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The famous Geisha coffee, on the tree. This farm also produces other excellent coffee beans of the Geisha strain, in different little ecological niches, which turn out to be neither as good nor as expensive as the prize-winning stuff. Photo by Joel Inwood
Home of the world’s best coffee
by Joel Inwood
Some of the worlds finest coffee is grown in Panama, and in the Best of Panama 2005 the world’s most expensive took another best of show, this time $20.10 per pound --- not far off the mark from last years record setting $21.00 per pound.
The supreme quality was not a surprise this time, which, noted Daniel Peterson of the family owned farm that produces the coffee, explains the slight drop in price this year. “This year the surprise was that we were able to maintain the flavor,” Peterson said, which he points out was no easy task.
Different people taste different flavors when cupping (The process of coffee tasting) a coffee, said Peterson. His reactions were blueberry and jasmine, and others have noted rose petals, he said. It has a great level of acidity and an almost sweet flavor, he notes. Perhaps the biggest surprise from this distinctive coffee was the first taste of the coffee itself.
The extreme rains brought on by 1998’s La Niña weather pattern left a plague of fungus in its wake for many of Boquete’s coffee farmers. On Hacienda Esmeralda “half the farm was devastated,” said Peterson. Only three varieties of plants had survived from among all those that the Petersons had planted. One of those was of the “Geisha.”
The Petersons decided to replant the whole farm with those three varieties. It takes coffee plants about five years to reach their full potential, and the Petersons needed something special to pull the farm back up to its potential. What they got was much more than they had hoped for.
The beans from different parts of a small farm, even if they're from the same genetic stock, can produce coffees that taste very different. This little patch has just the right conditions for the world's best coffee. Photo by Joel Inwood
The Petersons were doing a cupping of their different varieties from several parts of the farm, when they noticed that the Geisha plants from one particular hillside produced an unbelievably unique cup. They began to spread the word, and in the 2004 Best of Panama the word spread worldwide.
The problem now is reproducing the Hacienda Esmeralda Special cup on other parts of their farm. They have Geisha plants planted in other areas, but the flavor is not the same, said Peterson. The Geisha plant can grow to be up to 15 feet tall, and picking can require the use of a ladder, said Peterson. In addition to that, it does not have a very high yield, he said. Other shorter varieties used on the farm have a much higher yield and still produce a high quality bean, he notes.
Most of Hacienda Esmeralda’s coffee is sold to Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee, Peterson said. Peet’s buys most of the Esmeralda Special, he said, adding that “we like to have a few micro-roasters [sell our coffee] as well.” Starbucks is very concerned with quality, said Peterson, which makes Panamanian coffee a natural choice. Peterson pointed out that when coffee prices were very low during crisis a few years ago, Starbucks would still pay around $1.20 per pound for good specialty coffee, which helped keep a lot of people in business through hard times.
The Petersons also try to give something back to the environment that gave them their extraordinary crop. Though not “organic,” the Petersons take the waste from their coffee processing areas and use it to fertilize the plants, Daniel Peterson said. Every year the Petersons find ways to use less and less water in production, he adds.
“All the overland migratory birds have to come through Panama’s coffee highlands to get between the Americas,” Peterson said. On Hacienda Esmeralda they don’t trim the trees that grow over the coffee areas until the birds have moved on, which comes at the risk of fungi that grow in the shade and a general reduction of sunshine for the plants. When they do trim the trees, they leave enough green to allow them to survive.
Coffee picking is hard work for relatively low pay, and the many Panamanian kids who travel from farm to farm with their parents for the harvest often have their educations disrupted. At this farm, however, some of the work force is permanently employed and there is this daycare center and play area for the farmworkers' children. Photo by Joel Inwood
The workers who live on Hacienda Esmeralda, in addition to having clean water and good housing, have a daycare center with a play area for their children. Another key part of the quality produced on Hacienda Esmeralda is that workers have to be careful with the beans. A bus driver bringing this reporter to the farm noted that the Petersons are extremely particular about how the beans are handled. “Well, you have to be,” Daniel Peterson later replied. Specialty coffee is very delicate in different respects, Peterson pointed out. It picks up flavors very easily, he said. Exposure to things like fuel can ruin a whole crop, he notes.
The future of coffee in Panama is in the specialty market, according to Peterson. The cost to produce a pound of coffee here is about 90 cents, but in Vietnam they can do it for 40 cents or less, notes Peterson. The influx of Europeans and North Americans into the Boquete area, where most of Panama’s coffee is grown, is causing a rapid rise in land value, and in the taxes that go with it, said Peterson. “It’s part of development,” he said. Hacienda Esmeralda, like most of its neighbors, depends on the labor from the indigenous Ngobe to pick coffee. If that less expensive labor were not available, Hacienda Esmeralda might only be able to produce the Special, and not the Premium coffee which currently accounts for much of their business, Peterson said.
The bag on the left contains the premium beans (a bit below the famous specialty coffee but still very good), while the bag on the right is for an inferior grade of coffee. Photo by Joel Inwood
“Quality is the key,” said Peterson. It is a “unique mix of micro-climate, altitude, soil, and [coffee] variety,” he said, adding “you need the right variety.” The Petersons have also recently employed the use of a machine the separates mass quantities of coffee by the color of each individual bean. With this the Hacienda Esmeralda is able to insure that only the best beans make it into the bag. Marketing is also important, said Peterson. Hacienda Esmeralda tries to be represented by one of the Petersons in as many international coffee events as possible. Daniel Peterson is also President of the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama, and a member of the larger Specialty Coffee Association of America.