The first time I went to Panama it rained the entire time…
I wrote this article for Coffee T&I Magazine (China) — it appears in Chinese language in issue 52. Below is the English version.
The first time I went to Panama it rained the entire time. “Dry” moments were when the rain slowed to a steady patter and the skies brightened just enough that you didn’t need your headlights when driving on the road, but still it was raining. And most of the time it was wet, truly wet: torrential rain that beat down on the plants and rooftops and dirt roads alike. Water ran everywhere, off of the leaves, the vehicles, and through the streets.
It was August of 2008, and at first I thought it was atypical — perhaps, I simply had “rainy luck.” But in fact, though August is a particularly wet month in Panama, what I discovered is that Panama’s climate is dominated by rainfall, and in a way that makes it totally different from any other coffee-producing country.
Panama has become world-famous for its unique coffees with their gorgeous flavor profiles, and these flavors are intimately connected with the weather there.
How much of the astounding flavor of a Panama Geisha, for example, and how much of the high price attached, is due to the weather conditions?
Central America is a long isthmus that runs from Mexico in the north to Colombia in the south, connecting North and South America. As it runs towards South America, it turns to the east, so that Panama, the southernmost country of Central America, actually runs from west to east, not north-and-south like you might expect.
This means that the Caribbean (Atlantic) coast is to the north, and the Pacific is to the south. Even though the great mass of the Pacific Ocean lies towards the west, if you stand on a beach on the Pacific side of Panama, you are actually looking directly south, towards the equator.
Panama is also, by far, the most narrow of the countries that share coasts with both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
This has a profound impact on coffee production. In the coffee producing regions of Chiriquí, home to such world-famous farms as Hacienda La Esmeralda, Elida Estate, Finca Nuguo, and Finca La Mula, it’s as little as 60 or 70 kilometers from one ocean to the other.
Oceanic weather patterns are gigantic systems that stretch across entire hemispheres. Some of the currents that run through the Caribbean begin as far away as Iceland, and the east-west currents of the Pacific originate half a world away off the coasts of Japan and Indonesia.
It’s in Panama — this tiny strip of land, less than a hundred kilometers wide — that these massive global weather systems clash and mix, creating an astonishing variety of micro-patterns. Winds swirl and switch directions; rains descend suddenly from unexpected directions, and clouds come curling around the mountainsides, bringing fog and freezing rain.
In the middle of all this climatic chaos, lie the boutique coffee farms of Panama.
Interplay of weather and environment creates amazing flavors
Willem Boot is the owner of two coffee farms in Panama, Finca Sofía and Finca La Mula, which produce prize-winning geisha coffee. In the summer months of Panama — January, February, March and April — conditions are dryer than when I first visited Panama in August. But, Boot explains, “dry” is just a relative term when it comes to his farms.
“It’s basically a cloud forest,” says Boot of his farm Finca La Mula. “When the clouds come in, the really bring the temperature down dramatically.”
I walked Finca La Mula with Boot’s expert manager and friend of mine, Kelly Hartmann, a native of that region of Panama, in February of 2015. As we climbed up the steep slopes of the farm, we passed in and out of banks of clouds. Moisture seeped into my clothing, and a fine mist covered everything, including people, animals, the soil, and of course the coffee trees.
La Mula is heavily forested, and large shade trees arch over much of the planted areas. Secondary shade trees grow under the canopy, and below that, the prize geisha trees that thrive and produce unique flavors in this environment.
“If the clouds come in with a certain frequency, as a recurring phenomenon, then you have a situation where something unique is happening for the trees. Especially when they have fruit, they are going to react to this; there will be a positive impact on the fruit.”
Higher moisture supply to the leaves and to the trees slows down the photosynthesis that was happening while the sun was out. This gently retards the development of the cherries, leading to intense flavors, especially in sweetness and acidity.
I asked Boot if all the moisture causes difficulties in production, and he affirmed that yes, it can. But he does not wish it to be different.
“We want these unique things to happen. That is how we are able to create these unique flavor profiles.”
Densely forested conditions ensure that the clouds that descend on this area will cling to the hillsides. Without the rich vegetative environment, the clouds would dissipate quickly in the intense tropical sunlight. The trees and clouds working together in tandem, in combination with the high elevation, means that the coffee grows in a very cool and moist environment.
“The higher elevation and cold weather patterns mean there is a higher complexity of oils in the coffee. We have never been able to measure this yet — but we can taste it, and I have consulted with botanists about it. The coffee also has a unique color that is related to the complexity of oils, a unique reddish hue that you have also observed in coffee from Finca Nuguo.”
Unique locations for unique flavors
Finca Nuguo is a recent entry into the world coffee scene — the coffee has featured as a winner in several high profile competitions, including the first-place routine of Lemuel Butler, 2016 United States Barista Champion. It’s also in Chiriquí, in Western Panama, but it lies a few hours drive further to the west, close to the border with Costa Rica.
“There is a lot of rain over there,” says Finca Nuguo owner José Gallardo, “even by Panama standards. And I think the tree likes it, in a sense that it can get better nutrition throughout the year. The moisture carries nutrients to the root system year-round.”
“Even during the dry season, we have rain.”
In addition to the heavy rains that come during the offical rainy season, Finca Nuguo experiences a unique kind of rain (also found in places like La Mula and others) called bajareque. This rain descends very suddenly from the direction of the Atlantic. At Finca Nuguo, visiting last year, I even saw the clouds approaching like ocean waves around the corner of a hillside.
Standing on top of one hill, completely covered in intense, hot sun, you can see the clouds creep out between two hillsides and begin to cover the area like a blanket. Before you know what is happening, you are inside the bajareque, a kind of micro-rain, composed of very small, needle-like droplets of cold water. The cold is so sudden it almost stings your skin.
The bajareque causes a lot of difficulties for farmers like Gallardo at Finca Nuguo, but, just like Willem Boot, Gallardo is happy to receive it on his farm.
“We are in a rain forest. The trees here love the rain. Other types of trees in dryer areas are smaller, with fewer leaves. The ground is dryer. In Nuguo, if you go into the forest, there are lots of leaves in the ground. Everything is soft.”
Boot comments on a similar phenomenon: “It’s a collaboration between factors: unique forest climate, with a lot of rain, a cloud forest; and because of that unique climate, you get a lot of growth of other plant material: trees, leaves. That creates a very dense complexity of organic material in the soil. The ongoing moisture helps the material to decompose, and the hyperactive microbacteria create a unique metabolism of how the nutrition gets to the trees.”
“I can tell you if you compare that activity to a farm at the same elevation where the farm has been clearcut — the entire set of conditions just changes. You don’t have the forest.. you don’t have the unique climate conditions, you don’t have the complex reactions in the soil. You would have to do all kinds of manipulations to add things — that’s fine, and you can do that in an organic way — but it is a whole different ballgame.”
Not all fun and games
Of course, such intense conditions also bring a host of challenges. Washed coffee at Finca Nuguo can take weeks to dry in the sun, and the natural coffees can take several months. José Gallardo takes the cherries down to 14% or so at his farm, but from there, he personally drives the coffee to his house in the low-elevation city of David, where he finishes the drying indoors with a dehumidifier.
This adds to the richness and complexity of the finished product, but it is a time- and labor-intensive practice that raises significantly the cost of production.
Winds, too, can be intense, and Gallardo manages this by leaving the original rain forest environment intact. They prune and manage the trees with an eye toward wind-protection.
“The wind is pretty harsh. There is very little we do against wind. The main thing that is happening in Nuguo is that it’s in bad shape wherever the wind is coming. We let it die if need be… but most areas with strong wind are not planted.”
Instead, they focus their coffee production in areas that are naturally protected from harsh wind.
“You can tell ‘Okay, this tree is helping me with the wind,’” says Gallardo, “and you can see the grouping of trees that is blocking the wind. Those ones we are sure to keep.”
“Hopefully in the future I can start planting even more trees. Maintaining the forest is important to us.”
Roads and driving conditions are another concern. With so much rain, which can often come with no warning, mountain roads can quickly become impassable. Kelly Hartmann, the manager of La Mula and Sofía, has been trapped on the mountain before by sudden mudslides.
“They were digging themselves out for hours and hours and hours, just to get off the mountain,” says Boot.
“We give plastic covers to the workers,” says Gallardo. “Dealing with the weather is something you always have to be thinking about. Not just for the coffee trees, but for the roads, the workers, everything.”
At Finca Sofia, the weather can be very cold, even at the base of the farm. “As a result of that,” says Boot, “The housing is really important, to provide livable conditions for the workers. Without proper housing, it’s very apparent then the workers would be less motivated, they would be colder, less energy, less fun.
“Im convinced of the fact that good housing and good protection against rain and the cold and the wind, so you can sleep better. It affects how you get up in the morning and how you start your day.”
As you can see, every aspect of coffee farming is affected by western Panama’s unique growing conditions. The weather touches all sides of the story. Thankfully, these special circumstances also create amazing flavors in the cup — making all of the hard work worthwhile.