Behind the making of Panama’s $100-a-cup coffee

Panama grows some of the world’s best coffee, but no brew may be more coveted than the “Geisha” varietal grown in remote parts of the country. 

The Panamanian version of the coffee, which can sell for up to $100 a cup in the United States, is among the world’s most expensive. 

In western Panama’s Chiriqui Province, coffee grower Ratibor Hartmann, his son Rabitor Junior, and coffee importer Ellen Fan took CBS News behind the scenes of their operation. The estate where they grow the coffee is located on the side of a mountain, where altitude and volcanic soil make it the perfect place to grow the famous beans. Ratibor said that breezes from the Pacific and Caribbean grace the mountain’s slopes, adding to the flavor. 

Hartmann describes Geisha coffee as “very juicy, very sweet,” while Fan describes it as having “fruit notes like candy and grapes.” 

“This varietal, Panamanian Geisha, is the best,” added Fan. 

Geisha coffee beans actually originate from Ethiopia. They were originally called “Gesha” beans, named after the region in Ethiopia where they originated, but the misspelling stuck. 

The bean made its way to Panama thanks to an experiment by the late Price Peterson and his family, who found that Geisha beans could survive some unfavorable weather. 

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That experiment yielded a coffee unlike any they had ever tasted, and in 2004, they entered the coffee in a “Best of Panama” competition. 

“It was no competition,” said Daniel Peterson, Price Peterson’s son. “Judges, international judges that had been exposed to coffees around the world just – they fell in love with it.” 

Ever since then, Daniel and Rachel Peterson have been working to top that. They’ve experimented with different varities, fermentation and drying methods, and more. Some of their batches sell for more than $500 a pound, due to the limited supply of the beans and the estate’s meticulous handling of the prized products. 

Panamanian chef Charlie Collins said that sales of Geisha coffee have helped draw tourists to Panama and to the city of Boquete, which is near the Peterson farm. One of his baristas, Kenneth Duarte, loved the coffee so much that he learned the fine art of brewing it.

“Business has increased, it’s been very good for the community of Boquete, but it’s also been very good for Panama,” Collins said. 

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