Earlier this year we traveled to Boquete, Panama for the Best of Panama competition. While we were there we met a remarkable young coffee farmer named Keith Pech, who manages his family’s farm Damarli Estate. He was kind enough to host us on his farm, serve us some delicious coffee blossom tea, and teach us about the unique microclimate that makes coffees from Boquete some of the most sort-after coffee in the world. Whether it’s his background as a professional ping pong player or his experience working for a négociant in Bordeaux, France, Pech is an exceptional person that we knew we had to interview.
You grew up near Cleveland, but now you run a coffee farm. How did that happen?
Yes I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and lived there until I was 22 years old. My father is American and my mother is Panamanian. So I have always been spending time in Panama since I was a child, basically every year during my summers for usually between 3 weeks to 2 months. On my mothers side coffee has been in the family since the late 1800s and when I became interested in coffee it made me the 5th generation in coffee.
My Panamanian grandfather, Plinio Ruiz, was the founder of Casa Ruiz SA and the Panamanian Coffee brand Cafe Ruiz. He became with the help of the whole family (my grandmother, my two uncles, my aunt and my mother) the largest exporter of coffee in Boquete (at one time over 100 containers per year) and was one of the largest roasters in all of Panama with presence in many major supermarkets.
My American father, David Pech, basically married into a coffee family and was given the opportunity to purchase a farm in Boquete. My father thought it was a good idea so he too joined the coffee business in 1996. He named the farm Damari after the initial investors -DA for David, MA for Manfred (his father), R for Ruth (his mother) and LI for Lia (his wife) Damarli was taken care of by the Ruiz family until 2014, when I had finished college in the US and I decided I was more passionate about coffee than the other opportunities that were available. Thus, I moved down to Panama and became a full time coffee farm manager at Damarli Estate.
I’ve read that the average coffee farmer in Latin America is 55. You’re still in your 20s. What’s it like to be a young man in an old man’s game? Have you had any mentors?
Haha yes, coffee farming is definitely marked by an older generation. Essentially to be a coffee farmer you need to be a land owner and understand the plants life cycle. So I believe its natural that most farms are run by an older generation, however it is concerning that there are very few young people taking interest in farming.
As for me in Panama, yes I noticed very quickly that I was the youngest specialty coffee farmer in at least Boquete, maybe even Panama. Something I learned very quickly is that growing coffee is a game of patience, something I think that is not easily learned by a younger man. I clearly remember being frustrated by how slow and how much time it took to do things. This is not like some iphone app game where plants grow in a matter of a day and you are harvesting in the same day. There is definitely a pace to life and an understanding that you are planning for the next 20 years whenever you plant.
Regarding mentors, yes there have been so many people that have offered me guidance and ideas of what to do. The specialty coffee community in Panama was really accepting of me and I felt welcome among them. My aunt Maria Ruiz PhD (40 years in the coffee industry) was always there to answer my questions and help me, whether it would be to share contacts or advice regarding farming. Other mentors were Wilford Lamastus, Ricardo Koyner, Plinio Ruiz, Daisy Ruiz, and others.
You studied sustainability in college. Has that impacted the way you run your farm?
Yes definitely! I mean before I even moved to Panama I spent three months of my summer working on a sustainability analysis for growing and processing coffee. Some of the initiatives that we are currently working on are:
Increasing Natural Production
As you may know washed coffees really pollute water. I believe I just read something stating that the waste water from coffee is 10 times worse than average sewage water. However, if we can begin doing more drying coffee under the sun we are not polluting water, the coffee usually scores 2 points higher, and we have cascara also to sell. I think that is a win-win-win! So we are in the process of building enough drying beds and a small rotary dryer so that we can get to 100% natural.
Damarli Estate – Private Suites and Lab (Still working on a name – open to suggestions)
We have already started building our house, coffee lab, and private suites on the top hill of the farm. Its built from local materials, it runs completely on solar power, rain water is collected and purified for use, and all the wasted is composted. We want it to be a place where we live, work in the coffee lab, and entertain visitors (tourists, coffee enthusiasts and coffee professionals).
Next Projects include composting, compost teas, reforestation with only native trees, and growing additional foods (permaculture theory).
You’re about to finish a masters degree in luxury brand management in Bordeaux, France. What inspired you to pursue that? How has that shaped your perspective on producing specialty coffee?
Yes I left to continue my studies in Bordeaux, although I still have weekly phone calls to Panama to make sure that everything is running the way it is suppose to. I came to study luxury brand management (focus in food and wine) in Bordeaux, because in Panama we are quite famous for the Panama Geisha. I saw that we were starting approach prices that are only achieved by luxury. Thus I wanted to come and study and learn from the luxury and fine wine industries as we continue to move in that direction.
Given that I am now finishing with my degree, it has changed and shaped my perspective on producing specialty coffee. In essence it showed me that in order to be truly specialty we need to pursue the highest degree of quality. Simply growing the coffee is not enough, in order to continue to specialize even more we must truly understand every aspect. We need to learn about the science and the details for each and every process (growing, processing, storage) and how it will effect the roasting and end cup with a paranoid manner.
Furthermore I believe that we should become closer to producing a more finished product. I hope to one day soon open my own roastery in Panama to sell roasted coffee internationally. I believe this is the way forward. There are plenty of obstacles in terms of logistics and preservation of quality, however nothing great was done without some innovation.
What do you wish more baristas (and specialty coffee consumers) knew about coffee farmers?
I do not have anything particular to say, other than I think the best way to understand farmers is come and visit producing countries. I think a simple visit can help change most peoples attitude toward coffee and to understand the daily grind of coffee farmers.
What’s your favorite way to brew coffee when you’re at Damarli Estate?
Batch brew! We always have a 9:00AM coffee break with the workers so we usually need more than one or two cups to go with the empanadas and hojaldras.