The Bristol Team was recently in Panama, which is the only country to have produced a coffee bean - namely, the Geisha varietal of Arabica coffee - that scored a perfect 100/100 in cupping tests. Panama’s mountainous landscapes, tropical and unique microclimates, and highly fertile volcanic soils enable the production not only of the world-renowned Geisha bean, but also a broad variety of flavors and aroma in its coffee. Read on to learn more about Bristol Coffee's trip and what we learned about coffee in Panama.
Coffee was first brought to the low coastal areas near the city of Boquete, Panama in the early 1800s by a retired British sea captain. Soon, others would bring coffee varietals from all over the world to the valley of Boquete. The valley and surrounding mountains would prove to be an ideal environment for growing coffee due to the combination of nutrient-rich volcanic soil, the elevation of the mountains, and unique microclimates created by the area’s proximity to two oceans. Despite these advantages, coffee production in Panama remained stagnant until approximately 20 years ago as cheaper coffee from other countries dominated the market.
After the global plunge in coffee prices during the late 1990s to early 2000s, the coffee industry in Panama decided to approach a different sector of the market and promote its specialty coffee. This is when the eponymous Geisha bean - first discovered near the town of Geisha, Ethiopia in the 1930s and introduced to Panama in the 1960s - gained international fame.
The Geisha tree grows tall and has elongated leaves, and is renowned as being a finicky tree to grow to maturity - it requires high elevations, which allow the coffee bean to grow and mature more slowly, thus fully developing its flavor and aroma profile. Fortuitously for Panama, the mountains of Chiriqui/Boquete provide ideal growing conditions for the Geisha varietal. The coffee produced from its beans is described as sweet, mild, and citrusy with a tea-like body. Panama has since broadened its production of speciality coffee and, in addition to the Geisha tree, also produces world-class varietals such as Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, and Typica.
Coffee production is also of cultural importance within Panama, and is considered central to two native tribes - the Ngobe and the Bugle - who have been involved in every stage of coffee production process since its introduction to Panama. The intimate involvement and continuity of experience these two tribes have had in the production of Panamanian coffee has created irreplaceable know-how and sensibilities, such as knowing the optimal moment when to harvest mature coffee cherries. It is for this reason that Panamanian coffee is still mostly hand-grown and hand-harvested by members of these two tribes, and why the coffee industry has been extremely important in helping maintain these tribes’ heritage and way of life.
Despite producing truly world-class coffee, most of Panama’s coffee is for export and local consumption is predominantly confined to lower quality instant coffee - in this respect, the local coffee culture in Panama is similar to other major coffee producing nations. However, Panama’s coffee culture is slowly changing - Panama City and most of Panama’s larger cities are now populated not only with large coffee chains such as Coffee Bean, Starbucks, and local chain Kotowa, but also with smaller and more artisanal coffee shops which offer a broad variety of Panamanian coffee.
If you’d like to know more about the coffee culture in the countries we visit, Bristol Coffee, or coffee in general, keep reading our blog. Or follow us on social media, we’re on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest. And remember, the day only gets better with good coffee. So go buy some Bristol Coffee, why don’t you?