ORIGIN UPDATE: PANAMA FIELD VISIT
Words by 49th Green Coffee Buyer, David Pohl
After nearly 15 months grounded, 49th is back on the road visiting our partners around the world. Our first trip, to Panama, included visits to our now multi-year partner Abu Coffee, in the Cañas Verdes sector of Boquete, as well as our new partner Finca Sophia on the Volcan side. We visited friends on Fincas Santa Maria and Hartmann as well, cupping coffees and talking about the 2021 harvest, the ongoing pandemic as well as the upcoming Best of Panama competition. The impact of Hurricane Eta, which hit our partners throughout central America, is still visible everywhere you look, especially in and around Volcan and Cerro Punta.
Many of you are by now well aware of our partnership with Jose Luttrell of Abu Coffee, a new-old farm in the Canas Verdes area of Boquete, in an area which includes some of the most legendary Boquete Estates, such as Hacienda Esmeralda, which is a neighbor of Abu. This terroir benefits from the volcanic soils of Volcan Baru, as well as the dense, verdant, lush native forests of the national and international parks all around it.
I met Jose prior to working at 49th, in 2017 at the Best of Panama competition, but this was the first opportunity to visit his farm. Jose is a youthful and passionate man, who’s love affair with coffee began about 10 years ago when together with his father he began the hard work of bringing the family farm back to life. Jose, a civil engineer by trade, is not unlike other newer Panamanian coffee producers, who have been drawn to the highlands of Chiriqui after careers in other fields, usually in Panama City, David or abroad. This stands in great contrast to much of the coffee producing world, where the next generation of coffee producers is simply non-existent, as low prices for coffee, and multiple pressures to migrate push young would-be coffee producers out of the countryside.
As I have written in a previous blog, Jose’s family history goes back to the very beginnings of coffee in Panama, his great great grandfather having been one of the first large producers and exporters in Boquete. Yet, over the years the family farms changed hands, the kids and grandkids took jobs in the city or abroad, and the focus shifted away from coffee. Jose was no exception, studying engineering in the US, living and working there for many years, before returning to continue his engineering career in the thriving metropolis of Panama City. He was drawn back to coffee after his father took him to visit their farm in Cañas Verdes, around the time that geisha was being rediscovered, in the early 2000s. These experiences – the family history, the exciting potential of geisha, which took the coffee world by storm - motivated Jose and his father to invest in the farm, spending more and more time there together. Unfortunately Jose’s father, known affectionately as “Abu” died a few years later, and Jose was left with the responsibility to carry on the legacy, which he has done with a deep sense of purpose.
Driving up to Abu Coffee requires rugged 4WD vehicles, the paved winding roads giving way to unpaved, rutted dirt roads. Luckily for me there hadn’t been any considerable rainfall in the past week and conditions were barely manageable. Driving separately from Jose, I struggled to keep up, unfamiliar with the roads that he clearly knew like the back of his hand. Alternating between potholed dirt roads to narrow cement tracks, we eventually reached a dense forest of evergreens, a tunnel of sorts, through which we passed to a clearing and the main entrance of Abu Coffee.
Jose is slowly building a small house and lab on the land, the metal framing providing a sketch of what the final edifice will look like, but the original sheds and buildings next to this define the place, showing the humble beginnings of this farm, grounding it in the past and the legacy on which Jose is building.
We are met by Antonino, the long-time caretaker of this land, whose smile and penchant for laughter is infectious. Antonino has his own farm nearby and also manages the operations at Abu. He takes us on a tour of Abu, neatly divided into sections noted by number, warning us along the way to watch out for snakes, large boas having been found in the area in recent days.
Jose talks eagerly about two things while we are walking – the preservation of the flora and fauna, including the snakes, and the shady, semi forested conditions that define Abu and help lengthen the maturation of the coffee fruit. This is truly a paradise, a near perfect combination of ecological preserve and commercial coffee farm. At 1500 meters Abu is not the highest farm in Panama, but the dense shade does indeed reduce temperatures and change the development of the coffee – the results speak for themselves, and we’ll get into the cupping results in a moment.
Along the way Jose invites me to climb each of the five ladders to a small platform, to better view the farm form the vantage point of, say, a bird (or tree snake!). The view from 10 feet is spectacular and I am blown away by what I see – 40,000 geisha trees, a handful of catuai, all situated in a beautiful forest reserve. It is spectacular.
That same day we cup early samples from Abu’s 2021 harvest, some of which will be coming to 49th. There were gorgeous washed geishas dominated by florality as well as a distinctive naval orange note – very juicy and clean; and what I would describe as fruit bomb naturals, of a style which can only be described as explosive and exotic – powerful coffees to say the least. The catuai lots also held their own, especially the naturals which exhibited some of the same fruit as the geishas but with more of a chocolate, and carmelized sugar character.
2021 has been an outstanding harvest for Finca Sophia, our newest partner on the Volcan/Cerro Punta side of Volcan Baru, whose washed coffee took top honors in the Best of Panama in 2017 and 2020. This year Sophia is seeing the fruits of years of investment and careful balancing of shade, which for a farm at 2000+ meters is critical to its ability to produce coffee – too much shade and the cool conditions prevent germination, too little shade and the trees are over-stressed by the intense summer sun. Conditions at this altitude are more extreme compared to a farm at 1500 meters, but when harnessed correctly the results can be exemplary.
This year the harvest is plentiful, despite the fact that unseasonal rains related to a La Nina weather pattern, have made both harvesting and drying a challenge. For the first time in its 12 year history, coffee was harvested in the rain. Kelly Hartmann, farm manager, along with Angel Mariano, supervisor, made the decision to pick in wet conditions to avoid losing coffee, which as the rain falls becomes heavy and bloated and drops to the ground – at which point it is essentially lost. Often, rainy conditions prevent coffee from being picked in time, which we saw in India on Ratnigiri, where sudden torrential rains resulted in the significant loss of coffee that fell to the ground before it could be picked. Luckily on a small farm like Sophia, with a tiny team of committed and long term employees, picking in the rain, although not pleasant, was a possibility and much coffee was saved from ruin.
Another element which has helped Sophia during a very wet year is its two stage drying process, which occurs in part on the farm on raised beds, shielded from the conditions, and then finished off site in a state of the art drying room using dehumidification. This latter technology has helped Sophia dry coffee even during very wet and humid months.
Visits to Panama are typically full of encounters with old friends as well as possible future partners, and this trip was no exception. In addition to stopping to see Wilford Lamastus Sr & Jr, of Elida Estate fame, in Panama City, where they were working on their about to be opened retail coffee shop in Casco Viejo, I visited Finca Hartmann, a family farm closely connected to all of my travels in Panama for the past 13 years. There I was greeted by Finca Sophia farm manager, Kelly Hartmann, his brother and sister in law, Ratibor and Tessie Hartmann. The Hartmann siblings all contribute to the management of the family farm, one of the top farms in the Santa Clara region of Panama, and also have projects that they are involved in on the side, such as Finca Sophia for Kelly, and Mi Finquita for Ratibor and Tessie. This year, as in previous years, we roasted Finca Sophia samples at Finca Hartmann and cupped together with Kelly, Ratibor, Tessie and their kids, who are learning the trade as well. Such is the coffee community in Panama, where sometimes competitors, who come face to face in the Best of Panama for instance, go out of their way to work together for the common good, each contributing to the other’s success by providing resources, feedback and support. The cupping was outstanding, and we found excellent qualities coming out of Sophia, with perhaps a bit more range of styles, due both to the sheer volume of coffee this year and the evolving processing methods employed by Kelly and team. We cannot wait to share some of these coffees with the 49th family.
Later in the week, I visited Santamaria Estate, a sizeable family farm, located just before Finca Sophia, in Paso Ancho, a wide and flat valley outside of Volcan. Hurricane Eta destroyed the roads and bridge leading to Santamaria (the bridge is actually still there, teetering on the verge of collapse), and this time I requested to be picked up, so as not to get lost on the meandering dirt tracks leading up out of the valley and into the hills where Santamaria is located. Santamaria experienced the worst of Eta, with mudslides and rain washing away all of the roads to the farm, cutting them off for three days – luckily the farm, its people and facilities, survived intact.
I have been getting to know Edwin Sr and Jr at Santamaria for the past four years, and hope to someday buy their very special coffee. In fact, before I came to work at 49th, I connected the previous coffee buyer with Santamaria to begin a conversation, seeing the potential in this farm. The full story of the Santamaria family, and their long history in coffee production in Panama, will have to wait for a future blog post, but let’s just say they have been active in the area around Paso Ancho, which some consider the finest coffee growing area in all of Panama, for generations. For many years they have sold almost all of their production to neighboring farms that export under their own brands. This is a common practice in the coffee, as well as, wine industries, where larger, well connected farms buy raw ingredients from neighbors who are often smaller and lack direct market access.
Santamaria continues to sell coffee to neighboring farms, but with the growing enthusiasm of Edwin Jr, a young man who is just now awakening to the possibilities of his family farm, they are beginning to explore direct export. When I visited, despite the chaos of 2020-21, they showed me their new cupping lab, humble but very much functional. Edwin told me that he had been spending time learning the craft of roasting, and is one of the roasters for the very high stakes Best of Panama this year. Along with his father and girlfriend, we cupped samples from the 2021 Santamaria harvest, and they were impressive enough for me to request that a full set be sent to 49th for evaluation and possible purchase. New relationships take time, but who knows maybe this year or next we will be lucky enough to get our hands on a small lot from Santamaria as well.