Panama as a Specialty Coffee Origin: Part One

This post is based on a presentation I gave at a few locations in Southeast Asia in July of 2015.

The topic is the country of Panama as a specialty coffee origin. 

What do you need to know about Panama in general? What are the salient features of its coffee industry overall? How has its specialty coffee industry developed? And what are some things to look for in the future from Panamanian coffee? We will cover these topics over two posts.

Panama’s Geography — And How That Affects Panamas Coffee

panama globe

Take a look at this globe. Here we see Panama as it sits, smack in the middle of the Western Hemisphere. It lies just to the north and west of Colombia — in this satellite shot there is a large swath of white clouds just to the left (west) of Panama.

Panama is the north-south connector between two huge continents, but interestingly the country actually runs in an east-west direction, not north-south. The curve of Central America swings it parallel to the equator.

This is important for coffee. Let’s take a closer look:

panama close

All of the major Central American nations — Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama — are relatively small, and influenced by ocean on both sides. All of them except for El Salvador have coastline on both the Pacific and Atlantic side.

However Panama is the most narrow of these countries; it is the most elongated, and it has coastlines that face almost directly north and directly south. The Pacific Ocean’s Equatorial Current breaks up near Colombia and swings north, then west along Panama’s southern coast. Meanwhile the Caribbean Current flows north and west along the northern edge. All of Central America is affected by these ocean currents and their corresponding weather patterns, but the orientation of Panama, and its relative narrowness, means that it is more influenced than any other nation.

These currents and patterns create microclimates.

Now, microclimates exist in any country, but they are more pronounced in Central American than in many other regions, because of its unique geography as an extended isthmus. And Panama is the “most isthmus-y” part of the isthmus, if you will.

What does this mean? It means that winds and rains from both the north and the south are constantly meeting and swirling. Depending on the particular elevation of a farm, and depending especially on the direction of the slope (which way is the face of the hillside facing? North? East? Etc), farms that are very close to each other can receive very different weather. And the weather has a massive effect on how the coffee grows, when it ripens, and how it can be processed.

So because of its geography, Panama is especially suited to specialty coffee production. There is a great deal of natural variation in climate and growing conditions, even within a small country. Even without adding in the extra complicating factor of plant varietal, we would already see a big variety in flavors from Panama, just because of how it is oriented.

Panama’s History and People — Effects on Coffee Production

Panama has a unique history among Central American nations. The “Northern Five” Spanish-speaking Central American nations followed a somewhat similar path to their modern states. They broke off from Spain together, then joined the Mexican Empire together, then broke off to form independent states individually — and this was complete by 1838.

Panama was never a part of this Mexican sphere of influence. Instead, after the ouster of the Spanish Empire, it was part of “Greater Colombia”. Colombia has always loomed large as Panama’s giant neighbor. Furthermore, its relationship with the United States has been much more involved and constant. (The US, of course, for ill or good, has been very nosey in the business of all its southern neighbors — but in no country was it more fully involved that it was in Panama). By constructing the Panama Canal and leasing that land for a century, the US had a large influence in Panama.

The canal also makes Panama an extremely international country. Panama City has a more ethnically diverse population than other large Central American cities. You see people of indigenous, mestizo, European, African, and Asian ancestry all over. There is even a “Chinatown” district.

But the population is small. Here is a chart of Central American countries, ranked by population from 2005 (source):

central america population chart

Panama has the lowest population, just over 3,000,000. It also has the lowest density, along with the larger nation of Nicaragua. Guatemala, only one third larger than Panama, has four times as many people! And El Salvador is just a fraction of the size, and it has twice as many people.

So Panama, is the most sparsely populated region, and yet probably the most international and most historically anomalous of these six nations.

What does all this mean for coffee?

Well, Panama’s coffee production is tiny compared to the rest of the region. Estimates vary, and change from year to year, but Panama exports somewhere in the range of 30,000 to 100,000 bags of coffee a year. To compare, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras export millions of bags of coffee a year. The industry is ten times or more larger in the other countries. (1, 2, 3)

Panama will never be able to compete with the other nations by volume (and that’s not even counting massive Colombia just over the border). It is too sparsely populated, it has too small of a growing region, and the economy is much more focused on shipping and international trade because of the Canal.

But Panama coffee farmers have turned a curse into a blessing. The people who actually own the land and work the farms are aware of the situation. And instead of trying to out-produce huge countries like Honduras or Colombia, their constant focus has been on quality, quality, quality.

It is this focus on specialty coffee that helped Panama survive the global Coffee Crisis of 1999-2001. It is this focus on quality that has led to innovations in processing. And it is this focus on quality that led to the discovery of the famous Geisha varietal less than ten years ago.

The discovery of the Geisha completely revolutionized coffee in Panama. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at what happened back in 2006 – 2008 that led to this revolution. We’ll look more closely at quality growing regions in Western Panama, and I’ll make some predictions about what changes we can expect to see in the near future — including some exciting developments that might surprise you.