By: Mario Stojanac
Regardless of its veracity, the story of the discovery of coffee is charming enough to lend itself a little believability. As the story goes, an Ethiopian goatherder named Kaldi noticed his goats were very energetic once they fed on a unique looking red bean. He tasted the beans, marveled at the flavour and carried a branch, heavy with coffee beans, to a monastery. Unimpressed, the presiding holy man threw the tree into a fire, the roasting beans releasing their magical aroma.
I first hear this story on the Finca Lerida Coffee Estate in northern Panama’s Boquete Province. Looking around at the lush vegetation and mountainous slopes, I don’t know whether to picture Kaldi’s famous goats or the more appropriate (and likely) Panamanian monkeys frolicking around on a caffeine buzz. It is a truly wondrous scene as the sun beats down on the high altitude plantation (at around 6000 ft) with the Bajareque coming down the slope, bringing with it cooling winds and droplets of moisture from the misty mountain tops. This, it turns out, is perfect coffee growing weather.
Finca Lerida was until recently owned by some members of the Collins Family, one of whom is Panama’s premium chef, Charlie Collins, and owner of the nearby Panamonte Inn, our most luxurious home base. It is at his suggestion that we embark upon this plantation tour, which includes a cupping of various coffees. It turns out that high altitude Panamanian coffee is a hidden jewel and quite comparable to neighbouring Costa Rican beans. These are complex coffees, hand-picked, small batch roasted, free of bitterness, and flavourful without being overbearing. Our tour guide explains that coffee tastings usually involve a light roast bean as it is difficult to hide any flaws that way; my coffee-loving palate has to agree.
Inevitably, conversation turns to the much-vaunted jewel in Panama’s coffee crown: Gesha coffee. This premium bean (romantically misnamed as Geisha at times) has snagged many of the gold medals at International coffee cuppings. This does come at a price, recently as high as $ 130.00/lb for the award-winner from Esmeralda Estate. Starbucks was even offering Gesha (though Costa Rican) to some of their premier clients and subject to availability due to the very low yields. It turns out that we have enjoyed at least some of it in Finca Lerida’s blends, though due to a somewhat haphazard planting plan by the original owner many decades ago, the coffee varietals are interspersed amongst each other without any clear delineation. As a true coffee lover I want more – I want to try this one on its own.
We find ourselves at Café Ruiz, producers of their own coffee as well as distributors for various smaller coffee farms. And they happen to have some Gesha on hand around the corner from the Panamonte. I can hardly wait for the slow dripping water to filter through the individual-sized coffee basket. It’s a $ 9 sampling (enough for 3 small sample cups) but at this point price is no object. The question is – is it worth it? My answer, at least for myself as a coffee lover, is absolutely. It tastes of berries and flowers and is so flavourful yet subtle. I have not tasted anything like it before, much less straight black coffee, and I purchase a half-pound of Gesha for a more reasonable $30. If, however, your idea of coffee is loaded with cream and sugar, I would recommend you skip the Gesha and pick up a less expensive brand. This Gesha, for one, doesn’t want, or need, any partners.
WHERE TO EAT AND SLEEP in Boquete, Panama:
*Panamonte Inn for Panamanian fare made using local, seasonal ingredients including river trout, cilantro and tropical fruits galore. Menu by Chef Charlie Collins you can’t go wrong.
*The Rock for steaks, Central American and International food situated by the rolling river.
*La Ceiba Bakery for the best breads and baked goods in Boquete.
*Award winning accommodations at The Panamonte Inn – private “casitas” surrounding a tropical, lush garden courtyard.
Based in Toronto, Mario Stojanac is co-founder of the boutique food PR firm Sizzling Communications. He shares his love of food with wife and business partner, Mary Luz Mejia. Together, they have organized product launches and charity events as well as hosted culinary tours abroad, including Italy and Oaxaca, Mexico. A joint love of travel means that wanderlust is never far away, and Mario’s travels have taken him to over 30 countries, Panama being the latest stamp in his passport.