Don Tito is a known personality in Boquete, a small species of local celebrity. A visit to his farm and hand-built artisan processing/roasting “plant” was suggested and recommended on all sides. He was eager to tell me how Café Royal- named for his parents, Rosa y Alfredo, all started.
“I had the opportunity, I had the luck, the craziness to buy land, property. In this way I bought what is now Finca La Milagrosa. It was a cow farm, for herding. It was all pasture, so I started to cultivate coffee. And, well, it’s been a long time. Right now it’s about 30 years I’ve been doing this. I’ve tried different varieties of coffee, the most resistant, the most productive- I’ve worked a long time. But this is how we started trying different varieties: Geisha, Borboun, Caturra, Catuai, Typica. Right now on the farm we have about 10 different kinds of coffee. It’s a mixed production, more or less.
And after a certain time, 8, 10 yeasr I’ve been trying to grow coffee, I decided to processing it however I could. Very, very artisan. Little by little I started building a few machines. I built the majority of the machinery we have now. Without any knowledge- with just necessity. Well, I always say it was like a hobby. I was occupied, entertained. But it was difficult for us. I didn’t have the experience of processing, of production, I didn’t know anything about machinery- or coffee either! But, well, trying and trying and trying, right now we have the end result.
The next step was commercializing the coffee, which was also very difficult. It is difficult, still. We’ve dedicated ourselves to producing quality coffee. And this has brought us to a few clients and markets that are rather attractive. Japan, Taiwan, the United States, France. We’ve been the most focused on quality.
Because we built our machines by trial and error, there wasn’t financing or a way of getting adequate machinery. But, well, that’s why the farm is called “The Miraculous,” it was all a miracle. But now I have more work than ever! Before I could get up late, now I have to get up at 4 in the morning. And to the same effect work doesn’t end until 9 or 10 at night.”
And when you started, why did you decide to convert the cow pastures into cafetales?
“One, because I like coffee. I like to drink coffee. Further, because I don’t like to raise cattle, I’m afraid of them. I don’t think I’d be any good at it. I also don’ think I’d be any good at raising animals just to kill them. So, it started as a hobby.
At the beginning, my parents didn’t agree with it. They didn’t want me to be growing coffee; I was young- I should be studying. But… I was always very rebellious. I never wanted to study. That was the problem. I didn’t want to study, I didn’t want to study. And I also didn’t want to leave Boquete; Boquete is a very special place, very beautiful. I think that was the main motivation. For me it was like a pretext, an excuse, to look for a type of work that was fixed, like coffee. That way I had a reason so stay here. So that’s how it started.
I don’t exactly know why. Really, when I started to plant coffee, it was crazy to plant coffee. It didn’t make sense. The prices in the national and international markets were very low, so it was crazy. That’s why my family didn’t support me- because what I was doing didn’t make any sense. But after two or three years, my father realized that it was a very serious decision. And they started to support me.”
And at this point you were just selling the coffee in fruit, in cherry form?
“Exactly. The first years we sold it in cherries to the big companies in Boquete. I think we were one of the first ones who tried to be independent and try to process our own coffee. I think. You’ll have to see what information the big companies have. But I think we inspired a lot of people. For some people it went well, some people ended up leaving coffee.
Growing coffee isn’t for everyone. Coffee is a business, well for us it’s a way of life, but for many people, they think of it as a business. But it’s not just a business; it’s something you can enjoy, or share, or move forward. But there are years that you don’t see anything for your work. There are hard years. That’s why coffee growing, in Boquete at least, is disappearing a little. In other countries foreigners have invested a lot of money in coffee. Why? Because the locals have realized it’s not a great business. For us in Boquete right now, it’s more lucrative to sell the land than to produce on it. We’re in an activity like this not because it makes us a lot of money, but because we like it.
Right now a finca like this could sell for a million dollars, because people need land to build houses on. So we’re crazy to keep growing coffee.”
Well, the world needs a few “crazy” people.
“Yes, but we’re going extinct, little by little. That’s the other problem. I couldn’t do anything else other than be on the farm. I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. Giving conferences, being in an office- I couldn’t do it. This is something one lives, enjoys.”
After showing me his property and telling me more stories (this is a 10 minute excerpt from a 90 minute interview), Don Tito invited me to lunch. I told him it wasn’t necessary; I had food at my hostel I could cook. He looked at me and said, “that maybe so. But it’s better to eat together.” I can’t argue that. I also believe it is better to drink coffee together. And having the chance to drink coffee with the person who made it- who planted and harvested and processed and roasted it- is probably the coolest thing in the world.
My wife and I so enjoyed the tour of Don Tito’s estate. Mr. Tito was a wonderful host. He is a man to be admired – he has many talents, skills, and qualities. His perseverance is finally paying off at Finca de Milagrosa. His Cafe Royale is absolutely superb. We brought many pounds of it back to the U.S. with us, but alas, it is long gone now. Here’s wishing we could order more.
That is a beautiful account of a person who obviously values what he does. This is true Boquete character. This is Panama spirit at its best. It is great to hear that there are people who keep the traditions, who find sustainable ways of moving forward without destroying what they had…and what would Boquete be without the coffee?