Coffee’s Grand Cru: A Look Inside Elida Estate

Wilford Lamastus Sr. produces some of the most famous coffee in the world, but he only brags about one thing when I visit his award-winning farm Elida Estate: his skimming ability. With a sly grin, he likens his skill at skimming the remaining sediment from each cup to barista competitors, who prepare elaborate espresso beverages while giving a presentation. This rather mundane step between between the aromatic and flavor assessment of coffee is often performed by lab assistants on larger estates, but Lamastus Sr. is not the sort of owner to sit back while other people get their hands dirty. He cups each of the dozens of lots from his two farms and often will give feedback to other producers in the region who come to him for advice.

I’ve cupped coffee hundreds of times, but my pulse quickens as I dip my spoon in the first cup. The modest room is barely large enough for a small round table and a desk, but it’s hosted some of the most influential coffee buyers in the world. As we share our cupping notes around the table, Lamastus Sr. makes his guests guess the process before he reveals the lots. I’m relieved when the master himself, along with two green buyers for prominent American companies, mistake one of his honeys for a washed process- a testament to the precision in processing that has set Elida Estate apart as one of the premier coffee producers in the world- a Grand Cru if coffee had such designations.

If the coffee industry has its own Burgundy, it’s Boquete, Panama. This narrow strip of land that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean is home to some of the highest scoring— and most expensive— coffees on earth. The unique microclimate varies from farm to farm, as even a single hill can effect weather patterns, with seasonal rains coming from the Caribbean to the North and the Pacific to the South. Like few coffee origins in the world, the specialty coffee producers in Boquete understand what the specialty coffee market wants, the flavor characteristic of the coffee varieties they grow, and how different processing techniques affect flavor.

If Boquete is Burgundy then Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is Hacienda La Esmeralda. It was here the Peterson family discovered an old, heirloom coffee variety called Geisha produced a perfumed, tea-like cup of coffee reminiscent of its native Ethiopia. The rediscovery of geisha launched Panamanian coffee to new heights, setting auction records and attracting high-end coffee buyers from around the world to this small town near the Costa Rican border.

If any coffee farm rivals the unparalleled success of of Hacienda La Esmeralda, it’s their neighbors and friends, the Lamastus family at Elida Estate. The Lamastus family became the second producers to plant geisha in Panama and were the first to notice the difference between green-tip and bronze-tip geisha. They were also early pioneers in using different processing techniques to create different flavor profiles. Traditionally, coffee in Panama is fully washed with a mild acidity. But the Lamastus family realized they could use natural and honey processing — techniques which allow for extended contact between the seed and pulp— to give their lots the fruit-forward profile many specialty coffee buyers love.

The Lamastus family has been farming in Boquete for four generations. They are the descendants of both French and American immigrants who came to Panama to work on the canal and decided to stay after they finished it. Before coffee producers learned that higher elevation farms yielded a more complex cup, the Lamastus family farmed coffee at lower elevation farms. The higher elevation Elida Estate was harder to get to and the steep hills meant it was harder to pick coffee. Instead, the Lamastus family grew onions and other vegetables. But the specialty coffee boom in the 1990s revealed a new market for high end coffee and the Lamastus family set to replanting their highest elevation parcel with coffee.

The Lamastus family’s accomplishments and accolades defy quick summarization. A cursory scan of the trophy wall in their Panama City café, Bajareque Coffee House, reveals they’ve collected a litany of Best of Panama awards. Numerous barista champions have competed with their coffee. The roasters that buy their coffee include many of the most acclaimed in Asia, America, and Europe. Perhaps most notably, Santa Cruz’s Verve Coffee sells the Lamastus family’s Green Tip Geisha every year as a limited release for the holiday season.

But perhaps the greatest indicator of the Lamastus family’s success is the role they play in the specialty coffee community in Panama. More than one producers mentioned to me how they owe a debt to the Lamastus family, whether it was for teaching them better processing techniques or introducing them to a potential buyer. In 2016, Wilford Lamastus Jr. organized the national barista competition of Panama, ensuring their country would not only have coffee but also a barista represented at the World Barista Championship in Seoul.

The Lamastus family is also exploring a new frontier for high end specialty coffee producers: vertical integration. Their Panama City café, Bajareque Coffee House, named for the rains that come south  from the Caribbean, offers a rare chance to try coffee that has been grown, roasted, and brewed by the same family. The geisha espresso we had there ranked among the best shots we’ve had in the last year.   

The Lamastus family is the future of specialty coffee. Well-networked, vertically integrated, passionate ambassadors for specialty coffee. One day, I hope they’re no longer the exception.

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