Panama as a Specialty Coffee Origin: Part Two

By Daniel M Humphries

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.

Read part one here. 

In the first part of this article, we looked at the geography, history, and demographics of Panama in relation to its coffee production. You can read the whole thing here, but the major takeaway is that Panama is: 1) geographically unique in a way that leads to a great incidence of microclimates and, 2) has a unique history, small population, and more sparse growing areas, that lead it to be the smallest producer in Latin America by volume, even though it is a relatively advanced, international country.

In this section, I promised a look at some specifics of coffee growing in Western Panama, and a look to what might be coming in the future.

Western Panama: the Chiriquí growing region

First of all there is in fact some coffee growing in the eastern highlands of Panama, near the Colombian border, but it is very little and the area is underdeveloped. There is coffee in the central Comarca region, too, and I will have more to say about that coffee at the end of this article.

But the primary growing region, both in terms of quantity and quality, is the highlands of the Chiriquí province in the very far west part of Panama.

Chiriquí province — Coffee production is centered around Volcan Baru

Chiriquí province — Coffee production is centered around Volcan Baru

The mountainous highlands run right down the spine of the country, separating Chriquí on the Pacific side from Bocas del Toro on the Atlantic side. Volcán Barú is the major peak and landmark, and it serves as a general separation between the regions of Boquete in the east and Volcan-Candela and Renacimiento in the east. These are districts of the larger Chiriquí province. Since Chiriquí also includes quite a bit of lowlands, and the hot coastal plain regional capitol of Davíd, it is more accurate to talk about the smaller districts when describing where the coffee grows.

Coffee was planted first in Boquete, and that is still the most famous region. Land values in Boquete are extremely high, as it has become a center for ex-pats, especially from the United States; and the coffee quality there is famously sky-high, lending even more value to the land. Coffee was planted in Boquete before anywhere else in Panama.

The Geisha Revolution

A lot has been written about the story of the Geisha, so I will not go into depth about it here. The short version is that Geisha — a wild variety from Gesha Mountain in Ethiopia — was planted in Panama in the 1950s and 60s; for a long time it was not recognized as having a special flavor profile.

Because of the unique morphological characteristics of the Geisha, farmers were aware it was different. A combination of the growth of the specialty market — where cup profile is valued above all else — and careful farming, processing and cupping by Panamanian farmers (most notably the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmeralda), led to the discovery just over ten years ago of the incredibly unique flavor profile of that varietal.

In a very short time, Panama Geisha became world famous. Esmeralda was getting excellent prices in the Best of Panama competition: around $20 USD per pound in 2004 and 2005. In 2006, the price for the winning lot was $50/lb. And in 2007, the Geisha famously “broke the auction.” The auction software was only supposed to track prices up to 4 digits, counting decimals, so that $99.99 was the highest price possible. But bidders were willing to pay more! So the auction was put on hold while the program was quickly updated, and bidding eventually carried the price up to $130/lb.

Since then, Geisha has been planted all over Panama — and indeed, beyond, in places like Costa Rica, Colombia, and its original homeland of Ethiopia. But it still stands as a hallmark of Panama’s super high-end specialty production.

Beyond Boquete

Coffee has been growing west of Volcan Barú, in places like Bambito, Santa Clara, and Jurutungo for a long time, too. And their quality is just as good as, if not better than, the east coffee of Boquete. Producers like Finca Hartmann and Bambito Estate create unique, high-end coffees. And as we have mentioned several times on the blog, the top Geisha from Panama this year was grown far from Boquete, in Jurutungo along the Costa Rican border, by a small farmer new to the game.

These farms grow many different varietals, and in fact are always trying new varietals. Panama’s specialty producers have always been innovative and diligent, but the success of the Geisha has only increased their willingness to try new experiments. Just this year, at Finca Hartmann, I tasted an amazing maragogype — and a “top secret” nativo Geisha-like coffee that is still not available for export in quantity (wait till next year!).

Even more intriguing is the possibility of a whole new growing region opening up in Panama.

The Ngobe-Bugle

The Ngobe-Bugle (or Ngäbe-Buglé) Indians are the indigenous people of western Panama. It is two separate tribes who have been combined to one legal entity. The indigenous people live in several different “Comarcas” around Panama. The Ngobe-Bugle Comarca is the largest by area, and it is the only one in the western part of the country, where most coffee is grown.

Ngobe-Bugle women wearing their distinctive traditional dresses

Ngobe-Bugle women wearing their distinctive traditional dresses – (image source)

The Ngobe-Bugle already play a key part in coffee production — they form the vast majority of the seasonal pickers who harvest the coffee and provide other key labor on the farms. During the harvest season, the move from farm to farm, following the ripening of the cherries as it moves up the hillsides.

But in fact, there is coffee growing on their own lands, too, which they pick and process themselves. However, up until now, the quality of this coffee has suffered due to poor processing and drying. But the land is just as good (if not better!) than the commercial coffee land. And they can and do grow the same varietals as the commercial farmers to the west. So, in fact, if and when the processing is improved, the tribes there will almost certainly be sitting on some world-class coffee.

The Ngobe-Bugle Comarca

The Ngobe-Bugle Comarca – (image source)

On this map, note Chiriquí just to the west of the Comarca. The Besiko, Mirono, and Nole Duima regions of the Comarca have elevation, climate, and soil very similar to the highly prized areas of Boquete.

This is coffee with an interesting story, and can lead to the self-preservation of the tribes on a economic level. Currently they must sell their coffee at very low prices, barely above subsistence. But with a higher quality — and very little capital investment is needed — they are in a position to negotiate much better prices in the future.

In fact, this quality-improvement work is already being done by forward-looking producers from Chiriquí with partners in the Comarca. In the very near future, perhaps as early as 2016, I expect to see some excellent, unique, and totally undiscovered coffee to be produced out of Panama. OCN is in communication now to secure some of this production and visit the producers in the Comarca in the coming harvest, and to provide this new coffee to our developers.

New varietals, new regions, new processing styles — none of this is a surprise, really, from Panama. It’s always been a unique place, and the emphasis on quality and unique profiles goes back decades. From everything I can see, we can expect it to continue on into the future as well.