I will be writing in the future about the Cup of Excellence and the Rainforest Alliance Cupping for Quality award programs for specialty coffees, and the role they can play in bringing attention to small farms, roaster relationships, and quality sustainable coffees. Another one of these competitions, which it is timely now for me to mention, is the Best of Panama competition, sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama. For the last three years, one farm has placed first in this competition, Hacienda la Esmeralda, in Chiriqui province on the slopes of Volcan Baru in western Panama (click map to enlarge).
This story is exceptional in several ways. First, the bean and coffee are unique. Second, this coffee has set records at auction, with the 2006 lot being the first green coffee to sell for over US$50 a pound green and US$100 a pound roasted. I’ll give a little background here, because the cash-poor but burningly curious C&C coffee tasting panel raided their piggy banks and sprang for a half-pound of Esmeralda from Intelligentsia.
The Esmeralda Jaramillo Especial story: Hacienda La Esmeralda was purchased by the Peterson family in 1996. Previously, different coffee varieties had been planted about the farm, which has altitudes range from 1,450 to 1,700 meters. Daniel Peterson cupped beans from all over the farm, and discovered the pleasant citrusy flavor present in the mixed beans from the farm as a whole were being flavored by some outstanding beans from a 50 hectare plot in one small valley at the high end (1550 m) of the farm: the Esmeralda Especial.
The microclimate of this valley is quite cold. The bean is an arabica variety called Geisha or Gesha, a long-bean type with Ethiopia heritage brought to Panama in the 1960s via Costa Rica. It is low-yielding — 50 to 100 (60 kg) bags a year — in part because of the long “internodes” or space between the beans. It is likely a combination of the climate, bean, and (wet) processing that brings us this unique cup.
Auction price history: The Esmeralda set price history in the 2004 online green coffee auction, sponsored by the the Specialty Coffee Association of America. That lot sold for US$21 a pound and was huge news in the coffee industry (the average lot goes for about US$4 a pound). This year the lot, of five 60-kg bags, sold for US$50.25 a pound.
The lot was purchased by the Small Axe Coffee Alliance (Sweet Maria’s, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, Groundwork Coffee Company, and the Norwegian company Kaffa). The first out of the gate with a public offering of roasted coffee was Intelligentsia. Sweet Maria’s offered the green beans as a set along with beans from the second and third place winners, Bambito Estate and Carmen Estate.
The farm and environmental sustainability: Hacienda La Esmeralda is Rainforest Alliance certified, and their coffee won first place Rainforest Alliance Cupping for Quality in 2004 and 2006. The farm is not certified organic, and does use glyphosate as a herbicide, and some fertilizers, according to the “Sustainability” portion of its web site. Use of pesticides is not specified, but it sounds like they are usually avoided.
The page indicates that there are about 75 large trees per hectare which add to the leaf litter of the coffee plants, and there is a photo of coffee growing under shade in their photo gallery. The farm does not prune trees during bird nesting or migration season.
As an ecologist, I would like to comment on a statement on the page: “A producing farm undoubtedly has a higher animal biomass than virgin forest as well as a higher photosynthetic rate. It is ‘producing’ – it is not in a resting equilibrium as is a forest.”
Animal biomass is not a relevant yardstick of sustainability (although I don’t know if that’s the point that was being made, necessarily). Here’s why: A cattle pasture, with cattle, would have animal biomass that far exceeds tropical virgin forest of comparable size, but one could hardly say that is a makes it a better or more sustainable use of the land. Likewise, photosynthetic rates themselves alone don’t have a lot of meaning. Fast-growing plants have higher photosynthetic rates, which are also influenced by light, temperature, vapor pressure deficit, and carbon dioxide. Fast or slow, one is not “better” than another. And I’d venture to say that a tropical forest — any forest for that matter — is never at a “resting equilibrium” but is always dynamic, and always “productive”! I’m inclined to take exception to the statement “Enormous tracts of virgin forest have little to do with sustaining people…” As “the air conditioner of the earth,” tracts of virgin tropical forest sustain us all through many important ecosystem functions.
That being said (and whatever the intent), this is not obviously not sun coffee, it is RA certified, and the web site does note other environmentally-friendly practices. Stay tuned for our impressions of this highly-touted bean!