How Panama’s Ultra-Expensive Coffee Changes Perceptions and Percolations

If you search for the most expensive coffee in the world, you may find Black Ivory coffee, which has been partially digested by Thai elephants. Or, you may encounter the world-famous Kopi Luwak coffee, whose field-to-cup process also involves a trip through an animal’s digestive tract, in this case the Indonesian palm civet, a cat-like relative of the mongoose found in south and southeast Asia.

Geisha, a rare and inadvertently exorbitantly-priced coffee variety grown in the Panamanian highlands, is omitted as a rare and expensive coffee. The variety has a history of being neglected, in part because it is difficult to cultivate.

Between Ethiopia and Panama
Although the name may make some people think of Japan, the origin of the Panamanian Geisha coffee bean is the Gori Gesha region of Ethiopia. Circa 1932, seedlings were collected and distributed to other African coffee-producing regions before entering the global coffee trade. In the 1960s, it eventually arrived in Central America.

Manuel Barsallo, co-founder of the Cruce Coffee Company in Panama City and a member of the Panama Coffee Club, explains that Geisha coffee was introduced to Panama in the 1970s as a way to combat the coffee rust epidemic.

Local farmers initially did not take Geisha particularly well.

Carlos Antonio Jurado, a guide at the 124-year-old Don Pepe Coffee Estate in Boquete, Panama, explains, “Almost no one wanted to grow Geisha because these coffee trees are not very productive.”

In the 1970s, only a handful of Panamanian coffee farmers had the fortitude to cultivate Geisha coffee in the agricultural highlands of the western Chiriqu province, close to the border with Costa Rica. The low-yield plant must be grown at a higher altitude than other coffee varieties. When it does grow, it produces roughly half as many cherries per cluster as the majority of other Arabica plants and has roughly half as many clusters per branch.

As if that weren’t sufficient reason for a farmer to avoid Geisha, the variety takes two to three times longer than the average coffee plant to produce fruit. Jurado states, “They produce fewer beans, and it can take up to ten years for the first good harvest.”

With ideal conditions in the western Panamanian highlands — altitude, tropical climate, rich volcanic soil, cool nights, and a lengthy rainy season — Geisha began to thrive. Throughout the subsequent decades, it was primarily harvested by family-owned coffee farms, such as the Jansons, the Lamastus family, and the Vasquez family of the Don Pepe Coffee Estate.

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