Trip Report: Panama, April 2023
Jacob White, green coffee buyer for PT's and our sister company Bird Rock, traveled to Panama last month to visit some of our Direct Trade partners—including Stefan Muller, producer of our recent Good Food Awards winner!
These producers are at the forefront of specialty coffee production in Panama and are responsible for many of our limited Blue Label offerings throughout the year. Nearly 20 years after the discovery and refinement of Panamanian Gesha, they continue to push the boundaries of specialty coffee by experimenting with fermentation styles, native yeast inoculations, and more.
Read on for Jacob's experiences from his trip:
Our first visit in Panama brings us to Café Kotowa in Boquete, Chiriqui. Owned by third-generation coffee producer Ricardo Koyner, there are seven farms under the Kotowa umbrella throughout the Boquete region. With seven varieties planted between the farms, Ricardo has managed to win the Best of Panama on various occasions in both the Gesha and Traditional Variety categories. A trained agronomist, Ricardo's reputation for excellence and performance in the Best of Panama led to his recognition as Coffee Producer of the Year by the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama.
Ricardo’s inventiveness is exemplified by his custom-designed tank for anaerobic and carbonic maceration fermentations (below). As the coffee cherries begin to ferment, juices are expelled from the fruit, resulting in some of the cherries being submerged while others are not. His design allows the tank to be easily rotated, mixing the fermenting cherries and juices, creating a more homogenous ferment.
His meticulousness can also be seen in the color coding system used at Kotowa’s wet and dry mill. Each variety, process, and farm is assigned a color. A piece of fabric representing each category is stitched to the corner of the bag when the coffee is packaged, allowing workers to easily organize and identify lots through the storage, milling, and shipping process.
Don Benjie Estate / Hacienda Bajo Mono
Born in Colombia but having spent most of his childhood in Panama, Stefan Muller was unfamiliar with the coffee industry in Panama until meeting his wife’s family in Boquete, where they owned a coffee farm. Stefan fell in love with the region, and 12 years ago jumped at the opportunity to purchase a farm of his own, now known as Don Benjie Estate.
The farm had been abandoned by the previous owner, and required renovation and replanting. Stefan has preserved a diverse range of fruit trees, oaks, and shade trees from around the world. Multiple coffee varieties were already on the farm, with the standouts including Maragogype and a single Orange Bourbon tree. Both the Maragogype and Orange Bourbon are now established plots at Don Benjie, as well as Yellow Catuai, Pacamara, SL28, Mokka, Gesha, and most recently Pink Bourbon.
When walking the farm with Stefan, his love and affection for the land and coffee he works with is immediately obvious. “Fantastic,” “amazing,” and “incredible” are words Stefan uses often as he points out the different varieties, pauses to adore the sprawling trees, and tastes coffee cherries. His excitement spills over to the processing and cupping of his coffees, which is all done on-site.
Three years ago Stefan began experimenting with anaerobic fermentations, and after consulting a friend of his who owns a brewery, began experimenting with carbonic maceration as well. Through multiple experiments, Stefan has developed a preference for carbonic maceration naturals. On the cupping table they expressed florals and fresh fruit flavors, with a restrained note of wine in the aftertaste. His processing isn’t heavy-handed, though, and the flavors of each variety are present and expressive in the cup.
At the end of our cupping and reflecting on all of the work that goes into coffee production, Stefan smiles and says, “It’s a lot of fun.”
Hacienda La Esmeralda
Owned by the Peterson family, Hacienda La Esmeralda is the epicenter of the rediscovery of the Gesha variety and the subsequent fascination the Specialty Coffee industry has had with the variety. In 2004, the Petersons decided to separate lots based on their location on the farm, and kept them separated throughout processing. By doing so, the Petersons were able to isolate the cup profile of Panamanian Gesha, experiencing the juicy acidity and multi-layered aromatics that it has to offer. While common practice today, this decision to separate lots was progressive and experimental at the time.
That same spirit of experimentation continues today. On the cupping table is a reference key for the coding used to identify 32 various processes currently being tested, including combinations of fermentations, yeast inoculations, and drying techniques. Customized equipment had to be designed and built for these processes, such as stainless steel fermentation vessels that allow gases to escape and for must (juices released from the coffee cherry) to be removed during fermentation, all while keeping the coffee isolated from the outside environment. Shaded drying beds (nicknamed “wind tunnels” due to the gusts of air that circulate through them) were constructed to allow for slower drying of coffees, with the average lot drying in 29 days. This is in contrast to the 7 to 9 day drying time on the patios.
Most recently, the Esmeralda team has begun isolating native yeasts found at their farms and on coffee cherries, including different genera such as Pichia, Candida, and Saccharomyces. Working with a local university, these yeasts have been isolated and cultured. The various yeasts have been used to inoculate coffee fermentations, with the most successful trials increasing the floral and stone fruit qualities inherent to Gesha when compared to commercial alternatives.