Place in world as coffee exporter (13/14):
Sacks (60kg) exported annually (13/14):
Percentage of world coffee market:
Less than 1%
Other major agricultural exports:
Bananas, Tropical Fruit, Melons
Typical Varieties Produced:
Typica, Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, Geisha, San Ramon, Pache, & Mundo Novo
Key Coffee Regions:
Boquete, Volcán & Renacimiento
Typical Harvest Times:
December - March
Panama’s coffee production is miniscule compared to some of the larger coffee producing countries. In 2013/14, the country only exported 45,000 sacks - a small amount when you consider that there are single farms in Brazil that produce as much. However, Panama’s reputation in the specialty industry far exceeds its fairly slender offering in terms of quantity. This is largely due to the fact that it is the home of the coveted Geisha/Gesha varietal; however the country’s excellent producers have also developed and perfected unique processing methods (such as ‘wine’ naturals) and offer many exceptional small lots.
The history of Panamanian coffee began when European immigrants settled the region in the late 19th century, bringing coffee with them. Located in the western extremity of the country, the province of Chiriqui (valley of the moon in the language of the native peoples that once inhabited this region) was the area first settled with coffee. Today there are two indigenous tribes that play an important role in the coffee production who hail from Chiriqui - the Ngobe and the Bugle – and the country’s two prime coffee regions of Boquete and Volcán are located within the province.
Today, there are primarily three coffee producing areas ranging in elevation from 1,000 to 1,600 metres, with Boquete as the oldest and best known. In addition to Boquete, the area of Volcán is situated on the steep, southwestern slopes of Volcán Barú; finally, Renacimiento is the least-known area due to its remote location. Some important factors contributing to quality, especially for Boquete and Volcán, are the good transport and processing infrastructure, including exceptionally run wet processing stations and dry mills.
The terroir of Panama is quite unique with mountainous regions and nutrient rich volcanic soil that together create numerous microclimates across the country. The winds blowing over the mountains from the north create a fine mist called bajareque that acts as a huge air conditioner slowing the ripening of coffee cherries and contributing, ultimately, to sweet and complex cups.
According to the USDA, production in Panama has been steadily declining since a peak of around 200,000 bags a year in the mid 1990’s, and by 2014-15 this had steadily fallen to 95,000 bags (just under half of which is exported). Many of the country’s most prominent farms are thriving, however. Panama’s volcanic soil, altitude and climatic conditions offer an ideal environment for producing specialty coffee. Indeed, it is because of this ideal environment and reputation for quality that farmers chose to plant great tasting cultivars such as Caturra, Typica, Bourbon, Catuai, San Ramon and of course Geisha, which has helped place Panama on the map when it comes to specialty coffee.
One of the leading drivers of the excitement surrounding Panamanian coffee is this attention to detail throughout the whole process from the picking, maintenance of the farms through to the processing. Panamanian coffees are also well known for the production of small lots, this is both a result of the small scale of individual farms and the end-cost of the coffees that the farms receive.
The story of Geisha in Panama
The cultivar that is synonymous with this outstanding quality is Geisha, which has an Ethiopian heritage and was first brought to Panama from the CATIE agricultural research station in Costa Rica in 1963 by Pachi Serracin (known as Don Pachi) in hopes that it would be resistant to two strains of coffee leaf rust that were affecting crops in Central America at the time. Early attempts to grow this temperamental varietal, which thrives at high altitude, weren’t a success. Planting the trees at low altitudes where rust was most likely to appear produced - incredibly! – poor tasting coffee. The varietal fell into obscurity for decades - although some tress survived on a handful of farms in Costa Rica and Panama, their cherries were mixed together with the rest of the harvest and so their distinctive flavour was lost.
It was only in 2004 that the Geisha was ‘rediscovered’ when an enterprising Panamanian farm (Finca Esmeralda) isolated the production from its Geisha trees and entered the beans in that year’s Taste of Panama coffee competition. Not only did the Geisha lot win, but its extraordinary cup profile - more reminiscent of a fine Yirgacheffe than a Central - completely blew the judges away. Since then, Panama has been known for its high quality Geisha/Gesha due to the inspiration and support provided to other farmers by the team at Finca Esmerelda.
Historically and today, Panama is known for having people from all over the world come to invest in coffee farms. It is an attractive investment not only because of the delicious coffee the land promises but also because of the breathtaking natural scenery. However this investment also threatens the specialty coffee industry as land prices rise and new developments extend into the countryside the pressure on coffee farms grows.