A guide to coffee in Panama. Despite the country’s relatively short history with coffee production, its quick rise to fame means that Panama is no stranger to the global speciality scene. While its reputation has been linked to the success of one varietal, when it comes to the future of coffee farming, there’s a lot to celebrate.
As the 35th largest producer of coffee (out of 55 coffee producing countries), it’s fair to say that quantity isn’t the country’s main focus–but quality certainly is, and while the country produces less coffee than one farm in Brazil might from a single harvest, Panama has quickly become a key player in the industry, renowned for producing award-winning Gesha.
With remarkable terrain, where over 100 microclimates nurture unique and agreeable environments for coffee to grow, and the mindset of producers looking to protect the future of farming, here we look at the success of the acclaimed Gesha varietal, and why Panama’s landscape is so much bigger than a single success story.
Panama’s relationship with coffee started very quietly; introduced by European immigrants in the nineteenth century, crops were planted in the province of Chiriqui - once known locally as the Valley of the Moon - which is still the country’s main coffee producing area today. While early plantations were coastal, cultivation soon moved to higher altitudes as pests and disease plagued crops.
In the 1960s, Gesha was introduced to the country (the first specimens collected from wild growing trees in Ethiopia) - but with little impact or effect. In fact, many farmers found the crop difficult to grow and maintain.
It wasn’t until 1997, with the forming of the Speciality Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP) that the country’s relationship - and reputation - began to change. Founding members of the SCAP set out replanting coffee on the farms with a fresh focus on quality in place of high yield. Along with this shift came a drive in education, with producers keen to better understand cupping and flavour, aiding their decision-making process with which varietals they looked to plant. In 1998, the Best of Panama competition was launched, and in 2001,the first online international auction took place; buyers from all over the world were now able to bid for Panamanian coffee–the world stage was open, and people were paying attention. In 2004, history was made, when a washed Gesha from Hacienda La Esmeralda secured a record-breaking price of $21 per pound; the most expensive price at the time was $4.80 per pound. With lots that have since sold for over $800 per pound, it’s not hard to understand why Panama’s coffee producing reputation has orbited around a single varietal.
As with any success story, it’s not all been smooth sailing for Panama since being catapulted into the speciality coffee spotlight. The high value and demand for Gesha has meant that, for some established producers, they’ve been able to reinvest in their communities, focusing on environmentally sustainable renovations for their farms. Some areas - such as Boquete, which is nicknamed The Napa Valley of Coffee - have seen an increase in coffee tourism. This growth, along with investment from international buyers has meant that the value of land has increased, which frequently out-prices native-born producers and landowners. Many coffee farms are owned by expatriates and international buyers–and while for the most part this has meant increased financial support, investing in farm infrastructure and practices, there are those who have been lured by the high value potential of Gesha, meaning traditional land laws have been bypassed, deforesting national parks in order for prime farm locations–it’s reasons like this that make our responsibility in who and where we source coffee from, so important.
GROWING AND HARVESTING
Located along the ‘bean belt’ - an area between the Tropic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn - Panama boasts an enviable climate unlike any other, with its narrow distance between oceans creating an ideal environment for growing coffee. Winds from the North (Caribbean), and the South (Pacific) create idyllic microclimates, aided by virgin forest that provide shade, and act as a natural windbreaker–perfect for protecting the delicate branches of the Gesha coffee tree. The winds that form over the north mountains create a mist called bajareque; the bajareque lowers the temperature over the farms, which slows the cherry ripening process–this creates a higher sugar concentration which in turn aids a more complex, sweet, and delicious end cup. These microclimates also help keep pests and disease under control. Such a unique landscape has meant that varietals that do not grow well elsewhere, thrive in Panama–a producer’s playground for experimentation. Among many varietals, you’ll commonly find Typica, Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon and, of course, Gesha.
Around 80 percent of coffee grown in Panama is Arabica; most of this coffee is grown within three regions within the Chiriqui province–Boquete, Volcan, and Renacimiento. Boquete is the eldest, and best known, with elevations of up to 2,800 masl. These three coffee regions are situated around three volcanoes - Volcan Baru, El Valle, and Le Yeguada - resulting in rich, fertile soils.
Harvest typically occurs between December and March. Boquete and Volcan are blessed with strong transportation and processing infrastructures. Renacimiento is remote, and difficult to accoes, with less infrastructure in place. However, all three regions benefit from the same exceptional terroir that make them renowned for world-class coffee.
PROCESSING AND BREWING
While a single varietal has undoubtedly helped Panama’s speciality coffee presence, there’s a commitment from many of the country’s producers to go beyond the expected–they’re not in the business for a quick sale or Gesha-related glory–and it’s not just these lots that fetch high prices and enviable cup scores. Producers are keen experimenters, tweaking their processing methods and trying new and unusual techniques to improve the quality of their coffees. There’s a continued creativity and innovative spirit from Panama that keeps the country in the spotlight.
While many have come to recognise the delicate floral, soft-tea and fruit notes that the Panama Gesha is famed for, many producers are pushing expectations, exploring, developing - and perfecting - unusual processing methods, creating exceptional small lots that are to be celebrated in their own right. From drying coffee in dark rooms, to wine naturals, Panama’s producers may have arrived later on the coffee scene than many, but they’re looking for ways to ensure they stay firmly on the map, not relying on a single story, but writing the next chapters of speciality coffee–and we can’t wait to see where their story takes them.
PREVIOUS PANAMA COFFEE RELEASES
Hartmann Enders Lot Gesha (2017); Esmerelda Gesha (2017); Hartmann Gesha, Natural (2017); Hartmann Gesha, Washed, (2017); Nuguo Lot 4 (2017); Berlina, Washed (2018); Finca Nuguo, (2018); Hartmann (2018); Hartmann (2019); Berlina, Natural (2019); Esmerelda (2019); Hartmann, Washed (2019); Mama Cata, Natural (2019); Mama Cata, Washed (2019); Herca (2020); Hartmann Lot 186 (2020) ;Momoto Gesha (2020); Momoto (2021); Hartmann (2022); Miraflores (2022); Vanguardia (2022); Zambrano (2022); Panama Trio (2022); Guarumo (2022)
[updated Aug 22]
View our current coffee portfolio and discover our latest Panama release - here