Contributed by: Don Winner
By Mike Power: BAMBITO, Panama (Reuters) - Connoisseurs have nothing but praise for Panama's tiny annual crop of gourmet coffee but they warn that farms where the best beans are grown could vanish as landowners sell to wealthy foreign retirees. International tasters meeting in Panama's lush highland growing region this weekend to select its best coffees say that a real-estate boom has led growers to sell off farms just when the world is waking up to how good their beans can be. The number of judges at the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama's annual "Best of Panama" competition is double that of last year and there are nine more coffees competing to win a chance at a lucrative online auction. The winner will be chosen on Saturday by 28 international coffee experts sampling 33 single-estate, shade-grown highland arabica coffees. The top 10 beans advance to the online auction, where a 'Geisha' variety the last two years sold at a record price of over $20 a pound. Geisha coffee trees were brought to Panama in 1963 from Costa Rica. Their low yields were at first considered not to be profitable but that changed as increasingly sophisticated consumers were drawn to the beans' complex flavors.
Judge Alan Nietlisbach of international coffee trading group Volcafe, one of the world's biggest buyers of specialty coffee, said the Panamanian gourmet sector is thriving.
"Panama has a very small and focused industry, with very educated, young and passionate farmers. With the limited availability that they have, their prices are going to continue to go up," he told Reuters.
"We're looking at a very good crop for next year. The flowering is early. It's very flush," he added.
But a real-estate boom driven by U.S. and European retirees in the cool mountain town of Boquete -- the center of the country's fine coffee production -- is tempting farmers to sell up and move out, Nietlisbach said.
"Boquete is one of the large specialty regions. Farmers there are worried about staving off urban development," he said.
One farmer who preferred not to be named said: "I want to expand, but my family are greedy. They want to sell the land."
In some parts of the picturesque town, where many houses are bedecked with tropical flowers and surrounded by fruit trees, land that cost $10 a square yard (meter) five years ago is now selling for 30 times that price.
Francisco Serracin, vice-president of the Panama's Specialty Coffee Association, says despite the pressure, a Panamanian Geisha variety won the Specialty Coffee Association of America's Cupping Pavilion this year.
"Year after year, we are maintaining quality, despite economic and climactic problems," he said. "The geisha has caused a boom in Panamanian specialty coffee. The possibility does exist that the quantity of specialty coffee from Boquete will diminish, but we have other excellent zones."
Panama's harvest in 2005 was around 240,000 101-pound (46-kg) bags, of which about 20 percent was classed as specialty. Half of the total crop was exported.