Food Column: How I Became a Coffee Lover

A non-coffee drinker visits a coffee farm in Panama and leaves a convert.


“Taste this,” Richard Lipner said as he pinched a fruit from a coffee plant on his farm and handed it to me. Following his lead, I sucked the pulp and spit out the husk and beans. The juice from the coffee cherry surprised me with its sweet, almost floral, flavor. But the experience differed from that of eating, say, pomegranate arils or muscadines because I could taste a smooth cup of Arabica waiting to be brewed.

And I wasn’t even a coffee drinker.

My family and I arrived at Finca Dos Jefes, an organic coffee farm located in the El Salto region in Boquete, Panama, on a cool morning at the start of harvest season. Coffee plants, heavy with cherries from green to blood red, formed a patchwork across the sloped land. Brightly colored fabric ruffled between the rows of crops, as Ngobe-Bugle women dressed in traditional molas dropped ripe beans into 5-gallons latas.

The owners, Richard and Dee Lipner, immigrants from California, bought the farm several years ago after Lipner retired from his position as Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of San Francisco. On a visit to the region, they looked at the property and bought it the next day, despite knowing little about coffee farming, and even less about organic practices.

So what drew them to this coffee farm? “The farm was abandoned and somewhat overgrown when we purchased it, but clearly reminded me of the wine country in California 40 years ago,” Lipner explained. Plus, he’d roasted his own coffee as a hobbyist for years, so learning to grow it wasn’t an unreasonable next step.

As Lipner led my family around his farm, we ran our hands through the cherries drying on the raised racks constructed from bamboo. The coffee cherries sun-dry on these racks until they reach a moisture content of eleven percent. From there, the fruit rests in a cool, dark place for at least ninety days, and finally, they are hulled and cleaned and ready for roasting. 

After the tour of the farm, including its composting and seed-starting operations, we headed back to a porch surrounded by lilies in bloom for cupping time. I cradled each cup of coffee—a light, medium, and dark roast—and concentrated on the smell. 

As a novice, I smelled coffee, coffee and coffee.

But then I took a sip from each cup, and as Lipner explained, let the flavors roll across my palate. The lighter roast tasted, well, light. But I noticed a pleasant acidity to it, and as a lover of lemonade, I enjoyed it. The darker roast tasted somehow fuller, and dare I say, complex.

In my prior experiences with coffee, I cringed at the bitterness. And the undertones of burnt rubber. And the lingering notes of shoe leather. That explains why when I drank coffee, I actually drank coffee-flavored sugar milk.

But Lipner’s coffee, Cafés de la Luna, tasted smooth. I drank two cups.

After I settled on a preferred roast, he showed me inside where a glossy red roaster waited. Under his direction, I weighed out four pounds of green coffee beans, lit up the roaster, and loaded the beans into the drum. I adjusted the flame to keep the temperature at 450 degrees, periodically slipped a few beans out to examine the color, and waited for the first pop, which means you’d best be on your toes or risk burning the whole lot. After releasing the beans into the swirling tray to cool, Lipner bagged up a half-pound for me to take home.

And then I bought five more bags.

How do I take my Café de la Luna you ask? Light on the sugar and just a splash of milk. I want to taste the coffee, after all.


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