Little known fact: one of the rarest, most sought-after, and expensive coffees in the world comes from Panama. Seriously.
Panama Esmeralda Private Reserve Geisha (formerly called Esmeralda Boquete Geisha), grown on the slopes of the Barú Volcano near Boquete in Western Panama, has been known to sell for US$140 a pound at international coffee auctions. And that’s for green, unroasted beans. In 100-pound bags. US$14,000 for a bag of coffee beans.
By the time those beans reach retail customers, top-shelf Geisha, or Gesha, coffee from specific trees on the Esmeralda plantation can fetch hundreds of dollars for an 8-ounce bag. That’s even more than what people pay for that special coffee that roasters dig from the feces of tree cats in Indonesia. Even “second-growth” Geisha beans from the Esmeralda plantation and a handful of others nearby go for more than US$80 a pound on Amazon.
It’s no wonder they call Boquete the Bordeaux of coffee. The volcanic ash that enriches the soil around Boquete makes it the perfect place to grow coffee. The same cool mountain air that has attracted so many expatriates to the Boquete area helps as well.
The arabica Geisha cultivar is an expatriate as well. It’s originally from the rainforests of Ethiopia, near the village of Gesha, and was introduced to the Americas in Costa Rica in the 1950s. In the 1960s, it was imported to Panama by a farmer named Don Pachi, whose family still owns a plantation near Boquete. Legend has it that Don Pachi brought the beans over because they were resistant to coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease that has ravaged coffee plants around the world. He planted a few of the trees on his own plot and handed the beans out to friends nearby to plant in theirs, including the Esmeralda plantation.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Panama is the sole producer of this exquisite coffee. And there are only a handful of farms that produce it, mainly because most of those early plantings were left to wither when it became apparent that the Geisha bush was not a particularly high-yielding one—and it wasn’t considered commercially viable. No one ever planted an entire farm with it, only sporadic, small plots.
Among the farms in Chiriqui growing Geisha coffee are the Finca La Valentina, the Don Pachi Estate, and the Hacienda La Esmeralda, which has been owned by the same family of California natives, the Petersons, since 1967. The choicest beans from La Esmeralda go into a product called Esmeralda Especial, which is only sold through a private, international auction. Esmeralda began selling the aforementioned private reserve only a couple years ago and demand—despite the price—has been high.
I’ve never had a cup of Geisha coffee, but coffee snobs say it is different from any other varietal from Latin America. It’s much lighter, they say, with a more floral bouquet. Honey and citrus are said to be the dominant flavors, along with berry, papaya, mango, and mandarin orange. “A coffee with obvious pedigree and extremely approachable,” wrote one connoisseur.
Not all of us can afford (or would want to spend) US$10 to US$12 for a cup of coffee, which is what some cafés charge, if they manage to get their hands on Geisha coffees. But we can go to the source and try it as part of a tour of a coffee plantation. Several of the coffee plantations in the Boquete area allow visitors onto their farms to see how coffee is grown, harvested, and processed first-hand. Unfortunately, the Esmeralda plantation is not one of them.
If you are in the Boquete area and have a hankering to learn more about coffee, head to one of these spots:
Finca Lerida In addition to being a working coffee farm, Finca Lerida is also a 21-room hotel surrounded by 500 acres of cloud forest on the slopes of Volcan Baru at 4,800 feet above sea level. Guests and visitors can see the coffee crops and production process themselves, then sit for a tasting at the end of the visit. As an added bonus, the finca is home to a variety of rare bird species, including the elusive quetzal.
Finca Dos Jefes The 7-acre Dos Jefes Organic Coffee Farm treats visitors to a particularly hands-on experience. After touring the fields and sampling a couple of the roasts, participants roast the beans and pack their own custom bag of beans. The tours run just about every morning and afternoon and last two to three hours.
Kotowa Estates This is one of the oldest coffee mills in Panama, dating back nearly a century. The farm is about 6 kilometers outside of Boquete in the Palo Alto hills and has been in the hands of one family, the Macintyres, for three generations. The daily tours start in the morning, and if you contact them a day ahead, they will come collect you in Boquete (if you don’t have your own transport).
Café Ruiz The farm offers three organized coffee-related tours, including a high-end tasting where they walk you through the complexities of coffee in all its varieties. These folks are so serious about their coffee that they ask all tasting participants to come completely free of any scent—no perfume, aftershave, strong deodorant, body lotion, or sunblock allowed. Less ambitious tours of the estate itself last just under 45 minutes.