In May 2018, I was invited to speak at the Best of Panama event, the annual competition for Panamanian specialty coffees. It is not easy to describe how thrilled I was. Though I work in the world of specialty coffee and have visited many producing countries, I hadn’t yet been to Panama, and it was at the top of my list.
Panama is the benchmark among specialty-coffee-producing countries, and I have long admired it. I first learned about Panama’s unique coffee prowess in 2002, when I attended the SCAA fair on behalf of the Café Veracruz Denomination of Origin. At that time, I talked with Panamanian coffee producers who were filing the Denomination of Origin Café de Boquete. This was before the Geishas, before the 90-plus-scoring coffees, and before the three-figures-per-pound prices. However, something special was already visible in the coffee community of Panama: far-reaching vision and innovation, cohesion, but at the same time, healthy competition among members of the community.
CQI has a long history in Panama, and we’re proud to have played a role in the coffee sector’s success. From 2003 to 2006, CQI had a direct grant from USAID to establish the Coffee Corps program. During this time, over 200 volunteers traveled around the world to train and interact with coffee-producing countries. Panama had requested support to establish a cupping competition for their coffees starting in 2003. One of the many volunteers was Ric Rhinehart, now the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association. In 2005, collaborating with the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama and Willem Boot as head judge, they decided to cup a variety being used as a windbreak in the newly purchased Jaramillo farm in Boquete by the Peterson family. Due to the cupping knowledge and high integrity of the Panama producers, combined with the expertise of the volunteers, the now-famous Geisha variety from Panama was “discovered” then.
Today, the specialty-coffee community of Panama is a model nation (and cause of envy) for all coffee-growing countries because of the success it has had in positioning the region as the source of the world's highest-valued coffee. The phenomenon of Panama Geisha, which has driven the markets crazy with its flavors of jasmine, bergamot, and tropical fruits, has had ripples throughout the coffee world. This has been seen not only in producing countries that are now planting hundreds of hectares of Geisha, excited by the prospect of high prices, but also in Panama itself: Panama Geisha exports have reached a significant percentage of the country’s coffee exports, and even the value of the "traditional" varieties of coffee in Panama has also increased with this wave of enthusiasm.
Best of Panama
Attending the Best of Panama competition left me pondering many things. During the final round of Geishas, it was not uncommon for several of the judges to score above 94. There was a judge who scored a washed Geisha above 98—and we are talking about the SCA protocol, which usually results in lower scores than the Cup of Excellence protocol! A common topic of conversation during the competition was the Panama coffee sector’s goal of Panamanian coffee regularly reaching scores of 100 points.
The head judge, Will Young of Campos Coffee in Australia, represented this aspiration with a symbolic act: At the start of the cupping work, he offered the judges a Bordeaux wine that has reached a 100-point score on several occasions. The analogies between Panama and Bordeaux were frequent, as they are both leading regions that have elevated their products to the category of luxury item. There was also talk of the long tradition of Bordeaux, which has been building its prestige for more than 400 years, and how Panama is attempting to do the same: ensure its sustainability as a source of luxury coffee for following generations.
I was invited to the event by Panamanian producers not to taste their coffee, but to talk about the science of post-harvest processing. I made a presentation titled “The Role of Microbes in Coffee Flavor,” in which I examined topics such as the inoculation of coffee with microbial starters and the formation of fruity flavor in natural coffees. Both topics are relevant in Panama: On the one hand, several farms are inoculating their coffee with commercial yeast strains to obtain certain results in the cup. On the other hand, the amount of natural coffees in Panama has increased dramatically in recent years. The natural process can improve the body of Geisha coffees and enhance their complexity. The Asian markets, which have been the main drivers of the Panamanian coffee phenomenon, appreciate the exotic and slightly winey flavors of some naturals. For someone like me who is deeply interested in the post-harvest processing of coffee and its impact on flavor, it was invaluable to experience the innovative and entrepreneurial attitude of Panamanian producers.
What can we learn from Panama? After seeing it with my own eyes, I am left with two great lessons, which I hope can be applied to other producing countries. The first lesson is the importance of farmers to understand the specialty market, which Panama’s producers most definitely do. Third-wave buyers arrive directly to Boquete as one makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They know the producers and talk about their name and fame. They take advantage of the trip to cup and buy coffees privately. They fight over coffee in stocks. This is much different from most producing regions, where farmers often lose the connection to their coffees as it passes through a long chain of intermediaries. By dehumanizing the supply chain, of course, prices become inhuman! Panama shows us that when the buyer sees the producer as an equal and a friend, the value of the product naturally increases.
The other great lesson is the curious and innovative attitude of Panamanian coffee growers. That is actually a great contrast to the traditionalist Bordeaux winemakers’ attitude, and is more similar to the attitude found in winemakers from regions of the New World like Oregon, New Zealand, and Chile. The coffee that is being produced in Panama today, with the strong presence of Geisha, the natural process, and even inoculations with commercial strains, has nothing to do with what Panama coffee used to be 15 years ago. However, this attitude of continuous improvement keeps buyers attentive and enthusiastic about what will come out of the country each year. They already expressed it during the Best of Panama 2018: The goal is to achieve the first coffee scoring 100 points. When this will be achieved, how much will it be worth, and who will drink it are issues that will mark the future history of coffee in the world, and Panama will play a key role in writing that history.
By: Mario Fernández, Technical Director, CQI
Below: Patent from 1933 of the ‘syphon hopper,’ invented at Finca Lérida, Boquete, Panama, showing the innovative attitude of the Panama coffee community, working to improve coffee post-harvest process since the last century.