The Best Coffee in the World?
Three years in a row, 2005–2007, a Panama coffee was voted the best in the world by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the industry’s largest trade association.
The marketplace has taken notice: The price of the coffee, La Esmeralda Especial, keeps setting records. In 2007, 10 132-pound bags of the coffee sold at auction for an astonishing US$130 a pound. By comparison, the coffee voted second best went for US$11.80 a pound.
The coffee has become so popular the grower decided to put its entire 2008 harvest up for auction, even though La Esmeralda slipped to second best in the world that year. Today, it remains among the most sought-after coffee in the world.
Why all the fuss? La Esmeralda Especial is grown by the Peterson family, longtime Boquete residents whose Hacienda Esmeralda is one of Panama’s finest coffee producers. Several years ago the family discovered it could brew an unusual-tasting cup of coffee from an arabica variety called geisha that had been growing neglected on one of its farms.
Originally from Ethiopia, geisha was introduced to Central America in the 1950s because it is disease resistant, but it never caught on because the plants are low yielding. But in the age of the coffee aficionado, there is a market for this coffee.
Those who’ve tasted geisha coffee say it has a floral, citrusy taste that is strikingly different from that of other coffees. Hacienda Esmeralda currently produces about 200 132-pound bags of the Especial a year. Two other growers in Boquete, Garrido and Don Pachi, produce a small amount of geisha, but the total world supply is tiny at the moment.
A few months after the 2007 auction, a coffee house in New York was selling La Esmeralda Especial for US$18 a cup. Not surprisingly, other Boquete growers are now planting their own geisha.
Prices are so high it’s hard to find geisha in Panama; nearly all of it gets exported. If none is available in Boquete, visit www.haciendaesmeralda.com for a list of current retailers of La Esmeralda Especial.
Want to know more about Panamanian coffee? Check out the Coffee 101 page, or take a tour of one of Boquete’s many coffee operations.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition