Toby’s Staffers Dig Their Heels Into Panama in a Unique Educational Exploration

Drying beds for naturally processed coffees.

We are outrageously lucky here at Barista Magazine to be sent coffees from roaster friends all over the world on a regular basis. We always try the coffees, and we always appreciate the gesture. Sometimes a coffee is sent to us because it’s attached to a special story, and recently one such package was dropped at our door.

Toby’s Estate in New York had sent us a small box with two precious coffees inside, both Geshas, both Panamanian. We cupped them and they were remarkable. We sighed with contentment as we sipped, and I perused a small card that had been tucked into the package. And that’s when I really sat up and took notice.

The two Geshas offered by Toby's Estate this fall—and the spectacular story behind their sourcing.

The two Geshas offered by Toby’s Estate this fall—and the spectacular story behind their sourcing.

The coffees were terrific, sure, but the story was even better: To encourage Toby’s baristas and staff to really let themselves be inspired, Toby’s held an in-house competition, the winner of which would be sent to the famous Santa Teresa farm in Panama and be tasked with bringing back an amazing Gesha for Toby’s to roast. The card read on:

The competition revolved around social media and one’s ability to tell a story on something as mundane as a meal. We had some fantastic, creative entries that utilized Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter in different ways to paint a picture. Even though Amie Raskin and Tyler Schlieman submitted two very different stories, they were both so good that we could not decide who should be the winner. So we sent both.

The author of the story below about the 2013 Best of Panama judging experience: Tyler Schilieman of Toby's Estate, Taking a break from zooming around the hillsides of Boquete.

The author of the story below about the 2013 Best of Panama judging experience: Tyler Schlieman of Toby’s Estate, Taking a break from zooming around the hillsides of Boquete.

Their 10 days in the hills of Panama did not go to waste. They brought some fantastic samples back to our cupping lab, where we spent a week sorting through various lots from the various plots on Santa Teresa, and eventually landing on two Gesha coffees, one washed and the other pulp natural. Both were so good, that like our in-house competition, we could not choose a clear winner.

So we present you with both.

La Cabaña and La Batista, for you to try together in a rare opportunity to taste side by side, so you can see for yourself how exquisite the variety is, and what the different processes can do to your cup of coffee…

Drying beds for naturally processed coffees.

Drying beds for naturally processed coffees.

I loved this story so much that I requested more information. I wanted to hear from Tyler and Amie themselves about what the experience was like. So here I present to you Tyler’s writing on his experience at the judging of the Best of Panama event, along with photos he took during his 10 days in Panama in search of a spectacular Gesha to bring home to Toby’s. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Funny story: last year, the kids at this school played a prank on their teacher. They snuck out of the building and locked her inside so they could play outside. Their play was not long-lived.

Funny story: last year, the kids at this school played a prank on their teacher. They snuck out of the building and locked her inside so they could play outside. Their play was not long-lived.

Best of Panama
By Tyler Schlieman, Toby’s Estate

Leading Up to the Competition

The Best of Panama competition begins long before judges arrive to score the coffee. Farmers work all season long to produce the best coffees possible, and are allowed to enter as many of those coffees as they wish into the competition. To ensure fairness, each coffee is given a sample number and then roasted by roasters from Panama. The coffee is then scored by a National Jury, made up of coffee producers from the area who are also members of the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama. Only the coffees that score above an 84 out of 100 move on to be judged by the International Jury in the competition. This year, the Best of Panama saw the highest number of entries in its seventeenth year, with sixty-four coffees making it through to the competition.

Many people worked in the background of the cuppings to run things smoothly for judges and to allow for consistency from a third party.

Many people worked in the background of the cuppings to run things smoothly for judges and to allow for consistency from a third party.

Day 1 of the competition

On day one of the Best of Panama, our wholesale sales manager Amie Raskin and I met at the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama’s facilities in Boquete. There were 16 internationally renowned judges representing their respective sectors of the coffee industry for this year’s competition. The head judge this year was Ric Rhinehart, the Executive Director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He guided discussions after each cupping, mediated between the coffee producers and judges, monitored scoring, and ensured the focus was on excellence in taste. In one discussion during the competition, the judges were getting off-track and a little cynical, so he kept them focused and the morale high, stating, “Remember, this is the Best of Panama competition, not the Ordinary Coffee of Panama competition.”

International judges getting their noses acquainted at the warm-up table before reconvening to discuss experiences. Then commences a day of the competition's cuppings.

International judges getting their noses acquainted at the warm-up table before reconvening to discuss experiences. Then commences a day of the competition’s cuppings.

At the beginning of each day of competition, the judges met for a quick discussion to make sure everybody was ready and all concerns were addressed. Next, everyone entered the cupping room: a large, open space with eight judges’ tables, three observers’ tables, grinders, water boilers, and over 20 assistants who ground the coffee, poured the water, skimmed the floating coffee off the surface when it was ready to taste, and cleaned the cups and spittoons at the end. These assistants worked with extreme precision and patience, and the entire competition would not have such efficiency without them.

The first cupping was for palate calibration, intended as a warm up, to get a baseline feel for the coffee, and to help the judges recall favorable flavors for that particular category of coffee. The first day was to be three sets of mixed washed and honey process coffees, followed by one table of natural process coffees. In listening to the discussions among the judges, washed process was a clear favorite by the majority of the judges. In fact, some Cup of Excellence competitions in other countries only allow entries that are washed.

Freshly hulled green Gesha.

Freshly hulled green Gesha.

The judges had a discussion about their experiences and the scoring while the assistants ground the next coffee samples for round one of the competition. The coffee producers also participated in the calibration and in each subsequent cupping in order to aid in the discussion and give their scores, though their scores dis not count in the competition. Then Ric gave one last review of protocol and a reminder of the stakes at hand.

A picker's lunch sack.

A picker’s lunch sack.

An enormous cloud of aroma from the freshly-ground coffee greeted us as we headed downstairs into the cupping room with our scoring sheets in hand and aprons on to judge our first round of coffees at our designated tables. The air was filled with scent volatiles, and often the judges would walk outside to cleanse their olfactory senses in order to give a fair and concise score for each coffee’s fragrances. As the cupping procedure continued, judges typically remained quiet and pensive, each with his or her own unique speed and demeanor. Sometimes they would talk quietly to one another, some would stare off into nowhere before marking a score, some would make repetitive passes around the table, some would rely on quick instinctual feelings, and some would sip the certain samples again and again, erasing old notes and adjusting scores. The room was meant to be free of any discussion to prevent suggestive analysis that could affect scoring, and so all that could be heard was light chitchat and the cacophony of distinct and diverse slurps. It was quite an impressive array of zips, rips, wisps, and whistles that judges employed to coat their tongues with coffee and decide which could be valued as most delicious and ultimately be sold to the highest bidder at a very high price (the current record comes from 2010, when an Hacienda la Esmeralda Geisha coffee was auctioned at a price of $170.20 per pound).

Cheers! Tyler drinking Santa Teresa coffee right on the finca. How about that!

Cheers! Tyler drinking Santa Teresa coffee right on the finca. How about that!

All of the cuppers gradually reconvened upstairs as they put the last touches on their scoring sheets. Most of the judges have existing relationships because of their participation in past competitions, business, and specialty-coffee events, so things are friendly. Often they would give each other a bit of light-hearted ribbing, like old school buddies who have a mutual respect for one another, but don’t mind seeing the other get red in the face. These guys are professionals, but they are colleague and competitor nonetheless. Ric started each analysis by asking for general impressions and flavor descriptors, often calling on people by name to get the discussion off and running. A more thorough response could be, “Well, I liked this coffee. I got blackberry in the nose, then I got bergamot, honey, watermelon. A nice lemongrass in the finish. This coffee was good, but I thought it was missing some body and could have stayed more structured as it cooled. I thought it didn’t hold up as well as it promised in the beginning.” Once enough discussion took place, the scores were tallied. Most of the time, the judges’ scores were in blocks not too high or low (between 84 and 88), but the outliers were scrutinized a little more, especially if they were exceedingly higher scorers.

The producers were asked for their scores to compare. These dialogues between the judges and producers made for the most fruitful and interesting conversations in the competition. In one room were the producers of some of the best coffees in Panama and the world, giving feedback to some of the best coffee tasters and buyers in the world. If a judge downgraded a score for something they thought was a little bit off, usually a producer would be able to give a reason or an educated guess as to why and how a coffee tasted as it did. For instance, a judge stated that his mouth was left with a dry, almost sandy feeling. Graciano Cruz, an expert farmer, cupper, and winner of many prizes for his coffees, knew that this sandy aftertaste was due to the coffee having too short of an aging period after it was processed and dried. Ideally, the discussion and dialogue would help judges and producers better understand coffee, and help producers develop better coffee by knowing what works and what does not between the time the coffee is grown and processed, and when it is cupped.

Harvested cherries are sent through this chute into trucks for transport to the processing facility, located on the farm further up the hill

Harvested cherries are sent through this chute into trucks for transport to the processing facility, located on the farm further up the hill.

The day continued with two more rounds of traditional coffees, before capping the first day off with a table from the naturals category. By the end of the day, the judges were mentally exhausted, having put forth so much effort and concentration in tasting 32 coffees all considered possibility the best cup of coffee in Panama. Although each coffee had a chance to outdo the last, there were still flaws in the competition that surely hurt some of the competitors’ chances at a shot at the top spot. One of the ongoing discussions was about how a variance in Agtron scores (an instrument that measures darkness of a roast that results in a darkness score, a lower number correlating to a darker roast) could have unfairly cheated a few of the coffees’ chances to be contenders because they were roasted too dark. All agreed that the coffee that was over-roasted should have been roasted again, but logistically this would mean that each table of eight coffees that had just one coffee roasted too dark would have to be re-cupped again the next day. In the end, it was decided that this needed to be a top priority to ensure equality for each coffee in next year’s competition. Day one was the longest in the competition, and everyone was anxious to get to dinner that night hosted by the family of one of the farmers.

Tyler says, "I met this family when I was riding a scooter through the Boquete mountainsides. They were returning home from town - a four hour trip one-way uphill."

Tyler says, “I met this family when I was riding a scooter through the Boquete mountainsides. They were returning home from town – a four hour trip one-way uphill.”

Day 2 of the competition

The second day of competition was dedicated to cupping coffees in the Gesha category. Geshas are known for their exceptionally superior taste, with an intoxicating balance of floral and fruity notes that have given them worldwide notoriety. On average, Geshas score two or three points higher than traditional coffees. This means that they will always attract a much higher price per pound, and Panamanian Geshas have set many world price records. Geshas are typically produced in smaller lots and deliver high tasting scores within a handful of microclimates in or near Boquete and Volcan, Panama. This year, there were 17 Geshas to cup—the most ever cupped in a single competition. While this was an exciting fact, it also proved to be a challenge: the judges agreed that there was an element of palate saturation, meaning that because so many Geshas were being cupped side by side their taste buds would get used to the flavorful Gesha taste, and the scores would depreciate. It was decided that for the finals competition the next day, there would be traditional coffees on the table with the Geshas to help the judges discern minute differences in each coffee. Overall, it was a very exciting day: these were the coffees that were going to afford the most pride, curiosity, and respect. Gesha beans are particularly difficult to work with because they require more attention than other varieties common to Panamanian farms, and sometimes must be re-processed, which is a pain in the neck for any mill supervisor. Gesha beans are also very sensitive to the roasting process, so if they are just slightly over-roasted, they will lose a significant amount of flavor depth, which can cost an otherwise perfect bean a spot in the finals table. By the end of the day, the scores were added up, and the judges were relieved from duty with a celebratory beer after an exciting day in Panamanian coffee history.

What a typical hillside looks like on a Panamanian farm. Note the interspersed shade trees and the thick undergrowth as natural soil support alongside decomposing organic matter

What a typical hillside looks like on a Panamanian farm. Note the interspersed shade trees and the thick undergrowth as natural soil support alongside decomposing organic matter

Day 3 of the competition

The final day of competition consisted of three tables with eight coffees each. These would all win prizes for each of the thee respective categories: Traditionals, Geishas, and Naturals. The day proceeded very efficiently, and the discussion room was more crowded with onlookers than at any other point in the Best of Panama. More producers came to listen in, and to wonder if perhaps it was their coffee that was the blind sample 2106 or 3986, or even sample 3917 in the Naturals category that scored the highest out of any other coffee in the competition. Toru from Japan shot his hand up with his nearly perfect score of 97 for sample #3917 that he said was the best he’d had for a long time, and to him, was hands down the best coffee in the competition.

No one would know who the winners were until the awards ceremony that night, which was attended by the judges, producers, organizers of the Best of Panama, and a special guest, the Minister of Agriculture of Panama. It was a lavish dinner, with gracious speeches, Panamanian folk dancing, white tablecloths, and nervous producers hoping their coffee would earn a top spot. All of the coffee that made it to the finals would be auctioned off in June to the highest bidder. Finca Santa Teresa, the farm that our creative director Toby Smith runs, won three prizes in the competition: 4th and 6th in the Geisha category, and 3rd in the Naturals category. The rest of the winners can be found here, on the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama’s website.

Good view of the mountainous valleys of Boquete. The structures at the bottom of the picture are nurseries.

Good view of the mountainous valleys of Boquete. The structures at the bottom of the picture are nurseries.

 

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