Coffee from Panama was historically under-rated and overlooked, but not any longer. That perception has been corrected in recent years with the Best of Panama competition held each year, attracting global competition for the best lots and garnering spectacular prices. The Gesha cultivar produced in some small coffee estates has also garnered heaps of attention for its unique floral cup character.
Panama coffees from higher altitudes are brightly toned, with clean fruited notes and sometimes floral aromatics. Cheaper Panama coffees are quite different, and are a staple of higher-end commercial roasters and lower-end specialty roasters. There are many lower-grown Panamas that are ubiquitous in the U.S. market and of little interest to us here. It's just the Boquete and Volcan coffees from the Chirqui district, ones from small family-owned farms that produce the truly distinct, unique coffees. They employ N'gobe Indians for the picking season, who will come to the coffee farms to work under some of the best wage standards and labor laws in Central America.
Panama has changed greatly in recent years, particularly the coffee producing areas. As investment money came in and the expat population boomed, it affected the coffee sector in several ways. Farms were sold to expats and investors from Colombia, Venezuela and North America. Land values skyrocketed as retirees from the US sought the lower cost of living, warmer climate and the beauty of the Chirqui area. Conveniences abounded: big box stores nearby in the town of David, the prospect of having a fancy home with a maid and a gardener, and fixed incomes covering medical care to a greater extent, with top doctors in Panama City.
It is no longer the place I visited over a decade ago, and the pressure on labor and land values have made coffee farming even more difficult. And somehow producing good, clean, wet-processed coffee was not enough. Farmers chasing the "Gesha rainbow" have tried all kinds of varietals and processes to attract more attention to their coffee, and they look for prices of 5-20 times that of a solid wet-processed coffee. In this spasm of competition and diverging ideas of what a "good" coffee is, I think there has been some tarnishing of the Panama star. But great coffee continues to be produced there by some of the most knowledgeable farmers in Central America. Many have the advantage of strong US contacts, family in the States, US university education and flawless English. One wishes they could share their knowledge with other coffee farmers in Central America who lack these advantages.
For some background on my trips to Panama, and more information on Panama coffees, go way back to the 2002 Panama Cupping Competition; also see my slide show of the 2003 cupping. We have a page about the #1 2004 coffee, Jaramillo Especial, and a page about the 2004 Cupping. And the January 2006 crop visit to check our small lot coffee and visit the Gesha trees at Hacienda La Esmeralda. Also see my April 2006 Best of Panama competition trip. In fact - just check out the travelogue section of the Coffee Library for all the trips!