Aromatic Neighbors: Current Crop Panamas and Costa Ricas
If Costa Rica is one of the world's best-known coffee origins, Panama may be one of the more obscure. Nevertheless, these two coffee neighbors share a border, and the growing region for fine Panama coffee is centered only twenty miles or so from the Costa Rica border on the slopes of Volcan Baru. Both origins are respected for quality, although neither is known for a particularly distinctive cup, with typical descriptors for Costa Rica coffee emphasizing a high-grown, cleanly acidy character and descriptors for Panama tending toward waffly words like "soft" or "sweet."
I asked Rodger Owen, president and coffee leader of the Philadelphia-area roaster Bucks County Coffee, to join me in a cupping of coffees from these two neighbors to test these descriptors and to see what might emerge in the way of coffee pleasures and surprises. We gathered thirty-two samples, twenty-one from Costa Rica and eleven from Panama. Almost all were imported and roasted by North-American companies.
A Mixed Sensory Bag
Perhaps predictably, we encountered a mixed sensory bag. Quality ranged from a handful of baggy, faded, even rubbery productions that probably represented the previous year's crop to bright, sweetly classic cups.
However, there was little doubt that the Panama samples as a group were more distinctive in character than those from Costa Rica. Speaking both for himself and for his vice-president for operations, Barbara Patty, who cupped with him, Rodger wrote that "Generally, we felt that the Panama coffees all showed a brighter, sweeter profile, livelier! The Costa Rica coffees, while generally sound, were more balanced, showing [fewer] notes of distinction (floral, fruity, spicy, etc.)."
I agree. It is tricky generalizing from only thirty-two samples, but it would appear, for example, that Panama growers may be more aggressive in terms of experimenting with different varieties of arabica. Two of the higher-rated samples in this month's cupping came from trees of the Geisha variety, which has Ethiopian parentage and appears to carry some of the floral and citrus excitement of Ethiopia across the Atlantic to Panama. On the other hand, it has become a clich to assert that the typical Costa Rica flavor profile has simplified over the last twenty years owing to the tendency to replace traditional varieties of arabica with the compact, hardy, but generally simpler tasting caturra variety. I am suspicious of such broad generalizations, but I admit that the modest evidence of this month's cupping tends to bear this one out. The higher rated Costa Ricas tended to make their case more on the basis of straightforward balance and brightness than aromatic complexity or excitement.
Unanimity at the Top
The two highest-rated coffees in this month's reviews were prize-winners in this year's Best of Panama green coffee competition and Internet auction. The Esmeralda Special from The Roasterie won first place in both the 2004 and 2005 competitions. Rodger and I both assigned this very expensive but distinctive coffee a 92. Cafe Kotowa from Paradise Roasters, a seventh-place winner in the 2005 competition, attracted a 90 from Rodger and a 91 from me.
However, once past these two aromatically flamboyant coffees and a couple of others we both rated at 87, we did not much agree in terms of numbers. I admired a couple of coffees that Rodger apparently found a bit bland or lazy (The Roasterie Costa Rica Don Quijote and Stumptown's Panama Don Pachi Estate Geisha) and took the prerogative of overruling Rodger's score. In two other cases Rodger's samples appeared to have arrived with roasting or packaging problems that my samples escaped.
Same Sensations, Different Values
No matter how much we deviated in terms of numbers, however, our sensory descriptions tended to closely match. Although my cedar might be Rodger's pine, or his bland my delicate, we were clearly cupping the same coffees. We just assigned different values to the same sensations, which is as it ought to be.