Spilling the Beans about Panama’s Coffee Industry

In terms of coffee production, Panama has percolated in recent years to become a top supplier in fulfilling connoisseurs’ need for java world-wide. Beans from Panama are a delectable treat, but there’s so much more to this country’s specialty brew than a single cup can fill. So grab a cup of your favorite cup of joe and immerse yourself in Panama’s coffee heritage.

Where It’s Grown

Way before reaching store shelves, Panama’s finest coffee is cultivated in the Highlands of Chiriquí, a mountain province in the west of Panama that is a seven-hour drive from Panama City and Panama Canal. Coffee farms in Chiriquí are found in two main areas: the town of Boquete, a heartland for coffee production, and Volcán Candela, called “Panama’s breadbasket” due to its thriving agriculture.

What Makes This Coffee Special?

Surrounded by an inactive volcano called The Baru and the nearby Caldera River, the Chiriqui province is blessed with a microclimate and volcanic enriched soil that make this area prime for coffee plantations. Abundant moisture, regular rainfall, and cloud cover nourish coffee plants, which in turn produces top-notch beans with rich flavour.

How Is Coffee Harvested?

Coffee beans undergo a unique harvesting process. First, as cherry-red berries, or “coffee berries,” they are handpicked from plants when ripe and are then processed quickly. There are two methods for processing: wet and dry. Wet-processing involves washing the berries, removing their pulp, and fermenting them until the beans are dried, while during dry-processing, beans are placed outdoors for sun drying and often raked to help prevent mildew. The final step for both is to sort out the dried beans and measure the results harvest by density, and then place it into jute bags for export.

Bean Varieties

Varying by growth, bean quality, and required care, various coffee bean plants produce different flavor results and Panama has quite the variety. Geisha coffee plants (originally from Ethiopia and brought to Panama via Costa Rica in 1963) are the source for a distinguished beverage: a light body, jasmine-like aroma, and citrusy taste. The Typica variety also produces a good cup and is often used as a base plant to develop other varietals. Other bean options include: San Roman, a Brazilian variety of Typica; Bourbon, which has a smaller harvest than most varieties but is equally tasty; Caturra, a high-production, quality coffee requiring extensive care; and Catuai, a high-yielding plant.

A Place on the World Stage

No longer behind neighbouring coffee-producing countries, Panama has grounded a firm stance in the global commodity market. According to the International Coffee Organization, the country exports around 50,000 sixty-pound bags a year and ranks 26th among coffee-exporting nations. For the export season ending in 2007, Panama’s coffee generated $15.1 million in sales.

So who’s drinking Panama’s bounty? One should look north. The United States is a top consumer of Panama’s coffee, with coffeehouse powerhouse Starbucks as a leading purchaser of Panamanian beans. Along with the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia are all top purchasers as well.

Panama’s coffee farms have also earned accolades in various international competitions. In May 2007, Geisha coffee grower Hacienda La Esmeralda set a sales record with its “Esmeralda Especial” brand, fetching the whopping price of $130 a pound in an online auction.

Tour a Coffee Plant

Now, coffee aficionados can experience Panama’s top coffee plantations first hand.  Producers have opened their farms to the public to view processing factories, roasting plants, and tasting facilities. Cited as the oldest mill in Panama, Kotowa Coffee’s tour thoroughly explains the close-to-a-century old facility’s processing cycle and concludes with a tasting of its specialty coffees. Cafe Ruiz’s “The Art of Tasting Coffee” experience consists of a guided tasting and lesson in pairing coffees with food. And Finca Lerida, a boutique hotel with a rich coffee heritage, offers interactive tours as well.

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