The first coffee plants arrived in Panama at the start of the 19th century and were brought to Boquete by a retired English sea captain who met and married a Panamanian. They were planted in coastal areas, but before long colonists brought them to the Boquete valley in the Western Highlands. The micro-climate of the valley turned out to be ideally suited to coffee. Its high altitude, the influences of the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, the rich volcanic soil and the shade of the Baru volcano all contributed to the full blossoming of the coffee’s aromatic potential. Many varieties, imported from all corners of the world, found a new home in Panama during this period. Compared to other countries, however, further development lagged behind.
here was little experimentation with crossbreeding to boost productivity and flavor did not show up as a selection criteria for the longest time. Panama and especially its coffee industry began to change nearly two decades ago, “aided” by the amounts of investment money flowing into the country and the growing expat population. Prices for land rose steeply. Additionally, the coffee market was swamped with cheaper, lower grade coffees from mass producing countries like Brazil and Vietnam. The Panamanian producers realized they couldn’t compete with quantity – just selling “coffee” was not enough anymore.
The tribes of the Ngobe-Bugle Indians have been central to Panama’s coffee industry since its early days. They live in a Comarca (autonomous region within Panama), with mountainous terrain and nutrient poor soil, which makes farming difficult for them.
During harvest season thousands migrate to the coffee regions of Panama and Costa Rica to work as pickers and laborers. Their role in making Panama specialty coffee unique is invaluable. The Ngobe-Bugle are responsible for the selection of only of the ripest cherries and at the same time applying manual quality control to the harvesting and processing of the farms.