June 3, 2021

Carbonic maceration & biodynamic farming: Experimental coffee processing in Panama

Although Panama grows comparatively small volumes of coffee, today it is recognised around the world as a producer of high-quality beans. This is thanks in no small part to the emergence of Panamanian Geisha more than 15 years ago.

However, it can also be argued that continued creativity and innovation from Panamanian producers has contributed to the country’s profile as a coffee producer. Over the years, Panama has repeatedly broken auction price records for its coffees. The country currently holds the record for the most expensive coffee per pound, sold at the Best of Panama (BOP) auction in 2020.

Today, not just Geisha, but other varieties grown in Panama are receiving high cup scores and fetching astronomically high prices. This is partially because producers in the country are tweaking their processing methods and trying new and unusual techniques to improve the quality of their coffees. 

To learn more about experimental processing methods in Panama, I spoke with four producers from the country. Read on to find out what they said.  

You might also like our guide to specialty coffee in Panama.

Carbonic maceration and biodynamic farms 

Jamison Savage is a producer at Savage Coffees, which includes Finca Deborah and Morgan Estate. “We acquire cherries from other producers and process those cherries to our standards, as well as producing award-winning coffees through Savage Coffees,” he tells me. “It’s a collaboration with several producers here in both Boquete and Volcan.”

Jamison explains that the farm is recognised, among other things, for two main techniques: carbonic maceration and biodynamic agriculture.

Carbonic maceration is similar to anaerobic fermentation, but has one fundamental difference: the use of carbon dioxide. CO2 is flushed into sealed, airtight tanks full of cherries to remove residual oxygen. The microorganisms in the tank break down the sugars in the cherries more slowly, resulting in coffees with complex flavours that are often described as bright and winey.

Jamison tells me that the goal is to enhance certain attributes of a coffee’s flavour and “guide” the fermentation towards that. 

Jamison tells me that Saša Šestić, who won the 2015 Barista Championship using a carbonic macerated Sudan Rume, shared an overview of the method with him in the same year.

He adds: “From there, I just expanded that process into many other alternative processes.

“In 2016, I began experimenting with carbonic maceration. I was the first to do it with a Geisha successfully and to continue down that road, which was the spark that ignited the alternative processing that we see so widely.”

He explains that this level of control enables him to guide the flavours more precisely. “I have a complete recipe book on how to dial in certain flavours, acidity, or brightness.

“This means I can tailor coffees to some of my clients’ specific needs. If a competitor wants a very bright coffee, a highly aromatic coffee, or a sweeter coffee, for instance, I can magnify or enhance those specific characteristics.”

Jamison also notes that biodynamic agriculture has been key in developing these experimental, high-scoring lots.

“Biodynamics focuses on a holistic approach to agronomy,” he tells me. “This is where the applications or the preparations [for the crop] are completely natural. It is organic in the sense that no industrial products are used. No pesticides are ever applied. It’s a way to embrace the ecology and get back to nature on the production side.

Currently, Finca Deborah produces both washed and natural carbonic macerated biodynamic coffees. “Those are the only two processes being done at this time because of the size of the area.

“There is a difference in the flavour profile. It’s more layered and more complex, with elevated acidity, more aromatics… it changes just about everything.”

Using the “juices” from coffee cherries in anaerobic tanks

Wilford Lamastus is a third-generation producer at Lamastus Family Estates. The farm has grown coffee since 1918, and has broken auction price records at BOP on several different occasions. This includes two in a row in 2018 and 2019, which secured prices of US $803/lb and US $1,029/lb respectively.

Wilford explains that the farm uses many different processing methods. Alongside washed, natural, and honey processing, it also uses anaerobic fermentation and a method known as anaerobic slow dry (ASD). ASD processed coffee is fermented in a tank for 120 hours, and then dried on raised, shaded beds.

For this harvest season, he adds that they have started experimenting by adding the juices generated by coffee cherries to fermentation tanks, which modifies the flavour of the coffee.

“We put the cherries in the ASD tank. These fruits generate bright red juices, which usually remain at the bottom of the tank. In that lower part, the flavour of the fruits is more concentrated.

“We extract those juices and pour them into other tanks that have just arrived from the field. This changes the flavor of the coffee. We have done it with washed coffees, natural, honey, all of them.”

Wilford tells me that having three farms in close proximity with unique climatic conditions allows him to experiment with this method. 

“For example, we can use the coffee cherry juices from Elida Estate and place them in tanks with El Burro Estate coffees or vice versa,” he says. “There you get other microorganisms, bacteria, and yeasts typical of each area and use them on the other coffees.

“We label those lots with the word ‘dose’ – for instance, an Elida Geisha Natural Torre ASD Dose.”

He says that while it doesn’t dramatically alter the flavour, it does add something subtle: a characteristic sweetness unlike both natural and anaerobic coffees. 

Drying coffee in dark rooms 

Ratibor Hartmann is a producer from Finca Hartmann, a third-generation family farm based in Renacimiento. He is also a producer at Mi Finquita and Guarumo Coffee Farm, both of which are renowned for producing innovative, high-quality coffees for specific customers.

Ratibor says that, for him, the most serious “problem” in coffee production around the world is drying. To this end, he says he has been studying new coffee drying techniques.

“Most people have the idea that coffee drying has to be at high temperatures. That is false,” he says. “In fact, high temperatures are generally loaded with humidity.”

To this end, Ratibor explains that he doesn’t use a rotary dryer or dry coffee on beds; instead, he says he dries his coffee in dark rooms. 

“I dry in total darkness,” he tells me. “I do not dry with sunlight, or at high temperatures. I do this because there is only one bacteria that can grow in the dark; all the others die due to the lack of light. This gives me full control over the bacteria, meaning that I can eliminate those that I don’t want in the coffee.

“We put the coffee inside drawers in the room. Then we extract the relative humidity with a large dehumidifier, and circulate the air into and out of the room using fans.”

Ratibor says that this method also minimises how much the coffee is moved and disrupted. It has been successful: the Geisha Black Jaguar Natural Limited from Guarumo Coffee Farm was dried using this method, and went on to win best natural Geisha coffee at BOP 2020.

“We have experimented with this for almost ten years, and have mastered the technique in the last three,” Ratibor says. “Experience, trial, and error are what have led us on the right path.

“For me, the most important thing is that it becomes an alternative, especially for small producers, who do not have space for traditional drying or the budget to buy [rotary dryers].”

Temperature control in fermentation tanks

Jean-Paul Langenstein is the General Manager at Carmen Estate in Volcan, Chiriquí. He tells me that the most important part of conducting an experiment is being able to replicate it. 

He tells me that when using anaerobic fermentation, it is essential to have a stable temperature, or else the coffee will develop undesirable “off-flavours”. Therefore, at Carmen Estate, Jean-Paul says they have been looking for alternatives to give them more control.

“You could have a temperature at the edge of the tank that is different than at the center, for example,” he tells me. “You have to figure out how to keep it even. That’s why this year we brought in some beer tanks, and the company we bought them from adapted them to our specifications.

“We now do slow fermentation, where we control the temperature and apply the correct drying method for this type of processing.”

Jean Paul tells me that when coffee is harvested, it immediately starts to ferment as the sugars in the cherry break down. This is called lactic fermentation. He says: “We aim to maintain a temperature range of 15°C to 20°C within the tanks. This results in sweeter lactic fermentation.”

However, he notes that there is no exact guide for this, because fermentation doesn’t work the same for different coffees. “The needs are different, the varieties are different, and the coffee will not act the same,” he says. 

By controlling the temperature, he says you can achieve a cleaner taste in a washed coffee, for example, but with a little more sweetness and a more complex flavour thanks to the slow fermentation.

“It has worked enormously for us without using external agents, such as yeasts, enzymes, bacteria, fungi, or acids, among others.

“At Carmen Estate, we would like to maintain that what you are drinking is the expression of coffee itself. This is why we try to keep on making coffee that shows its true potential by just keeping control of the temperature.” 

Processing is one of the most important aspects of coffee production, and has an effect on the flavour, aroma, and cup quality of a coffee. This is why many producers seek to improve their processing in search of higher-scoring coffees and more complex flavour profiles.

The wider specialty coffee industry is driven by innovation and competition. For these producers in Panama, experimentation helps them not just to add more value to their crop, but also supports the country’s position as a high-quality origin.

Enjoyed this? Then try our coffee tasting exercises to improve your palate.

Photo credits: Carmen Estate, Lamastus Family Estates, Finca Hartmann, Savage Coffees

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