November 17, 2020

A Guide To Specialty Coffee In Panama

Even though coffee has been grown in Panama since the early 20th century, it has only gained a reputation as a country that produces quality coffee in the last 20 years.

Today, largely thanks to the success of the Geisha variety, Panama is recognised for producing high-quality coffee that is sought after by roasters, buyers, and competition baristas from around the world. 

Read on to learn more about Panamanian coffee, and how Panama became a desirable specialty coffee origin.

You might also like The Best of Panama: The History of a Specialty Coffee Auction

Producing Regions In Panama

As an equatorial country located along the “bean belt”, Panama has a desirable climate for cultivating coffee plants. According to USDA figures, more than 80% of the coffee grown in Panama is arabica, while the remaining 20% is robusta.

Robusta is predominantly grown in low-altitude regions, including Cocle, Panama Oeste, Colón, Veraguas, Herrera, Los Santos, Bocas del Toro, Panama Este, and Darien. 

The mountain highlands of the Chiriquí province, however, provide the perfect conditions for the arabica plant. Perhaps most famously, the mountain town of Boquete is renowned for its quality arabica, thanks in part to its elevation of between 1,000 and 2,800 m.a.s.l. 

The coffee grown in Chiriquí is predominantly exported, while the robusta grown in Panama’s lowland regions is mainly grown for local consumption.

The country consumes some 20 million kilograms of coffee a year, which works out at roughly five kilograms per capita. This is comparatively high among most producing countries, where consumption is often between one and three kilograms per capita.

The Chiriquí Province

The mountainous highlands of the Chiriquí province provide ideal elevation for growing arabica plants. The three main coffee-growing areas in Chiriquí are Boquete, Tierras Altas, and Renacimiento. 

The province also sits along the Central American Volcanic Arc (CAVA) which includes the Volcán Barú, boasting the highest point in the country at 3,474 m.a.s.l.

The Volcán Barú is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in the 16th century. This eruption, which is believed to have taken place some 450 years ago, littered the soil in the surrounding area with tephra. Consequently, today, soil in the areas surrounding the volcano is nutrient-rich and fertile, making it ideal for growing coffee.

The Chiriquí region also benefits from the country’s unique weather conditions. Panama is home to more than 100 “microclimates”, meaning that the weather often varies wildly from region to region.

Which Varieties Are Grown In Panama?

Panama’s unique conditions allow producers to grow a number of high-quality varieties, including Catuai, Caturra, Maragogype, Pacamara, and Mundo Novo, among many others. However, today, Panama is most associated with one variety above all else: Geisha.

Despite the fact that Panamanian coffee is associated with Geisha, the variety actually hails from Ethiopia, and has only been grown in Panama since the 1960s. Geisha has a cup profile with good sweetness and bright acidity, and often has a fruity and floral aroma.

Francisco Serracín is the owner of Don Pachi Estate. His family has grown coffee in Panama for almost 150 years. He tells me that it was his father, also named Francisco Serracín (but better known as “Don Pachi”) who introduced the Geisha variety to Panama in the first place.

Don Pachi was the founder of something called the Special Program at Panama’s Ministry of Agricultural Development. Don Pachi also spent time at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica, where he received seeds of Geisha variety plants which he later brought back to Panama. He then distributed the seeds among other producers.

Today, Francisco tells me that his father “was a very visionary person”.

“He had the ability to see coffee as what it is today, an exclusive, luxurious, quality product with differentiated markets,” he tells me.

“The fortuitous arrival of the Geisha variety has been the spearhead that helped Panama’s coffee industry grow… today, it is associated with quality in specialty coffee.”

The Specialty Coffee Association Of Panama

Although the Geisha variety arrived in Panama in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1997 that the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP) was created.

The SCAP’s founding members set out to replant coffee on their farms with a renewed focus on quality, rather than high yield. These producers also learned to cup and taste coffee, and in turn became more selective about the varieties they would plant.

In 1998, a year after the SCAP was founded, the Best of Panama (BOP) competition was born. In 2001, BOP held its first international online auction, which saw buyers from all over the world bid for Panamanian coffees.

These auctions gave Panamanian coffee (and therefore Panama as an origin) greater exposure. At that time, it was considered a success for producers to achieve prices of US $2 per pound. 

Reaching A Turning Point

Wilford Lamastus Jr. is a fourth-generation coffee producer at Lamastus Family Estates. He tells me that thanks to Geisha coffee and BOP, the industry has continued to grow exponentially year after year.

Wilford says: “At the time, there was an increase in the price of coffee for its quality and because it had managed to win competitions.” He notes that there even though buyers were willing to pay a premium for coffee, there was no clear differentiating factor. This is where Geisha became more popular.

While many coffee-producing families acquired Geisha from Don Pachi, it was Price and Daniel Peterson from Hacienda La Esmeralda who were the first to sell it for a record-breaking price. At BOP 2004, a Geisha from Hacienda La Esmerelda sold for a then-historic price of US $21 per pound. 

“[After this], the market began to think about varieties,” Wilford explains. “The emphasis on varieties began that day, when [buyers] realised that there was a ‘unique and special’ variety.”

Three years later, in 2007, another coffee from Hacienda La Esmerelda broke the triple-digit barrier, selling for US $130. Hacienda La Esmerelda went on to break another four auction records in the next ten years.

After 2017, however, it was Lamastus Family Estates who set the next two records. In 2018, a pound of their Geisha was sold for US $803, and it broke the four-digit barrier in 2019 with a price of US $1,029 per pound.

Since 2014, the price per pound record has been broken every single year. Despite the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic meant BOP 2020 was fully virtual, it still managed to break world records.

However, it was neither Lamastus Family Estates nor Hacienda La Esmerelda that set a new record price at BOP 2020. Instead, it was a washed Geisha from Finca Sophia that set the new world record for coffee sold at an auction at a staggering US $1,300.50 per pound.

The fact that the record has now been broken for six consecutive years shows the incredible growth of Panamanian specialty coffee, and just how influential the Geisha variety has been. 

Coffee Culture For Panamanian Consumers

Before the year 2000, specialty coffee consumption in Panama was minimal. However, the huge changes on the production side have since been mirrored by an increase in the number of specialty coffee shops across the country.

Alberto Bermúdez is the Founder and Head Roaster at Café Unido in Panama City. He tells me that Café Unido opened its doors in 2014 with the aim of sharing these exclusive, high-quality Panamanian coffees with consumers, and therefore connecting them with producers. 

Alberto says that he thinks there has been a wider generational change. He says that younger consumers are more open to experimenting with their coffee, while older generations have a different idea of what makes a coffee “good”.

Alberto says: “It is radically different… [specialty Panamanian coffee] offers floral, fruity, and more funky notes, rather than the dark flavours of more traditional roasted coffees.

“Specialty coffee has a ‘barrier’, in that good brewing is necessary to fully enjoy the experience, unlike other luxury products.”

He adds that he thinks the number of Panamanian homebrewers has increased recently, which he says is positive for the wider industry. “When you make your own coffee, you get to understand it better and appreciate it more,” he says.

As well as the increase in the number of coffee shops, there are more and more educational opportunities available in Panama that allow consumers to improve their knowledge. These include open tastings, webinars, and other big events like “La Cosecha”.

At the time of writing, Panama holds the world record for the most expensive pound of coffee sold in an auction. It is an origin of choice for many champion baristas and brewers, despite the fact that it is comparatively new to the world of specialty coffee.

Going forward, the biggest challenge for the Panamanian coffee industry will be to keep innovating. However, at the same time, there is also a recognised need to continue to increase internal consumption and drive Panamanian coffee consumers to become “ambassadors” for the quality coffee grown in their country.

Enjoyed this article? Then try What Is Panama Geisha? The Reality Of A Fantasy Bean

Photo credits: Manuel Otero, Manuel Alexander Barsallo (The Coffeetologist), the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP) Alberto Bermúdez, Wilford Lamastus Jr, Lucía Ng, and Siete Granos

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