from the Winter 2007 issue of
Pomona College Magazine
by Mark Wood

As clouds gather over the slopes of the Volcan Barú across the way, Price Peterson ’58 strides along a trail through lush cloud forest, leading the way upward into a remote mountain valley where the world’s best coffee grows. 

“This is a coffee cherry,” he explains with the calm patience of the college professor he once was. He has pulled down a branch lined with pale green fruit that actually look more like olives, except for the fact that a few of them are turning red. As he speaks, he plucks the ripest cherry and shucks the fruit away, revealing two golden kernels with the unmistakable, cloven shape of coffee beans. “You see the long, thin shape?” he asks. “The other varieties are shorter and rounder. Remember this. This is the distinctive shape of a Geisha bean.”

Price Peterson ’58 with a Geisha variety coffee tree

Price Peterson ’58 with a Geisha variety coffee tree

Geisha is the variety of coffee grown in this little valley—and in addition to its distinctive shape, it has a distinctive flavor, one that has cut a swath through the specialty coffee world for the past three years. Since first packaged in 2004, Esmeralda Special has been entered in seven major tasting competitions, known as cuppings, and has taken top honors every time. In 2004 and again in 2006, the beans harvested in this valley set new records for sale at auction, topping out at an unprecedented $21 a pound in 2004 and soaring to more than $50 a pound two years later. At retail, it now exceeds $100 a pound.

At that price, it’s not quite the most expensive coffee in the world—that honor belongs to a rare and dubious brew made from beans recovered from the droppings     of Indonesian civet cats—but judging from the excitement it has generated, it can plausibly lay claim to being the best coffee in the world. 

Peterson seems bemused by that claim, but he doesn’t dispute it. “I don’t have a very discerning palate,” he confesses, “but some people do.”

One of those, as he notes, is his son, Daniel, who in recent years has taken over the management of the farm and, according to his father, is the genius behind this coffee phenomenon.

Back at the beneficio—the coffee processing plant near their home—Peterson explains how Esmeralda Special came to be. “Two things happened in 1999,” he says. “One was that we had a very bad year for fungus. The other thing was that we had the upper end of the farm, the coldest part of the farm, that we hadn’t planted yet.”

There were already a few trees of the Geisha variety on the farm, but not many. They yielded less fruit than more popular types, but they also had advantages, such as being more resistant to fungus and thriving at high altitudes. So the Petersons decided to plant an insignificant plot of 10 to 12 acres high on the mountain with Geisha—a small decision with big results.

“In 2004, when we started harvesting, it occurred to Daniel that maybe the general good taste of our coffee, rather than being spread all over the farm, was due to one area that had a really good taste,” Peterson says. “So he started sampling coffees from all over the farm. That’s when we discovered that this Geisha had just a strikingly different taste.”

Of course, different doesn’t necessarily translate into better. “Frankly to me, Geisha tastes more like tea,” he notes with a smile. “Tastes like a very fruity, jasminy tea. It’s a whole ’nother ballgame from regular coffee. I didn’t know if people were going to like it or hate it.”

They didn’t like it. They loved it. 

The next day, the year’s first cupping is held at the beneficio. This is not a public event—more a matter of quality control. Daniel, his sister Rachel, and two other tasters stand around a table where cups have been arranged in a circle—five groups of three. Each grouping is for a trio of samples of a certain variety of coffee from a specific part of the farm. Two are Geisha; three are not. It’s a blind tasting.

Each person raises a cup and sniffs the dry grounds, then moves on to another. Water is added, and the cuppers sniff again. Then comes the tasting, using spoons, a cup for spitting and a clipboard for noting scores. They look for all the world like wine-tasters sampling new pinot noirs, and why not? Coffee-cupping has become the new wine-tasting. Even the language is similar.

Here’s one professional cupper’s description of Esmeralda Special: “The coffee had an intense berry fragrance in the dry grounds,” said Ric Rhinehart of Groundwork Coffee Co. “The aroma reinforced that impression with notes of strawberry and a citrus blossom background. On first tasting I was stunned by the crisp, sweet acidity and the complex fruit flavors.”

Even to an amateur, the Geisha really does stand out—bright and fruity, with no bitterness. It has what is known in the business as an excellent cup.

Peterson—noting again his inferior palate—declines to take part. As the cupping continues and the arguments begin, he talks about how he came to Panama 35 years ago.

After a stint as a Pomona College student that he describes as “splotchy,” he went on to earn his Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Pennsylvania. And there he stayed as a member of the faculty, doing research on the neurological basis of memory. He still keeps up with the literature on that subject, but his academic career came to a sudden halt in 1972, when he and  his wife, Susan, decided to make a drastic change. One reason was a growing disenchantment with academia, and another concerned the difficulty of family life in downtown Philadelphia, but Peterson recalls that an article in Pomona Today (as Pomona College Magazine was known in those days) also played a role.

“There were a lot of factors, and one of them was this article called, I think, ‘Other Ways,’” he says. “The story was about Pomonans who had chosen unusual paths or somehow cranked their lives around in unusual ways. For some reason, it really hit me as a potential way to live two lives instead of just one.”

And then, too, he already knew where he wanted to go.

His father, a banker, had fallen in love with the little mountain town of Boquete during a business trip to Panama in 1967 and had purchased the farm known as Hacienda La Esmeralda as a retirement venture. After retiring there in 1969, however, he’d grown discouraged with the farm’s run-down beef cattle operation. Abandoning retirement to take a job with the United Nations, he left the farm to languish.

In the summer of 1969, Price Peterson and his family flew down to Panama for a vacation at the farm and fell in love. In 1972, they left the United States behind and started a new life.

To grasp the sheer bravado of this move, you have to understand that neither Price nor Susan spoke a word of Spanish when they arrived. “The first year was very rough, particularly for Susan,” he said. “We were linguistically isolated, physically isolated on this mountain. We had no telephone, no communication.”

Within six months, however, they had to pass a rule that only English could be spoken inside the house. “It was becoming clear by then that the kids were going to lose their English because they preferred Spanish,” he says.

It also became clear that Peterson’s dream of living and working in a close family unit was coming true. “Daniel would get up in the morning in his pajamas and diapers and wander down to the milking pen and help the milkers milk the cows,” he remembers. “Our oldest, Erik, is still one of the best ropers around here. He got into roping cattle at a young age and he had a lot of fun with that.”

It wasn’t all fun, though. It took years of very hard work to turn the farm into a profitable enterprise. Along the way, Peterson abandoned beef farming for dairy and experimented with growing vegetables—“I have the world’s only black thumb,” he laments—finally diversifying into coffee in the early 1980s. 

Today, coffee is still second to dairy among the farm’s priorities, and Esmeralda Special is only a small fraction of the farm’s overall coffee production—about 3 percent last year. Since most of their coffee sells for barely more than the dollar a pound it costs to produce, they aren’t exactly getting rich, but coffee turned out to be the perfect complement for his dairy business, thriving on the steeper slopes of the farm that weren’t amenable to cattle. 

But it also had a couple of major disadvantages. One was financial: “Cashflow is terrible,” he explains. “You have one or two big payments a year.” The other was purely emotional: It meant that Peterson and his family would have to deal on a personal level, year in and year out, with the terrible poverty that is part and parcel of the coffee trade.

Peterson isn’t one to evade the issue. In fact, he brings it up himself.

“The general estimate is that there are 25 million people involved in bringing in the annual coffee harvest of about 115 million bags each year,” he explains as he walks through one of the coffee-pickers’ living quarters, where two tiny faces peek out shyly from a doorway. “They’re scattered throughout an area about 15 degrees above and below the equator, all around the world. And if you look in those areas, those are inevitably the poorest areas, the areas of misery. So anybody in the coffee industry has to accept that, one way or another, they’re living on this pile of 25 million people in misery.”

Most of the harvesters on Peterson’s farm are members of the Ngöbe-Buglé tribe who come out of the mountains to the east to live on the farm for four months each year. 

“The whole family has a room that’s made of cinder-blocks,” Peterson explains. “It’s about 10 feet by 10 feet square and has four huge, wide bunks in it and a couple of kind of decorative blocks for ventilation. In a way, I think, to the shame of all of us, one of the things we’ve found is that they think this is the cat’s pajamas.”

The Petersons provide a day-care center for the children,   and periodically they bring in a doctor and a mobile pharmacy to take care of their workers’ medical needs. Early on, they also began providing one large meal each day for everyone on the farm.

“The notion of this was to get at least 1,500 calories into everybody who was here during the harvest period,” he explains. “It worked fine for several years until they very delicately advised us that they didn’t think much of our cooking. And we said, ‘What else would you suggest?’ and they said, ‘Just give us the rice and beans once a week, and we’ll do the cooking.’ So that’s what we did.”

After four months of picking, each family sets out for home with about $300 to $500 in their pockets. “What’s hard to imagine is: How do they live for eight or nine months of the year on that $300 to $500 per family?” he says.

The answer is, of course, that they don’t, which makes summer a time to be dreaded.

“When somebody falls out of a tree and breaks their arm or a tree falls on somebody’s house, they refer to this as ‘un julio,’” he says. “It’s just a disaster, a terrible thing. And in their lives, the month of julio is a terrible month. What happens is, they leave here, the first rains come in May. They’ll plant their beans, their corn, whatever. By that time, the money they’ve earned during the harvest is being used up. June, it’s pretty well gone, and there’s nothing to harvest until August or September. So the month of July is when mothers’ milk dries up, babies die, all kinds of horrible things happen.”

That’s why Peterson began, some years ago, going to the little town of San Felix in the Ngöbe-Buglé area each June to pay each worker a 15 percent bonus. “Some of them will walk for three and four days, coming down out of the mountains to get their bonus, which might only be $20 or $30, but to them it’s terribly important.”

When it’s suggested to Peterson that the harvesters would be even worse off if there were no coffee to harvest, he simply shakes his head. “Maybe,” he says. “I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.”

A few years ago, Peterson passed the reins of the farm to his youngest son, Daniel.

“I think both of us were very aware that most generational transitions don’t work in business, and in farming it’s not much different,” he says. “Something like two out of 10 really work. You go through this whole process of going from father-son to business partners to friends. And it’s a very rewarding relationship once you’ve gone through it, but it’s a very careful dance.”

He and his wife have made clear that while they’re still around, the farm will be kept intact—“There’s no rationality behind it; it’s just the way Susan and I feel”—after they’re gone, however, the future of the farm will be up to their children.

As for the future of coffee on the farm, he’s not sure what to expect. “The moral implications of poverty are hard to live with,” he says. “I think Daniel, in many ways, would like to just pull all the coffee trees out and go into reforestation or something.”

And yet, the excitement of having—at least for now—the world’s most sought-after coffee has introduced a new element. Today, they’re looking at ways to expand their production of high-altitude Geisha, and they’re experimenting with other varieties that come—like Geisha—from Ethiopia. The native workers have shared some of the benefit as well, receiving three times their normal pay when picking Geisha.

And Peterson smiles as he talks about Daniel’s commitment to defending their title next year. 

“Starting now, and for the next four or five months, he’ll be cupping at least twice a week. Cupping batch after batch.”

He laughs. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing that will put you on your toes like finding you have the best coffee in the world.