Let's Talk Relationships - A World of Coffee within Panama

Every year for the past dozen years, Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers has hosted a unique event called Let’s Talk Coffee. This year the event was held in early October, at a resort just outside of Panama City, Panama. The purpose of the event is to bring the entire supply chain under one roof to discuss a wide range of topics related to coffee including agronomy, economics and sensory evaluation. The presentations and workshops are intended to educate and sometimes serve to challenge popular thinking. I participated in a panel discussion on the subject of Geisha variety coffee, quite appropriate since Panama is credited with the rediscovery of this heirloom variety. I also delivered a presentation on implications of the Robusta species in the specialty coffee market from the roasters perspective.

Let’s Talk Coffee is also an opportunity for coffee producers and roaster to meet face to face to talk business. On this occasion I was able to meet with long time partners from Granja La Esperanza in Colombia, El Batan in Ecuador, and with the new manager for the all-woman co-operative COMUCAP in Honduras. I also connected with newer cooperatives we work with like Cooperandes in Colombia and Sol & Café in Peru, as well as privately owned estates such as Finca El Valle in Guatemala and Sethurman Estate in India.

One of the most entertaining parts of Let’s Talk Coffee is an evening dedicated to honoring coffee producers and roaster with awards that celebrate quality. The Oscar-like awards ceremony is called the HarVee Awards and, for me, the highlight of the event was receiving an award on behalf of Equator’s roasting team. In advance of the conference we submitted coffee to Kenneth Davids’ Coffee Review lab for evaluation. We sent a new relationship coffee from Finca El Valle, which is located in Antigua, Guatemala. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that our roast was bestowed a score of 92 points, which secured the 1st Place award in the Central America category. I had just met Pablo Alejandro Gonzales, son of Cristina Gonzalez, the owner of Finca El Valle. It was an honor to have him on stage with me to accept the award.

Oddly, it was a meeting with a research team at Google that lead us to Finca El Valle. The engineers at Google were seeking information from Equator to gauge how their data analysis tools might benefit coffee farmers. We suggested a study of the impact of Roya, or leaf rust disease, on a coffee farm and our friends at Sustainable Harvest recommended El Valle. We were able to secure a small amount of coffee from the farm and were delighted with the cup quality. Although the quality remains high, productivity on the farm is extremely low due to leaf rust; a stunning 80% below normal production. We wanted to help beyond simply purchasing coffee so, we helped organize a crowd funding project with Sustainable Harvest and roaster Batdorf & Bronson, who also buy the coffee. The Kickstarter campaign runs for thirty days; by October 29th we hope to raise at least $20,000 to assist in replanting efforts at El Valle. Please considering contributing to this cause.

Finally, no trip to Panama would be compete without a visit to Equator’s very own coffee farm! Let’s Talk Coffee participants were given the opportunity to travel to Finca Sophia, located the highlands of the Volcan growing region, in the northwestern reaches of Panama. The group ascended the gently winding slope from the town of Volcan toward the community of Cerro Punta, a left turn took them from the main road across the Old Chiriqui River and up a steep and bumpy two mile dirt track to the farm. The elevation on the farm is high, ranging from approximately 6,250 at the base to 6,975 feet at the summit, a challenging altitude to grow coffee but one with tremendous potential for quality. Over 30,000 Geisha variety coffee trees have been planted in sections since 2008, when the farm came into our possession. Previously pasture land, it took a great deal of fertilizer and hand tilling to improve the soil for coffee production. About 20,000 shade trees were also planted to protect the young coffee plants from the intense sunlight. The worker housing that was built in 2010 served as an impromptu tasting lab, where farmers and guests alike tasted some of the first production from the surrounding trees Geisha trees on Finca Sophia.

Farm visits, fundraising, awards, meetings, discussions, presentations and relationship building – all components that made for an exceptional Let’s Talk Coffee conference! We look forward to next year’s event which is rumored to be in Brazil.