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Your guide to Panama Coffee
A Panamanian coffee was sold for an extraordinary sum at auction in October 2020.
The Finca Sophia coffee beans, grown in the country's Nueva Suiza highlands, fetched a world record price of $1,300.50 per pound.
This eye-watering sum, equivalent to £955 (£60 an ounce) - was paid at the Best of Panama Auction; it had already won First Prize in the Washed Geisha category and the Panama Cup. But what makes a coffee from this country worth such an amount?
In short, it is the price of exclusivity: just as some wine enthusiasts are prepared to part with £600 or more for a bottle, so some coffee connoisseurs will fork out for what is perceived to be the best and rarest coffee in the world.
How did it all start?
Despite appearances, Geisha (or gesha) has nothing to do with Japan. It has an Ethiopian heritage and was introduced to a Panama farm in the 1970s by a grower named Don Pachi. He cultivated the coffee on an estate near Boquete on the slopes of Mount Baru, a dormant volcano in western Panama. At first, the yield was poor: the scrawny plants in this region produced few, small beans. He experimented with growing them in different patterns at different altitudes, and 30 years later, he got it right. The Boquete beanstalks turned out to be more magical than the one that Jack grew.
At high altitudes and spaced well apart, the coffee beans fattened nicely and matured slowly, benefiting from the micro-climate, the rich soils and the all-year rains coming in from the Pacific and Caribbean. The result was something with a unique quality and flavour. Its aficionados rave about its floral aroma and slightly acidic tropical fruit tone, with clear jasmine and bergamot hints.
Thanks to its celebrity status, Panama Geisha, with its mango flavours, is becoming more widely cultivated, yet it remains the world's most eagerly coveted coffee varietal.
Of course, we don't all want to break the bank to buy Panama coffee and the country produces other types of bean that produce a delicious and distinctive drink.
The origins of Panama Coffee go back to the 19th century when Arabica beans were introduced to the country by Europeans, although the industry didn't begin to leave a mark until 20 years ago, as interest in higher-end beans has grown.
Panama Coffee Regions
Most of the country's coffee is grown in the Chiriqui regions, a province on Panama's western side, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Costa Rica. The farms, mostly very small operations, are located in two main areas: Boquete and Volcan-Candela; the latter area is often nicknamed the "breadbasket" of Panama, thanks to the abundance of food grown here. Coffee plantations are also to be found in the more remote Renacimiento.
The coffee-cultivating areas are on the slopes of Baru, a dormant volcano whose peak is 14,000 feet above sea level. The elevation, nutrient-rich soil plus cloud cover, mist and regular rainfall in these highlands combine to create the ideal conditions to grow coffee plants. The location also has the benefit of cool winds which slow down the ripening of the coffee cherries, giving them a plumper, sweeter finish. Farmers from this region have a long tradition of making unique, high-quality and flavoursome coffee products, not just the gold Geisha. This favourable environment has encouraged workers to pursue better cultivars such as Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, and Typica.
Panama Coffee Production
Globally, Panama coffee production is tiny: about 120,000 60-kilo bags annually, less than 1% of the world's total output - a sharp contrast to its neighbour Costa Rica's 1.5 million bags. However, such is Panama's reputation for speciality that its farmers are more than happy to focus on the high-quality option, ahead of quantity.
Harvesting on Panama coffee farms is usually done between late October and March, a process that is done painstakingly by hand, as the perfect cherries are separated from those with defects. The terrain is rough, wet and slippery so the procedure cannot be rushed. This attention to detail helps to keep up the reputation for the quality of coffee in Panama. The harvesters and farmers don't mind working this way: their coffee makes more money. The beans are then washed and dried and sorted according to size, shape and colour.
Panama coffee beans respond differently to the various methods of roasting: light roasts have a delicate flavour, a little bit like tea, with a touch of citrus; medium roast coffee give a more bitter taste with nut hints and extra caffeine; while a dark roast is stronger, more creamy with chocolate tastes.
What does the best Panama Coffee taste like?
Panamanian coffees have a lot in common with those grown in the rest of Latin America, offering a drink that is bright, clean and slightly fruity, but slightly less sweet than their South American counterparts. There is a nice aroma and some spicy, nutty notes. Within the range there are several variations, depending on the plants used, the harvest and which of the many farms or estates the coffee comes from. As such, a single description to cover all brands of coffee from Panama is impossible.
The characteristics of the Typica bean are acidity, notes of lemon and flowers and a gently sweet aftertaste. The lemony touch may be more notable in Caturra coffees, while Bourbon offers a richer and well-rounded coffee, with a hint of wine that can linger.
Our delightfully rich Panama La Torcaza is grown exclusively on the Janson Brother's coffee estates and offers you some of the best of Panama coffee. Panama La Torcaza is a medium-strength coffee with subtle floral notes and a sweet aftertaste, best enjoyed as a full-body espresso or in your filter coffee.
Is Panama coffee good?
Given that the most expensive coffee in the world comes from Panama, it's safe to say that the country produces some great coffee. Many of the regions have ideal conditions for growing coffee and Panama coffee roasters and farmers have chosen to focus on high-quality rather than high-quantity production. There are many brands available that provide delicious coffee, without the extortionate price tags.
Does Panama produce coffee?
Panama has been producing coffee since the 19th century, in several different regions. The Baru volcano, which is now dormant provides highly fertile soils and ideal conditions for growing coffee, including the notable gold Geisha. While its production is tiny in comparison to many other countries, Panama delivers very exceptional coffee.
Not sure which size bag you need? See How Many Cups each size provides.