom. At the same time, we also have our own coffee brand, which is also well-known in the local area.

Its highest elevation is 1750 meters, the lowest elevation is 1600 meters, currently the main varieties grown are Typica and Geisha. In the future, we will also want to grow more micro-batches of other varieties. We are currently experimenting with different varieties of coffee such as Moca, Marago Gipe, Borbón and El Pacamara, so stay tuned!

Standard vs. Specialty Coffee

Don Clemente, we also know about your work in processing different batches that have made it to The Best of Panama (BOP) and your experience as a judge. Could you give us an overview of the BOP selection process, and awards you have won, or the role Berlina has played in different BOP competitions?

The Importance of Coffee Picking

To do well in competitions involves a commitment to high standards of quality, which should be followed from the decision maker to the picker, which means constant experimentation and innovation in processing methods. First, as the manager of the estate, the workers must understand that they have a decisive influence on the selection of coffee cherries from the beginning. They not only have to choose 100% ripe coffee cherries, but also those very ripe coffee "grapes." This can be identified from the color of the coffee cherry peel, changing from a cherry red shade to a red wine grape shade, will bring more sugar and fruit tonality.

The Importance of Picking Time

We have an interesting finding about the picking time: generally, the picking period in Panama begins with the rainy season, It usually takes place in the latter half of the year, during October, November and December, and lasts until the end of the beginning of the next year, which is our summer and dry season. During the rainy season, the moisture in the soil is very high because the continuous rainfall will keep the soil high. This increases the water content of all high-altitude fruits and dilutes the sugar, including coffee cherries. When picked in the dry season, there is less water in the soil, more sugar is retained in the plant, and the higher the sugar content in the fruit.

The Age of the Coffee Tree

More and more people have noticed that the age of the plant also has an impact on coffee flavor. In my years of cupping experience, the fruit of coffee trees that are often 6 years old will have a more amazing performance in cupping. The older the coffee tree, the brighter the acidity of the fruit in the cupping. I think it's because older coffee trees have denser tissue in their trunks, and they absorb more nutrients when the branches need to grow out of the trunk. When people age rum or wine, they make wooden barrels and put the wine inside the barrel to absorb the characteristics of the barrel, which also gives the wine a richer flavor. Therefore, a similar situation occurs when the sap has to pass through more plant tissue, which will give the coffee different flavor characteristics.

The Altitude Factor

The last factor that affects the flavor of coffee is altitude. However, with the continuous updating of coffee processing methods, the impact of the taste gap caused by height is not so obvious, and this gap has been narrowed to some extent by controlling the fermentation process and adding microorganisms, yeasts and fungi.

CEx & Berlina Estate Geisha

This is the first year of cooperation between Berlina Estate and CEx. We chose a washed Geisha. Can you share more about this coffee? And how did you help the estate grow and process the coffee?

Quality Assurance

Berlina Estate always adheres to a high standard of quality assurance, and the selection begins the moment the cherries are picked from the trees. In Panama we use the traditional harvesting method, which is 100% manual. We try to pick only those late ripening coffee "grapes," not coffee cherries, so that the flavor and sweetness will be great, giving the coffee a fruity sweetness.

Precise Control of Picking Time

Because the elevation of the estate is not large (about 100 to 150 meters), and each coffee tree receives about the same amount of rain and light, the performance of the coffee in the cupping is very consistent. Generally speaking, there are two picking periods in Panama, and coffee cherries will have different maturity changes at different times during these two harvesting periods. If we precisely control the picking time, coffee cherries will develop different flavors, smells and aromas due to the ripeness.

This development takes about three weeks if the weather conditions are bad. If the weather conditions are good, you can extend the development time slightly and control it to four to five weeks. It is necessary to record this development time period and time point because it gives us a good understanding of the last harvest date of each coffee batch, ensuring that the next harvest time is equally accurate.

Strict Implementation of Treatment Standards

One of the Berlina treatment plants, with an annual output of about 3,000 tons and a 40-year history, is where the washed Geisha you mentioned is made. After picking, we will immediately transport the coffee cherries to the processing plant. First, we soak and screen, after the first sorting, then peel and let stand for fermentation, and finally washed to ensure the perfect removal of pectin. The beans are then dried in a pre-dry drain in the backyard.

We have enough machines to allow mechanical drying, which is good. Many geisha farmers do not have adequate equipment, which is very weather dependent. Catuai and Caturra can be shipped when they stand for about 45-60 days. But for Geisha, sitting time is important. It takes 90 to 120 days to get a better coffee, and after 90 days, the acidity in the cup will be brighter. When the Geisha is finished, the peeling begins. After peeling, the beans are sorted by size, density, weight, and color.

I've always said that grading and sorting coffee beans is important. When customers receive coffee beans, they want each bag of coffee beans to be of the same quality, so that they can have better control when roasting coffee beans. Color grading is also important, and the color of the coffee beans to some extent also shows the characteristics of the region: Central American and African beans are different colors. We can also judge the water content of coffee by color. Finally, when it comes to exporting, the packaging we use is varied, usually using standard GrainPro bags, as well as vacuum packaging and cardboard boxes.

Challenges & Opportunities for 2022

I also heard that the Panamanian government has updated the export packaging rules for this year, and the situation is quite complicated, not only for your estate, but also for many people. What opportunities do you have and what challenges have you had this year?

Yes, we have also discussed it with different estates this year. They are having a lot of problems buying sacks. There are no sacks in Panama, so we have to import them from other countries. The arrival of the epidemic has made it all the more difficult. At the beginning of the year, it was difficult to buy raw materials for coffee growing, and the prices were very expensive. However, opportunities are always there. I have no doubt that Berlina Estate will go further, it is very famous in Panama and still growing.

We have a well-trained team that constantly updates our growing and handling methods. Working with service providers like CEx brings more opportunities. I think agricultural tourism is also a great opportunity for us. We opened a cafeteria six months ago and are already opening a second one, which also offers tours of farms, among other things. We hope we can make some contribution to local agricultural tourism. In the future, the rising cost of inputs such as fertilizer and labor is a great challenge for us. We will pay more attention to how to improve the efficiency and quality of coffee cultivation in the case of high cost and high input.

Learn more about Berlina Estate and keep up with our collaboration through our Instagram @coffeeexchangeglobal!

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