You might say that love brought the first coffee plants to Panama. When a retired English sea captain married a Panamanian lady circa 1800, he brought coffee seedlings with him. Before long, other colonists planted Arabica varieties in the volcanic highlands of Panama, and coffee cultivation took firm root. Many of these first coffee farmers were engineers and managers from Europe who had relocated during the construction of the Panama canal. Their extensive knowledge of agriculture and experience dealing with commerce helped establish coffee farming in Panama on a more scientific level than was the norm.
This narrow country, bordered on the north by Nicaragua and on the south by Costa Rica, is home to the highest inactive volcanoes in Central America. The altitude and the influence of both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans create microclimates which, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for perfect coffee growing conditions. Because of this, coffee seeds from all over the world have been brought here for cultivation and observation. Among these is “Geisha” (Gesha) coffee, an Ethiopian strain of Arabica with a very distinctive taste profile--floral, fruity, and highly sought after.
Biodiversity is valued highly in Panama. Much of its coffee is grown beneath the canopy of native rainforest. Water sources and animal habitat are protected as farmers combine their traditional growing and milling practices with innovative technologies in cultivation and processing.
Many of the seasonal workers who help with coffee harvest are of the Ngäbes (Ngobes) people who originally occupied Panama before the coming of Columbus. Since no machines can be used to harvest the ripened cherries, these skilled workers are integral to the success of the Panamanian coffee industry. They alternate between their ancestral holdings in the comarca area and the coffee farms of Costa Rica and Panama, bringing with them their culture, their art, and the expertise so key to specialty coffee production.
Panamanian growers are well-versed in coffee quality, cupping and grading their beans with confidence, and able to recommend profiles to buyers and price their coffees correctly. Growers here also have the advantage of functional infrastructure. With the Panama Canal and accessible ports, shipping is easy, and within the country, travel to farms is for the most part accomplished on excellent roads. The Best of Panama competitions and subsequent coffee auctions are drawing increased attention from international specialty coffee buyers as they come to taste and to acquire the distinctive coffees of the Panamanian highlands.