by David Pohl
I've just returned from a spectacular trip to Panama, where I visited both Boquete, and Volcan, two regions known for their high quality coffee. I accompanied 18 fellow Roaster's Guild members and visited some very impressive coffee farms and beneficios, the commonly used term for coffee processing mills. The timing couldn't have been better with Helen and Brooke having just purchased Finca Sofia (see Helen's blog), in the high hills of Volcan. Upon seeing the first farm on the trip, it became abundantly clear why Helen and Brooke were attracted to Panama.
The first farm we visited was Kotowa Estate in Boquete. Owned and managed by Ricardo Koyner, this farm is the home of the oldest coffee mill in Boquete, built by Ricardo's grandfather. Founded in 1917, Kotowa Estate was a great place to start, as it showed how much coffee growing and processing has progressed technologically over the past century. At an altitude of 1200 meters, this 20 hectare farm lies in a unique microclimate with 11mm of rainfall per year. Ricardo is currently harvesting 4 different varietals: Caturra, Catuai, Typica, and Geisha, and the farm is flourishing.
We made our way to Hacienda Esmerelda, where Price, Rachel, and Daniel Peterson guided us through their beautiful farm. Famous for their success with the Geisha varietal, the Peterson's maintained a very modest demeanor while describing their family business. We hiked through a gorgeous section of their massive 180 hectare spread, stopping to show us their Geisha plants bearing perfectly ripe cherries ready for harvesting. They also talked extensively about their experiments planting rare varieties hoping to find the next Geisha. With their property spanning from altitudes of 1,100 meters all the way up to 1,800 meters, the lush surroundings and views were absolutely stunning.
One of the most important resources that makes Panama's coffee unique is its microclimates. The east-west setting of the Republic of Panama allows the cold air currents that flow through the Central Mountain Range to converge at more than 6,500 feet, creating a great variety of different microclimates in the regions of Boquete and Volcan. Because of these different microclimates, you'll find subtle differences in the way each farmer chooses to process their product. I found that the method of drying coffee varied from farm to farm. Some dry their best coffee on African Beds, or patios, while others reserve their best harvest for the mechanical dryers. For instance, Jose David Garrido, has a mill in a uniquely dry microclimate, making it ideal for sun drying. We had the opportunity to cup coffees from different processes at Jose's cupping lab located at his beneficio. The differences were fascinating.
Every producer we encountered in both Boquete and Volcan, welcomed us with open arms, going far beyond my expectations with their hospitality. I've always felt a sense of common purpose amongst coffee industry friends and even competitors, and its amazing to see the same attitude at origin. Although ostensibly competitors, the producers interact like friends and colleagues, exhibiting complete transparency with their methods and practices. Their collective goal as coffee farmers is to consistently improve the quality of their product, and to better the reputation of specialty coffee in the country of Panama as a whole. I was also very impressed by their respect for the indigenous people of Panama, the Gnobe-Bugle, from whom they have learned the techniques of harvesting that allows the correct selection of the mature cherry. With the selection of the cherry, the Gnobe-Bugle people initiate the manual quality control that makes the coffee uniquely special. Many farms provide schools and heath care to the children of their workers. The producers understand that in working together, they stand to benefit personally, and better the quality of life in Panama.