These Panamanian Roasters Will Bring the Caviar of Coffee Beans to D.C.
In the highlands of Panama, winds from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans mingle to influence a mountain climate responsible for some of the world’s most coveted coffee beans. A roasting company that owns seven cafes in Panama City will ensure D.C. has a reliable place to get a taste.
Eater reported last week that Café Unido had signed on as a tenant at La Cosecha, the ambitious Latin American market that developer Edens is opening in the Union Market district later this summer. The company’s three owners were in D.C. this weekend to participate in a benefit dinner at La Cosecha and scout locations for a roasting facility that would expand their local reach.
When Café Unido opens in late August or early September, it will have two counters inside La Cosecha, including a brew bar featuring its headlining attraction. That would be the Geisha — or Gesha — bean, a Panamian-grown variety of an Ethiopian strain that is the most expensive coffee in the world.
Geisha coffee made headlines in May after Klatch Coffee in California started selling beans from a recent auction-winning crop for $75 a cup. Klatch bought 10 pounds from a batch of Geisha that sold at auction for $803 per pound at the prestigious Best of Panama competition.
Extremely fruity and floral, Geisha coffees can be an acquired tastes. Café Unido plans to bring producers to D.C. who can contribute to explanatory lectures and cuppings at La Cosecha. The latest prices represent a new high for Geisha beans, but D.C. is familiar with them. Zeke’s Coffee, Peregrine Espresso, and Qualia Coffee have all reportedly offered tastings at one time or another, and La Colombe is known to source them, too.
Since starting Café Unido in 2014, founders Benito Bermudez and Mario Castrellon have since become judges at the competition. They also brought on Feres Yebaile as a business partner.
Bermudez, the head brewer of the operation, emphasizes that the direct relationships Café Unido has built with farmers means the price won’t climb so high in D.C. He expects Geisha varieties to vary from $10 to $25, and other high-end varieties to cost $5 to $10.
“We want people to try this coffee,” Bermudez says. “We won’t get that aggressive.”
According to the partners, Café Unido is currently working with 15 different farms to source beans for their pour-overs, espresso blends, nitro coffee, and cascara (coffee cherry tea). In addition to Geisha coffee, the company experiments with varieties of natural process (as opposed to washed) beans that undergo a 120-hour fermentation before being roasted.
The coffee company is an outgrowth of Maito, where Castrellon oversees fine-dining tasting menus that represent native products and recipes from Panama. It’s rated at No. 29 on San Pellegrino’s list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, the only entry from Panama.
Castrellon wanted to sell a coffee that was of high enough quality to match the rest of the menu. Bermudez, a partner in his restaurant group, had recently gone through a divorce and volunteered to take a roasting course in Portland, Oregon. Getting farmers to talk was challenging, but Maito’s reputation helped them get their foot in the door.
“They didn’t want to take us in at first,” Bermudez says. “Like, ‘Who the hell are these city boys? They’re going to roast? I don’t think they have a market for this coffee.’”
From the time Café Unido started, part of the mission was to support the farms. The partners say they’re committed to paying premium prices even to “non rock star farms.” They also implemented an initiative to support itinerant workers by developing schooling and nutrition programs for children traveling to the farms with their parents.
Although one of the owners is a decorated chef, options for food will be centered mostly around pastries at Café Unido in La Cosecha. The cafes in Panama feature a full range of salty, hearty breakfast food, wraps, and sandwiches, which would make their way to D.C. if the company finds a bigger facility to plant its roasting operation. If there’s room for a waffle iron, there may be room for Castrellon’s favorite snack at Café Unido, a “wa-ssant” made out of a croissant griddled with mozzarella and pepperoni.
For now, the partners say they’ve agreed to outsource roasting to a friend in the United States who will implement Berumudez’s standards.