Panama Trip Report

April 2006

Craig Holt

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Ten years ago Panama was little more than a blip on the world coffee scene. The country produced only a trifling amount of coffee, and the beans it did produce did little to inspire enthusiasm among the world's specialty coffee buyers. Having recently returned from a trip through Boquete and Volcan - and having spent a good portion of that trip as a judge for the Best of Panama competition - I'm happy to say that things have changed dramatically for Panama coffee over the last decade.

My trip started in Panama City, a town that is - like most large cities in tropical climates - rather hectic and oppressively hot. Pointlessly tall skyscrapers rise helter-skelter out of the jungle to poke at the swollen clouds, while humidity and exhaust fumes rule the streets. The old colonial neighborhood offers a cobble stone and red tile respite from the casinos, traffic and prostitution of the downtown core (on a brief two block stroll from our hotel to the Morelo restaurant, we were offered a variety of alarming "services") but I was still happy to leave this quite literal "urban jungle" for the calm and beauty of the western coffee growing highlands near Volcan Baru.

One of many positive indicators for Panama as a coffee country is that there are an increasing number of locally-owned coffee shops that produce - Gasp! - a great cup of coffee or espresso. After years of drinking bad coffee in the world's finest coffee growing regions, this is cause for celebration. Waiting in the local airport for our flight to the town of David, we stopped into the Kotowa coffee shop, owned by Boquete coffee producer Ricardo Koyner MacIntyre, and I was very pleasantly surprised with the excellent quality of the espresso macchiato I was served. Internal consumption in coffee producing countries is an excellent way of creating value for coffee origins, and the development of DRINKABLE coffee in these locales is critical to driving consumption.

After landing in David (a town that is currently suffering a city-wide malaise apparently due to the fact that their central park is completely shut down for renovation) we made a quick one hour drive up into the forest-clad mountains of Boquete.

Boquete is one of those coffee producing areas that makes people feel romantic about the coffee business. Set in a steep-sided valley ringed with steep and lushly-grown mountains, and perpetually gentled by fast-moving clouds, the town of 14,000 inhabitants features small winding streets, and flower-decked, colorful buildings. The coffee in the area is almost exclusively grown about 3,600 feet in elevation, and much of it is grown with absolutely meticulous care.

While in Boquete, we visited several coffee farms, including:
  • Finca Esmerelda (run by Price and Daniel Peterson, and home of the stunning Panama Geisha)
  • Lerida Estate (Managed with passion, energy and vision by John Collins - and another coffee that came out near the top of the competition)
  • Kotowa Estate (Ricardo Koyner MacIntyre's gorgeous and exceptionally well-run family farm - yet another winning coffee from the competition)

    In most of the places I visit as a coffee buyer and coffee core volunteer, I meet a lot of growers who dedicate themselves to their work. What struck me about all of these Panamanian farms, however, was the thoughtful long-term vision with which each was organized. These were not third-generation farmers who were unquestioningly repeating the efforts and methods of their grandparents. They were instead people who took an actively role in creating the future of their farms by learning the newest coffee science and applying it to their own situation and experience to create a sustainable coffee farm. This applied science manifested itself not only in terms of minimizing pesticides and inorganic fertilizers while maximizing production, but also (and just as importantly) in terms of discovering how to get the best flavor out of their coffee. These farmers are among the first to really explore which coffee varietals will produce the most unique and flavorful cup. Based on the results of the Best of Panama auction, I would suggest that they are already having great success.From Boquete, we went around Volcan Baru to arrive at the Hotel Bambito, an elegant hotel nestled in a steep declivity between two high peaks, which was apparently built in the sixties by mobsters, but is now owned by a Panamanian organization with no ties to organized crime. Or so I'm told. During my time at the Bambito I didn't notice any wise guys, though there was a large wedding party populated mostly by gorgeous Scandinavian women. It was a distraction to me and a number of other cuppers, but I think we did an admirable job of maintaining our… uhm… focus. On the cupping, I mean. But I digress…

    The cupping competition "Best of Panama" was celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and it was truly an amazing thing to see. Ten years ago they had a lot of trouble finding any international judges, and ended up with about seven people from coffee consuming countries. They had about fourteen coffees to judge, if I remember correctly. This year, there were twenty three judges, and 33 coffees that made it to the international round. The event was very well-staffed, and the quality of the roasting was particularly noteworthy, thanks to the work of Joseph Brodsky of Novo Coffee in Denver, who worked tirelessly roasting the samples during the week.

    I encourage people to get samples and bid in the Best of Panama auction May 30th. There were a broad range of excellent coffees that made it into the auction; ranging from subtle, nuanced Bourbons, to lush and controversial coffees with hints of black currant and clove, to the show-stopping Panama Geisha from Finca Esmerelda - a complex and elegant coffee with touches of jasmine, bergamot, lemon, and tropical fruit. Possibly most impressive was the variety of cup profiles we found within a single origin.

    In addition to marathon cupping sessions, our time in Volcan featured visits to several other amazing estates, including the gorgeous Bambito Estate (which took second place in the competition) and the stunning Hartman Estate, where we took a horseback ride up into the cloud forests of Ojo de Agua - an area protected and cared for by the Estate proprietors.

    In the past, Atlas hasn't put too much emphasis on Panama coffee. After seeing the amount of passion and stewardship that goes into the production of some of that country's phenomenal coffees, though, we hope to work with you all to bring in some of these Central American gems of the coffee world.

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