El café gourmet de Panamá

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Text: Jacob Ehrler & Roberta G. Jones.
Photos: Jennifer Moloney

Coffee for connoisseurs

Panamanian coffee has made an entrance on the world stage, and owners of farms in the rich, fertile coffee-producing highlands of Chiriquí are now well aware of just how hip a cup of local coffee can be. Starbucks, the mega-chain which led the coffee fad that became a world trend, features Panamanian Boquete coffee on their in-store displays, portrayed in a bright and colorful mola design.

Pride in the quality of our nation’s coffee was also instilled locally with a campaign for Café Duran featuring former Panamanian Miss Universe Justine Pasek. The ads featured the nation’s sweetheart enjoying a cup of Duran coffee while traveling the globe to make special appearances. The slogan of the campaign was “Lo Nuestro” which means “[That which is] Ours”.

Several other national coffees such as Sitton, Ruiz and Janson are sold at supermarkets across the country.

Others, like Kotowa (which means “mountain” in the native Ngabe Bugle language) are sold at specialty and gourmet stores. Café Duran has since opened single-serve coffee outlets in malls and airports throughout Panama, a venture that has jumped the Atlantic to franchise status in Spain.

There is, however, growing interest in a smaller segment of Panamanian coffee, one designated principally for export. These precious beans are part of Panama’s “Specialty Coffee Selection.” Each variety has its own unique qualities, flavors, depths and aromatic qualities.

Coffee facts: origins and types

Coffe Facts: Origin and typesAll coffee species originated in Ethiopia. Just as wines are named after the vine, coffee is named after the kind of plant it comes from- Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Tipica, Geisha, Arabica, Robusto, etc.

Coffee came to the Americas from Ethiopia via Kenya and Tanzania. It came to Panama from Costa Rica in the 1960’s, encouraged by the Ministry of Agriculture, but the plants which were imported had a low yield and it was not a successful crop at that time. In those days coffee was just coffee. No one cared particularly about different fla ors or aromas and so all kinds of coffee beans were just lumped together.

Not until the 80’s did people begin talking about “cupping” coffee when tasters tried brews from different bushes, processed in different ways, to create different tastes. In fact “cupping really did not come to Panama until the 90’s.

Coffee culture humor

coffee humorThe world’s obsession with coffee drinking is illustrated by just how picky Starbucks encourages it customers to be. “I’ll have a triple grande half-decaf, amaretto-spiced latte 125 (degrees faranheit) in two cups with zero foam, please.” All this hype implies that a person can develop a unique sense of self just by stepping up to the order counter.

Coffee varietals

coffee varietyBut the microclimates surrounding Volcán Barú, the dormant volcano in Panama’s far west, offer a much greater personalization and true selection. Just as the origin and heritage of the grapes make unique the fine wines they are used to produce, coffee beans are influenced by the uniqueness of the soil, elevation, weather patterns and even the other vegetation (native flora or agricultural products) that grow or grew where the bushes are planted.

The amount of caffeine, body, and flavor all varies from one valley to another, giving coffee connoisseurs around the world the capability to identify their favorite bean right down to the very valley that it comes from.

Specialty batches are created by master roasters on the farms, who know exactly how to obtain the best results from each different “micro-batch” of beans. Coffee experts know exactly how to roast a batch from the valley near a brook verses one that comes from higher up the mountain.

Perfection of this craft has led to new records appearing often in the headlines which proclaim the new monetary heights to which Panamanian coffee beans are climbing. Top-shelf products like Geisha coffee sell for upwards of $100 per pound in markets like Japan.

And in Panama, a country whose economy is largely service-based, the production of coffee is growing apace: as one of the leading export products, as part of the country’s brand as a coffee-producing nation and as an activity that is growing in popularity among visitors. Just as wine country tours are popular from Mendoza, Argentina to Sonoma, California, tourists enjoy visiting our nation’s coffee plantations to see (and sometimes participate in) the careful process from plant to harvest to cup.

Tours and tastings can be arranged with the majority of Panama’s “fincas” and “haciendas”(farms and ranches) in the Chiriquí province. Accommodations are available at some places, offering tourists the entire experience of the idyllic lifestyle of a tropical mountain coffee plantation.

The year-round spring-like climate of Panama’s coffee country is the same factor that has attracted residential tourism in the past decade with the picturesque town of Boquete as the epicenter.

The late Samuel Taliaferro pioneered this trend with his development at Valle Escondido, a hidden coffee-producing valley close to the town which he discovered while exploring on horseback around the turn of the century.

Coffee facts: processing and quality

Coffee Facts: Processing and qualityCoffee bushes will produce berries after three years. The life of a plant is 25 to 30 years.

The red “cherries” are picked mostly by Indians from the Ngabe tribe who come from their reservation especially for the harvest which is usually from October to April. The whole family comes but nowadays child labor laws do not allow the children to pick.

The pickers pick into baskets which are then measured into what they call a ‘lata’ (tin) which holds 20lbs. They are paid around $2.50 per ‘lata’. The picked berries are unloaded into a sink containing water and stirred around. Any berries which float, together with other detritus, is skimmed off and the rest are siphoned off down a tube where the revolving water removes the pulp. The de-pulped beans are then dried in one of three ways:

  1. On a patio in the sun. Some say this is the best method of drying beans. There is a romantic notion that sun-dried beans pro- duce a better flavor but this is not necessarily true because there is no consistency. Sometimes there is more sun, sometimes it rains and the beans have to be taken up during the process.
  2. Lavado (washed). The beans are washed clean and dried in an oven
  3. Honey: The beans are not washed but left with the mucilage ( a sticky substance left behind after the pulp is removed) and then dried in an oven.

The higher the altitude the bet- ter the quality. To classify as Café de Altura (high mountain coffee) it has to be grown higher than 1,600 feet above sea level.

A chance to visit century-old farms

Lerida Resort Hotel seen, not from the air, but from a footpath on a nearby peak.
Lerida Resort Hotel seen, not from the air, but from a footpath on a nearby peak.

But around the turn of the previous century the first pioneers were drawn to this mountainous area.

They came from as far away as Canada, eastern and western Europe and Scandinavia to settle on these pristine slopes with their rich volcanic soil. They were later the ones to begin planting coffee and leave the legacy of Panamanian coffee that is enjoyed today by so many.

The roots that were laid by Panama’s founding coffee families are truly reaching around the world today.

All the makings for a world-class product

Coffee will undoubtedly become Panama’s most famous export product. Old memories of a narco-dictatorship are giving way to the recognition of this far less scandalous stimulant. Today’s consumer market reacts to a new set of standards, one that is focused on the origin of the product and the manner in which it is brought to market, or in this case, to the cup.

This interest centers around three main pinnacles: the treatment of the environment, the option to consume products listed as free of chemicals and the social conditions of the product. Panama stands to be branded in a good light.

Organic options could become more readily available and farms are reportedly paying more attention to social issues so that the pickers (who are mostly from mountain Indian tribes) are treated fairly and that their children, who nevertheless participate in coffee collection in one form or another (strapped to their mothers as infants, bounding about the hillside as youngsters and even gathering beans) are not exploited.

The original water-powered machinery installed nearly 100 years ago at the “beneficio” of the Kotowa plantation is still in place to intrigue visitors.
The original water-powered machinery installed nearly 100 years ago at the “beneficio” of the Kotowa plantation is still in place to intrigue visitors.

Regardless of the conditions that Panamanian businesses (coffee producers included) may or may not have to adhere to this year as a trade deal with the United States enters into effect, there is value in this growing segment of buyers who care a great deal about the conditions surrounding the products they buy.

But perhaps the greatest news for Panama’s economy, image and tourism market is that coffee is a worldwide obsession, and the secret of how good Panamanian coffee can be is just getting out.

Finca La Esmeralda

One of the most prominent farms to export and promote Panamanian coffee is Finca La Esmeralda. It is owned by the Peterson family and is the biggest producer of the sought-after Geisha bean. They were the first in Panama to recognize its potential.

In 1964 Swedish born Rudolph A. Peterson (1904-2003), then president of the Bank of America, bought Hacienda La Esmeralda at Palmira, in the Boquete area, which was founded 40 years earlier by Hans Elliott, another Swede, who constructed the farmhouse which is now the residence of the Peterson family.

Rudolph Peterson’s son Price is now the doyen of the hacienda plus another property at nearby Jaramillo which the family purchased in 1996 and where they discovered a section planted with the now-famous Geisha Esmeralda Special trees. It is a family business jointly administered by wife Susan, son Daniel (operations) and daughter Rachel (marketing and sales).

La Esmeralda exports all of the production of it’s 200 acre plantation. Their finished product is taken down to 11 per cent humidity in the drier then beans rest for 30 to 40 days in bags before the outer shell, known as parchment, is removed.

The beans are sorted by size, weight and color then bagged for export. All of their coffee goes for export and the final process of roasting is done by the buyer. La Esmeralda ships all over the world to countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Korea, Denmark and Sweden. Each year they also sell 300 lbs of their best Esmeralda Special Geisha coffee in auction online where the highest bid ever was $170 a pound.

This contrasts spectacularly with the price of “ordinary” coffee which the New York Commodities Exchange regulates worldwide at $2.30 per pound.
Their Diamond Mountain brand is a mixture of everything that is not Geisha.
Their Palmira Brand is a mixture of Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon and Tipica.

Rachel Peterson, marketing manager, poses against a background of coffee sacks at the Esmeralda plantation.
Rachel Peterson, marketing manager, poses against a background of coffee sacks at the Esmeralda plantation.

Specialty Coffee Association

Every coffee growing country has its Specialty Coffee Association and every year they hold the Coffee of the Year Award which Finca La Esmeralda has won three years in a row with its Geisha Coffee. The Special Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP) awards the Best in Panama title for coffee every year. The Esmeralda Special brand Geisha coffee was first for six years in a row.

The 2012 competition will be held April 11 to 14. Rachel Peterson is the current president of the Association.

Finca La Esmeralda has also competed in the Rainforest Alliance Competition and won every time they competed (7 years in a row)

Finca Lerida

Another high profile farm is Finca Lerida which was started in the early 1920´s by a Norwegian named Tolef Bauche Moniche. His original house still stands as does the building where the coffee is processed.

It is still a fully functioning coffee farm but has also become a boutique hotel surrounded by magnificent views and gardens. They have 23 rooms, including 3 new junior suites complete with indoor-outdoor fireplaces. They have a fine restaurant and a coffee shop which sells, of course, their own brand of coffee. They offer tours of the farm, bird watching and have a wonderful hiking trail which takes three and a half hours.

It is a small farm with only 54 hectares under cultivation. They export all their coffee, mainly to Japan and Taiwan, except for sales in their coffee shop where it sells for $21.35 per pound. Their coffee type is mainly Catuai and Caturra and their own mix is 20 percent Natural, 50 percent Lavado and 30 percent Honey. Although it is not organic it is grown without herbicide. Their master coffee tester, Sr. Capistrano Rodriguez has been there for 12 years.

Coffee beans dry on a special patio at the Janson farm..... and can be sampled at their quaint hilltop coffee shop.
Coffee beans dry on a special patio at the Janson farm….. and can be sampled at their quaint hilltop coffee shop.


Finca Rio Cristal, home of the Kotowa brand was established 95 years ago by a Scotsman named Alexander Duncan. At some point the property was divided between family members. The present owner, Richard Koyner, is the great grandson of Alexander Duncan. Eighteen of the 30 acres are planted with coffee including Caturra, Pacamara, Catuai, Geisha and Creollos. They export some but most of their production goes to their chain of Kotowa coffee shops all over Panama. The original factory is still in use, mainly as offices but the original machinery which was powered with water is still in place and a fascinating attraction for tours of the property, which also offers a boutique hotel and a rainforest zip line.

Janson Coffee Farm

The Janson farm is situated in Volcan and has an unusual approach road down the middle of a WW 11 aircraft runway. A picturesque coffee shop sits on a hill overlooking the factory. Factory tours are available and you can take a tour of the farm on horseback. Janson coffee is available in supermarkets all over Panama.

Chiriquí Coffee Tours Courtesy: toursinpanama.com

The following is a list of tours offered in the Chiriqui highlands. Tours of the plantations include the beneficios, as the processing plants are called in Spanish. Some farms offer coffee tasting and additional attractions.

Finca La Milagrosa
Teléfono: 6654-5536.
e-mail: boqueteexpedition@yahoo.es
Dos Jefes – Café de la Luna
Richard Lipner tel:. 6677-7748.
e-mail: richlipner@yahoo.com
Finca Río Cristal
Farm is located in Palo Alto. Teléfono: 720-1635. www.boquetetreetrek.com/paseos.php
Kotowa Café
Tel: 720-3852

Finca Lérida

Teléfono: 720-111
Café El Poco
Teléfono: 6613-1472 Carol Delonis.
Café Ruíz
Tel: 720-1000
Janson Family Coffee
Tel.: 771-4306