In Search of Café Geisha in Panama

When Francisco Serracín, better known as Don Pachi, began growing geisha in Panama, everyone thought it was shit. It had arrived in Panama in the 1960s from Ethiopia, where it originated, via Costa Rica, where coffee growers thought it would hold up well against disease. Initial experiments didn’t go well.

“The plant was a little bit strange,” Don Pachi told me from his office in Boquete where we met, along with chef Mario Castrellón, who owns Panama City restaurant Maito and coffee shop chain Café Unido, and his partner and roaster Alberto Bermúdez. They grew strong, but they produced very little coffee. The branches were small and sometimes they would grow vertically.

Everyone said what was grown wasn’t coffee, but the 4th generation grower kept it around anyway. Originally called gesha, named after the town in southwestern Ethiopia in which it came, geisha plants grow tall. They have elongated leaves, cherries, and beans. Don Pachi spaced the plants further apart than was typical, which made them more expensive to produce, and planted them at higher altitudes where the cherries matured more slowly, but developed more complexity. Over time the varietal mutated within the unique micro-climates on the slopes of the Barú Volcano in Western Panama where the moisture from the tropical Pacific and Caribbean Sea come together to produce year-round rains that drain through rich volcanic soils.

Don Pachi was able to help geisha reach its full potential. His efforts helped bring out the now famous flavor profile that is unlike any other coffee when grown right. It’s clean, intensely floral and a little bit sweet. There’s a lot of acidity and fruity notes that include berries and tropical fruits, plus a distinct bergamot and jasmine finish.

“Some coffees might have similar flavor profiles or even more body,” Bermúdez explained, “but they lack the milky-ness that geisha has. Or the floral properties. The Asian market really appreciates the tea-like qualities.”

“We didn’t know what we had. Our buyers knew what we had.”

In 2002, someone came to cup Don Pachi’s geisha and began to pick up what he had, but they didn’t let him know that. To throw them off they would say that they liked the bourbon better or they would sell it under a different name.

“They sold it as Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and people were angry because our coffee got a bad rap,” he said. “But it was actually a compliment to us. Our geisha could pass off as those expensive coffees. It was actually better than those. We didn’t know what we had. Our buyers knew what we had.”

In 2004, Don Pachi entered his unwashed geisha into that years Taste of Panama competition. It blew everyone away. It has since gained a cult following of coffee enthusiasts worldwide and Panamanian geisha has gone for as high as $350 a pound. It is being planted elsewhere in the region, including Peru, Bolivia, and Costa Rica, though despite traditionally not being particularly well known for great coffee, Panama’s geisha remains the most sought after. The varietal is helping open up an entire world of Panamanian coffee, from both within and out.

A few years ago you could not find a cup of geisha in Panama. Geisha is one of the world’s most expensive coffees and Panamanian geisha has sold for as much as $350 a pound. The finest beans are grown near Boquete on the slopes of the Barú Volcano in Western Panama, though traditionally they have all been exported.

Castrellón and Bermúdez are trying to do something unusual with Café Unido. They are trying to create a coffee culture in a country where coffee is grown. That may sound not that unusual, but if you think about where some of the world’s best coffees are grown – places such as Ethiopia or Guatemala – there’s no tradition of roasting and drinking quality coffee. At Café Unido they are not just educating the Panamanian public on just how important a person someone like Don Pachi is, but helping other growers find a market that’s as good as exporting.

They’re developing a buzz around coffee in a place that never had one, yet has the local beans to support it.

“This is more than fair trade,” Castrellón snickered. “This is direct trade.”

Farmers are pleased to have a more direct route to consumers of course, but more than that, they can also see their coffee being enjoyed. They’re developing a buzz around coffee in a place that never had one, yet has the local beans to support it.

The stylish Café Unido, with branches in Coco del Mar, the American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo, the MMG Tower in Costa del Este, and the Multiplaza Mall have beautiful photos and charts of Panamanian coffee zones on the walls. They sell pour-over coffee and have one of the best cold brews I have tasted anywhere. Aside from Don Pachi Estate, they roast beans from the famed Hacienda La Esmeralda, El Burro Estate, Elida Estate, Carmen Estate, and several other important Panamanian farms. There are both natural and washed geishas, as well as non-geisha beans from Panama that are just as if not more interesting, such as bourbón, typica, and catuaí. For a country that just opened its first Starbucks this year, that is a big leap. Yet they are thriving and expanding rapidly. Walk into any Café Unido and you will see a Panamanian public that is now as educated on artisanal beans and brewing methods as any Stumptown or Intelligentsia drinker in Portland or Brooklyn. Plus, ten percent of profits are returned for social and environmental development projects in Panama’s coffee zones.

Starting with Maito, they are making their way into restaurants as well. Castrellón has incorporated geisha into desserts and has made a geisha based sauce for chicharrónes. Bermúdez has also created a Manhattan that uses cold brew that’s probably the most drinkable coffee based cocktail I’ve ever had. More importantly, they emphasize ending a meal with a cup of geisha.

“Coffee is the very last taste. It’s the very last flavor you have in your mouth when ending a meal and leaving a restaurant, but no one puts any effort into it,” says Castrellón. “I’ve been to three Michelin star restaurants in Spain and they end with mass produced Lavassa coffee. It’s a 40 cent coffee to end a $300 meal.”

Even on a subliminal level it makes sense. The lingering flavors of an extraordinary meal, deserve to be carried out into the night, rather than stopped short of the door.

After visiting with Don Pachi, I traveled with Castrellón and Bermúdez as they met with additional growers around Boquette to seek out beans for Café Unido.

“Volume is the biggest obstacle here,” explained Castrellón. Despite being something of a dark horse of the world coffee community, the quality of coffee grown in Panama is extremely high. There just isn’t enough of it when compared with neighboring countries, whose annual productions dwarf that of Panama. For instance Panama’s annual output is just three percent of Costa Rica.

Production is growing and sprouting up to other parts of the country and includes other varietals, however, geisha from Barú has grown a cult following.

“There are about 10 or 15 growers doing it really well,” he said. “There might be a lot of other micro producers that grow good coffee, but they lack the knowledge to process it well. That’s how we’re trying to help. To teach them how to process better and then they can sell to us or in the U.S. or wherever.”

Hacienda La Esmeralda regularly commands the highest prices and for good reason. Taste a cup of Esmeralda’s geisha roasted by Café Unido, or from Norway’s Tim Wendelboe, and you’ll taste flavors you never knew could exist in coffee. It’s not just a cup that only hard-core coffee geeks will appreciate. It’s like drinking great Bordeaux after drinking Boone’s Farm your entire life.

“The geisha craze has lead to a lot more geisha, though not all of it is good,” he said.

You’ll find bags of lesser quality geisha at the airport or in other Panama City coffee shops that are surprisingly affordable. They are often grown at lower altitudes and most educated coffee drinkers really won’t find it particularly interesting. It’s an exploitation of the name, but it’s still geisha, which makes knowing where the good beans come from that much more important.

At Carmen Estate, we meet Carlos Aguilera, a third generation grower. His mother is there, who might be in her 70s, and is particularly thrilled to meet Castrellón and Bermúdez. She says she follows them on Instagram and likes what they are doing for coffee in Panama.

“It’s risky,” Aguilera said of the coffee business. “You keep investing and investing.” He is improving the process as quickly as he can and purchasing more modern equipment. He is also expanding his plants to new areas, which, at the time of our visit, were concentrated on a 35 hectares plot, plus another 22 hectares on a steep mountainside, giving him a range of altitudes.

Salvaje,” he tells us of his more isolated mountainside plot. “It’s wild land. There are Capuchin monkeys there and all sorts of animals.”

He takes us around the property on a 4×4. A light rain begins to come down and as we move up the mountain the fog and mist gets thicker and thicker. It’s lush and green. The air smells clean with the occasional whiff of citrus. A jaguar staring down at us as we walk through the neat rows of plants would not feel out of place.

There isn’t enough coffee of this quality, so he can’t keep up with demand. His geisha is served on Japan Airlines first class and is part of Starbucks’ line of special reserve coffees.

At Finca Hartmann, all of their beans are shade grown, perfect conditions for bird watching, therefore they’ve also set up an agro-tourism project that will help them diversify their income stream. They have a few wood cabins and a small museum with collections of insects found on the property, plus hiking trails that criss-cross the terrain.

Ratibor Hartmann, a third generation grower who manages the finca with his four siblings, complains that Panamanian clientele doesn’t appreciate the coffee yet. Castrellón and Bermúdez explain that they’re learning. They show him photos of the cafes on Facebook and he’s impressed.

Despite his misgivings, his coffee is selling well. Despite the small production, they grow eight different varietals: typica, caturra, catuaí, bourbón, paché, pacamara, maragogipe, and geisha. They also have honey coffees and emphasize sustainability at the farm, such as using the pulp and skin of the cherry for their compost or fueling the dryers with recycled parchment from the cherry.

Our last stop was Finca La Milagrosa, which some call the black sheep among Boquete coffee growers. As we walk through the plantation I can see why. His plants are big and wild. Geisha plants are mixed in with bourbón and catuaí. There’s no order to anything. There are eight varieties planted and we need to dodge our way through rows, or better yet clusters, of probably too close together plants. It’s a system that only the owner, Tito Vargas, understands.

“It’s not easy,” he laughs. “Coffee is not a great business.”

He’s eccentric, but at least efficient. Outside where the beans are sorted, sliding trays were designed to move the beans in and out of the sun with little effort. His plant is even more unusual. It’s like it was designed for the set of Mad Max. The ramshackle buildings look like they were wiped out from a hurricane and then pieced together again from whatever was left. Inside is no less intriguing. It looks a mousetrap game. There are whirligigs and pulleys used to move the beans and old mufflers used to hold them. The grinder is an old hand cranked corn grinder. There’s even a roaster designed from old car parts. When he started processing no one else was doing it. They just sold the fruits and let the industrial coffee operations process it. So every machine was built by trial and error until he got them right out of necessity. You might assume he’s nuts, but the same was being said about Don Pachi too. He pours us his geisha and we just take it all in.

“It’s all part of the miracle,” he says.