Why is Panama’s Coffee the Most Expensive in the World?
The story of how a pound of coffee, grown in the mountains of Chiriquí in the Republic of Panama, reached a record price of $1,029 began twenty years ago. It did not happen overnight.
Behind every cup that is served in specialty coffee shops in Japan, the United States and Taiwan is a group of Panamanian coffee growers who have dedicated their entire lives to coffee. With great effort and commitment they have built a coffee industry that has been growing bigger and stronger every year since the Specially Coffee Association of Panama (SCAP) was created in the early 2000s.
Wilford Lamastus Jr. is part of a fourth-generation group of farms of the Lamastus Family Estates that bring together the Elida Estate, one of the plantations that grows the sought-after Geisha coffee, El Burro Estate and Luito Geisha Estate, in the province of Chiriquí, located west of Panama.
His father, of same name, was one of the founders of the SCAP and organizer of the Best of Panama competition. Subsequently they adopted the online auction system to offer buyers around the world the different coffee varieties sampled and previously scored in the competition by a group of international judges.
Panamanian Coffee: Before and After
Lamastus Jr. is hardly thirty years old, but describes in detail and in chronological order the milestones that have marked Panama’s coffee industry and its flagship product, the Geisha coffee.
“The record was not only set in Panama, but the world over. We could not believe it; it was a party, a celebration for the coffee community. All eyes were on Panama’s coffee, it was the first introduction of the Panamanian Geisha into the international market. We all started sowing Geisha immediately”, says Wilford.
After the launch of SCAP and multiple competitions and auctions, in 2004 Hacienda La Esmeralda, also located in Chiriquí, discovered a variety of Geisha coffee never seen before.
So peculiar was its taste that the owners of the estate, the Peterson family, hesitated to include it in that year’s competition. But by so doing, they got a big surprise! The coffee reached a price of $21 a pound, a true record at the time (in the last auctions it did not even exceed 5 dollars per pound).
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Panama’s Geisha, a Unique Variety
From that moment on, the price of Geisha coffee began to rise astronomically at each auction. The main buyers were from the United States, Japan, China and South Korea, to name a few countries.
However, Lamastus says that Asians are today the most faithful followers of Geisha coffee and do not skimp when paying for a few bags to supply their customers. In Japan a cup of Geisha coffee can cost up to 140 dollars.
The first Geisha coffee seeds arrived from Costa Rica to Panama in the sixties. The seed was originally from Ethiopia. This variety could survive certain diseases, but it was so unproductive that it was soon eliminated from most farms.
This is when Peterson discovered it and decided to experiment by sowing Geisha again in the highest lot of his estate. The plant takes an average of 6 to 7 years to grow, but it yields a special flavored seed that usually boasts some bergamot, peach and jasmine floral accents.
Panama Coffee’s Privileged Position
“Height influences the quality of coffee. In the highlands of Chiriquí there are very characteristic microclimates with ideal temperatures that favor production. In the case of the Geisha variety, Peterson says it was a stroke of luck. That year La Niña phenomenon impacted the fields and contributed positively”, adds Lamastus Jr.
After that record of $21 per pound registered in 2004, the price went up to $50 in 2006, $130 per pound in 2007 and $170 in 2010.
The geographical position of Panama is also a privilege for coffee producers. So narrow is the isthmus that it allows the proximity of both seas, the Pacific and the Caribbean, as well as the clash of winds in opposite directions. The rich volcanic soils plus the cold currents that come down from the north and the hot ones that come from the south, make of Chiriqui’s climate a unique one.
Panamanian Coffee’s New Record
In 2013, Hacienda La Esmeralda sold the pound of Geisha coffee for $350 in the natural category, a new process that farmers had started using two years before, in addition to the washing process.
As for Los Lamastus Group that sowed Geisha seeds in 2006, it reaped the fruits of that harvest in 2018 when the pound of Geisha Natural reached $803. The Taiwanese company Black Gold Coffee offered the highest price during the Best of Panama electronic auction.
“How far will we go? I asked myself. These figures were already very positive for the coffee industry in Panama. The motivation to produce a better quality coffee sampled every year by international judges was growing”, recalls Wilford.
The answer to Wilford’s question came the following year with a new record. A Japanese buyer paid $1,029 for the pound of Geisha Elida Green Tip Coffee. In addition to obtaining the highest price, this variety also obtained the highest score in the competition.
Plinio Ruiz, president of SCAP, told the media on that occasion: “It is a success for our country because all Panamanians win here, and we can proudly say that our region grows the best coffee in the world.”
This year 174 coffees entered the competition and more than 40 participated in the auction. Although the price per pound paid by buyers is far from what is actually offered on the market, the message for Wilford is clear: the community is united and ready to continue training in coffee production.
The commitment and constant training of coffee producers has been key in the manufacture of a coffee as prestigious as the Geisha.