I Visited Panama to Try the World's Most Expensive Coffee — and Now You Can, Too
Michael Janson isn't in a hurry. At 76 years old, the coffee farmer has significantly slowed down with age, taking his time to step down from his four-wheeler and onto the ground below. But that new pace seems to fit him just fine. The fallen leaves crunch with each careful step he takes toward the overlook, just as the sun peeks through the mist. He stands in the sunshine looking over his 110-hectare farm in the mountainous region of Boquete, Panama, with the same beaming pride a father has for his children.
"The coffee has to be good because it's the fruit of the land," he says, adjusting his cap, his gray hair poking out from under the brim, all without breaking his mile-long gaze on his life's work. "To have all the flavors and the variety, you have to know the land."
And know the land he does. As a second-generation farmer, Janson has tended to this patch of earth nearly since the day he was born, alongside his siblings, children, and now grandchildren, who are joining him in growing a high-end bean to bring people around the world a better cup of coffee, as well draw attention to Panama as a force in the industry. Their work — and the work of a few other dedicated families and indigenous communities — can only be described as a caffeinated renaissance for the nation, which is coming into full bloom with Panama's new Coffee Circuit.
According to Perfect Daily Grind, Panamanians are serious about how much coffee they drink. As a population, the nation consumes about 20 million kilograms per year, or five kilograms per capita. This works out to about two kilograms per capita more than other coffee-producing nations like Brazil and Colombia.
Though Panamanians drink a lot of coffee, they don't grow much of their own. According to the International Coffee Organization, Brazil produces the most coffee in the world, growing five billion pounds per year. In comparison, Panama produces just 13 million pounds. But what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality, thanks to one very special varietal known as Geisha.
"It takes a lot of know-how," Janson says of the Geisha bean. "We have an agriculture engineer just for this plant."
For the uninitiated, Geisha coffee is a bean originating from the Gori Gesha forest in Ethiopia.
Home Grounds, a coffee community website, explains that the bean made its way to research centers in Kenya and Tanzania before being sent to the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica (or CATIE) in the 1950s. (At this point, it was sent over with the spelling error, adding the extra "i" as a mistake, which did cause some controversy in the years to come, as well as some confusion as to the coffee's origin.) Coffee producer Don Pachi bought the seeds and brought them to Panama, where he allegedly gave them to his neighbors at Hacienda la Esmeralda, one of the first farms in the region to take it from seedling to cup.
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Following its mid-20th century introduction, the bean quietly gained a small local following in Central America (with some calling it Geisha, and others going by Gesha). However, it wasn't until 2004, when Hacienda la Esmeralda brought the beans to the Best of Panama coffee auction that taste evaluators got their first sip and fell in love. Like any rare, good item, it soon became not only the stuff of legend, but also something collectors simply had to get their hands on.
In fact, at the 2018 auction, a single pound went for $803. Klatch Coffee roasters, located in Southern California, bought 10 pounds and made headlines when it started selling it for $75 a cup. It sold out of the bean within weeks. So, in 2019, it bought the bean again, this time for $1,029 per pound, and poured the world's most expensive coffee for $100 a cup.
To many, this may seem over-the-top, but for those who look at coffee the way others look at wine, it's just another day in the market for a bean that hits all the right notes.
"To explain why people like Geisha, there is first a need to explain how the coffee industry looks at quality," Home Grounds says. "As an industry, the coffee world has informally agreed and generally calibrated that certain flavors and sensations are better than others. This concept of 'better' is built on the idea that if a flavor or sensation is rarer or more clearly perceived, it is superior. The flavors, though, must be driven by either fruit, tea, and/or florals."
So, what does this varietal taste like anyway? While sitting with Janson at his eponymously named farm, I slowly savored my brew, which was served in a wine glass to help me clearly see its amber hue glisten with each swirl. Upon hitting the tongue, the taste was more reminiscent of tea than coffee. It had notes of citrus, jasmine, and stone fruits, and is something I'd never dare pour a drop of cream in out of fear it would ruin its complexity. It's most certainly not for everyone, but it has found an audience, both across the world and in high-end shops in Panama City as well as tasting rooms around the nation.
On its meteoric rise to fame, the Tourism Authority of Panama and the Center for Competitiveness of the Western Region took note and is now developing the country's first Coffee Circuit to help visitors taste the bean in the Chiriquí Highlands — now lovingly referred to as the "Napa Valley of coffee" — and get to know its national cultures a bit better.
"All types of travelers, from families to nature lovers and adventurers, are welcomed to explore the coffee farms that are located in three main regions of the Chiriquí Highlands," Promtur Panama, the official destination marketing organization for Panama, explains in a statement. Promtur notes, there are currently 15 coffee farms that are active in providing "distinctive touristic experiences" in the area, including guided tours, tastings, glimpses into production, and others, like Janson, who open up their land for visitors to explore, taste, and learn about how difficult it can be to grow a bean of this caliber.
One day, guests will be able to tour the area like they can in Napa, Bourdeaux, and Italy on guided exhibitions and pre-planned trips to see the farms, enjoy the famous bridge tours, and make their way to the top of Volcan Baru, both the highest point in Panama and one of the few places on the planet where you can see two oceans at once.
For now, visitors are encouraged to plot their own path using Visit Panama's coffee website and reaching out to the farms directly to see what's on offer. At the moment, it's most certainly more work than booking a tour, but it's still a trip that will pay dividends in experiences and memories that will last for years to come.
"The higher the Geisha [is planted], the better," Janson says as we drive through rows and rows of his product on an educational tour similar to the one guests can enjoy now at their farm and others near it. "And you need to know what you're doing "
On future tours, guests will be able to learn all about the growing process from folks like Janson as well as the Ngäbe and Buglé peoples, two indigenous groups that are paramount to the success of coffee in the region.
"They are the ones most in contact with coffee over the last a hundred years," Diwigdi Valiente, a climate and indigenous activist, explains about the two groups who have long been known as the real farming experts. "Since farmers started cropping coffee, they hired the Ngäbe and Buglé peoples, who have a deep connection with nature and understand it to a very different degree than you and me."
That connection begins with an understanding that this bean grows so well because the region sits at the highest point in Panama, on top of volcanic ground, and comes surrounded by a constant light mist known as bajareque, which helps to lower the temperature and slow the ripening process. They know exactly when to plant, feed, and harvest each bean to ensure the highest measure of success.
For Valiente, this new focus on Panama's high-end coffee is "an open window to give value to all this indigenous knowledge and to nature," he says. "The reason the coffee is so expensive is because these farmers are doing all these things right. They're listening to nature, they are listening to science, and they are also listening to people."
According to Valiente, "doing things right" includes paying a fair salary and assisting in the construction of both schools and care facilities for local children. "It's very important that on the farms and new tours, we have an opportunity to expose our culture, and that's going to be more prevalent in the future."
For Janson, it's also about sharing his love of the plant, a plant he says he comes to speak to on his solitary walks around the farm to help encourage them to grow. His greatest hope for the new tours is to have people explore the cultural bounty that Panama has to offer and watch others fall in love with it all, too.
"Every time I take someone here, and they sip the coffee and say 'wow,' it's like putting a million dollars in my pocket," he says. "My father dreamed that one day his whole family would come back and live on the farm. We are very proud that the family went out and had their own lives, but now, all our brothers are back. We have fulfilled my father's wish."
For more information on the Coffee Circuit and other activities in the region, check out Visit Panama's website.