By September 5, 2009 |Reviews Tasting Report

Half Way to Napa? Panamas 2009

The compact coffee growing region of western Panama, rising on the slopes of the 11,300-foot Volcan Baru, is in many respects ideally configured to develop into one of the world’s coffee versions of Napa Valley. The region is compact, ideal for coffee growing, and almost all of the production is performed by classic medium-sized, family-owned farms of the kind that best equate with the wine idea of “estate.” Furthermore, many of the owner-farmers are passionate about what they are doing and knowledgeable both about coffee and about the high-end consumer market.

This month’s cupping of 31 Panamas from the 2008/2009 harvest supports the Panama promise with reviews of some splendid coffees marketed with wine-world precision. It also raises some questions about the 2009 status of the Panama wine-paradigm promise.

For one, it appears that the high-end Panama coffee scene in the U.S. has become a bit clubby and limited in range. Almost half of the coffees we received came from only two farms or estates: The celebrated Hacienda La Esmeralda of the Petersen family and Elida Estate, owned and operated by the Lamastus family. A sprinkling of coffees from a half-dozen other farms were submitted by roasters for consideration, but we received almost no coffees labeled simply “Panama” or “Panama Boquete,” Boquete being the most recognized regional name in Panama coffee.

Perhaps the emphasis on farm reflects the sophistication of the Panama industry, or perhaps it simply reflects a marketing reality: Panama does not have the name recognition of coffee-growing countries like Costa Rica, Colombia or Guatemala, so marketing coffee by estate name may be more crucial to sales than it would be for farmers located in countries more clearly associated with coffee.

Same Farm, Different Cups

Of course different lots of coffee from the same farm do not necessarily taste the same, at least not exactly the same. Coffees from different parts of a farm will taste different, as will coffees from different varieties of tree, or coffees picked at different times during the harvest. Coffees whose fruit has been removed before drying (washed or wet-processed) will taste dramatically different from coffees from the same farm that have been dried inside the fruit (“natural” or dry-processed). On top of all of that, of course, is the impact of how the coffee was roasted.

Take the famous Hacienda La Esmeralda coffees from the Price Petersen family, four of which are clustered near the top of this month’s ratings. As is often noted, this is the highest priced coffee in the world aside from those produced from beans that have been eaten or spit out by animals. Its fame is based on the remarkably distinctive cup character of coffee from trees of the Gesha or Geisha variety of arabica found growing on certain parts of the Petersen farm.

We received six Hacienda La Esmeralda Specials. All presumably were from trees of the Gesha variety, an assumption generally confirmed by a look at the beans. One sample, from a part of the farm called Jaramillo, was not particularly distinctive or impressive in the cup. The other five Esmeraldas were from the slightly higher elevation “Mario” fields, and all cupped and rated well at 91 through 96. However, the four lots from the later part of the harvest, which the Petersens brand as “Pascua” (or Easter, as they were harvested in the month of April) rated 91 through 93, while the one sample we cupped from the earlier part of the harvest (branded “Carnaval,” harvested in February) impressed us most at 96.

Complicating the judgment, of course was roast. The lightest roasted Esmeralda from PT’s was also the highest rated Esmeralda; three slightly darker roasted samples, the Tony’s (93) Counter Culture (92) and Equator (91) rated somewhat lower. (A Coffee Klatch version, a Mario Pascua lot rated 93, is not reviewed here; it would have given us too many Klatches and too many Esmeraldas for this month’s article.) An aside: Lighter roasting does not assure a higher rating at Coffee Review, despite the implication of the Esmeralda cupping. Lately the trend toward light-roasting has encouraged occasional submissions that are, in our view, underdeveloped in the roast. But with this handful of pure and fragrant Esmeraldas, the light, apparently slow roast from PT’s seemed to best foreground the lush aromatics of this unusual coffee.

Expect to pay very high prices for these striking Esmeralda coffees, by the way. And move fast, as most sell out in weeks. The other high-rated coffees reviewed here will likely sell out quickly too, as their impressive quality and scores are accompanied by significantly lower prices. The 94-rated El Burro Estate from Geisha Coffee Roaster is about twelve dollars per pound, for example, a rather shockingly modest price for an exceptional coffee. Probably too modest; the price paid for this coffee green doubtless hardly covered the farmers’ investment in quality or adequately rewarded their passion for excellence.

There is no chicanery or duplicity involved in the high prices of the Esmeralda coffees. These are distinctive coffees, basically unique in cup profile in the world at this moment. The supply of the best lots is very limited, and the demand for these coffees overwhelmingly outstrips supply, hence the price of the green coffee is bid up to as much as $40 per pound for the green, unroasted beans. (For basis of comparison, some of the very best non-Esmeralda coffees in the world are considered “expensive” at around $5 per pound green.) The roasting companies that take a chance and buy a few hundred pounds of the best lots of Esmeralda are not ripping anyone off; in fact they are taking a risk on behalf of the aficionado and the vision of coffee as a fine beverage.

Elida and the Other Estates

Turning to Elida Estate, the seven samples we received varied most dramatically in terms of processing method. The Esmeralda coffees all were processed by the orthodox wet method (fruit removed before drying), while of the Elida Estate submissions four were wet-processed and three dry-processed, or dried in the fruit, an unorthodox processing method in Panama. As regular readers of Coffee Review know, drying coffee in the ripe fruit encourages the fruit sugars to mildly ferment, adding a complex character that can range from soaringly sweet and cleanly fruity through rich and cherry-brandy-like to, well, rotten. The two natural Elidas reviewed this month (Geisha Coffee Roaster Elida Peaberry Natural 93; Coffee Klatch Elida Natural 92) roughly fell into the rich and brandy-like category; the shadow that often haunts dried-in-the-fruit coffees, a sometimes bitter, sometimes salty astringency, was detectible but nicely balanced and integrated into the richly fruity character.

The two conventionally wet-processed Elida Estate samples reviewed this month (Coffee Klatch Elida Estate 92; Willoughby’s Elida Estate Reserve 91) displayed the more familiar, classic Panama style: balanced, smoothly but not assertively acidy, quietly fragrant with subtle fruit and floral notes.

Among the handful of coffees from other farms reviewed here, two in particular expressed variations on the classic wet-processed Panama cup: the pure and delicate (and organically grown) Hacienda La Esperanza roasted by Coffee From Panama (91) and the surprisingly rich and sweet El Burro Estate from Geisha Coffee Roaster (94).

A Difficult Year in Panama

A second question raised by our cupping was provoked by something more stubbornly intractable than processing method or even tree variety: bad weather. Nature did not treat the 2009 harvest in Panama well. There were heavy rains during fruit development, and high winds during the peak of the harvest stripped trees of fruit. Coffee production in Panama generally was down by about 40 percent for the year.

How did these tribulations affect the cup? Most of the coffees we received reflected fruit removal and drying performed with the meticulousness characteristic of Panama’s best farms and mills, yet the cup often showed a very slight salty note, particularly in the finish, a note that perhaps derived from chemical changes of the fruit developing on the tree during three months of wet weather. On the upside, this slight savory shadow invites perhaps even more attention than usual to this year’s Panamas from coffee aficionados, given that the dry, deep nuancing contributed by this note may perhaps never appear again quite this way in this origin.

We did also encounter some outright drying problems, as at least three of the samples showed slight musty or mildewed notes that usually come from coffees exposed to excessive moisture during drying, a flaw not at all characteristic of Panamas. One coffee was so robustly musty and fruity that it actually came across as a rather attractive coffee in the style of traditional earthy/fruity Sumatras. I repressed the impulse to review it on its own terms, given its undoubtedly accidental nature.

Prospects for 2010

Next year we should anticipate a bit less intrigue from Panamas and considerably more orthodox purity, not to mention more coffee. Panama farmers tell me they are expecting a sunny, relatively dry fruiting and harvest in 2010.

2009 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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