Panamanian tea is not a phrase you hear in the tea industry as I write this blog. However, if one entrepreneur has his way that may change in the future. During our travels, regardless of country, David and I are always looking for tea. We were shocked to find a tea tour offered in Western Panama. It’s available in a larger portfolio of tours alongside zip lining, coffee tours and general outdoor eco-adventures in Boquete. Even with the $30/person price tag, David and I had to find out if they really had true tea.
Panamanian Tea Tour – Boquete, Panama
Panama is better known worldwide for its Geisha or Gesha Coffee. As a side note to my tea drinkers, find this coffee – it tastes like tea! In fact, it was this association with tea that led to the tea plantation experiment. It’s also hardly a surprise that Gesha Coffee got rebranded as “Geisha” to improve marketing in Asia, especially Japan.
So, finding a steep mountainside of Camelia Sinensis Assamica in Boquete, growing at about 5,700 ft above sea level, was truly a delight.
Planting Tea in Panama
Boquete is a rural town about 9 hours by car outside of Panama City. The closest airport is about 45 minutes away in the town of David. It is high elevation, wet and sunny with plenty of fog, especially during the rainy season. This climate is similar to Sri Lanka or the Nilgiri region of India. It is home to large number of coffee farms, most of them owned and run by Americans and Europeans, and a few by Panamanians. Kotowa Tours (aka Boquete Tree Trek) is a Panamanian company, with a Panamanian owner, that has been around for over 100 years. While their properties are for outdoor recreation, like zip lines and hiking, they are growing coffee, chocolate and tea there as well.
Our tea tour began with a walk through the tea fields with Kotowa’s tea master in training, Octavian. Currently, plants cover less than 1 acre, but there is plenty of room to grow. The first of the tea plants went in 7 years ago and Octavian and his team of four other grounds keepers have been diligently collecting seeds and replanting every year progressing higher up the mountain. The plants are in beautiful shape, with just a few grasshoppers leaving an occasional bite mark on some of the leaves. The biggest “pests” are armadillos. They periodically burrow in to the ground near the roots killing a tea plant here and there. It was fitting to be climbing through the fields, only to be hit with incoming morning mountain fog and rain. The plants are truly in their perfect environment and their huge dark green leaves let you know it.
Harvesting and Manufacturing Tea
The plants are so happy that Octavian and his team are harvesting roughly every 25 days, year round. Now, that is not unheard of in Sri Lanka, India and parts of Africa. So we posed the questions about which months produced the better tasting harvest. It was not surprising to hear the December-March produce a sweeter tea since those are the “dry” months in Panama.
The entire harvest and processing is done by 5 people. They are plucking, rolling and shaping the leaves by hand. With only an acre, their largest given harvest is only about 250 kg (roughly 550 lbs) at a time. That will become roughly 50 kg of finished product, which is only 110 pounds of tea. This is very manageable for a team of 5 people. From harvest to finished product, it is only 4 days, with most of the time spent waiting on the tea to dry.
The processing of the tea will likely change as the tea plants expand and there is more to harvest and produce. Plucking will remain by hand as the mountainside is too steep for machines. We had a good laugh about finding tea manufacturing machines with instructions in English\Spanish and available replacement parts in the Western Hemisphere – there aren’t any.
Cupping Panamanian Tea
Kotowa is currently trying to make white, green, oolong and black tea. With the help of an experienced tea master from Taiwan, Octavian is playing with withering times, baking times, and steaming techniques. We had a great time talking about his lessons learned and where he thinks he will continue to play and fine tune flavor.
Given his tea master is Taiwanese, it was no shocker that the teas where lighter and smoother, mimicking Taiwanese tea. The green tea has a real chance of being a unique flavor profile, as they are steaming the green, which is causing it to taste and smell like the corn meal on the outside of a Panamanian tamale (this is a sweet vegetal taste because the tamales are steamed in banana leaf wrappers).
We expect Octavian will have success in making uniquely Panamanian tea and wish him the best of luck!