In this week’s episode of Coffee Nation, we get on a call with Damian Reed, co-owner of La Buena Tierra, to find out how he opened up his coffee processing facility in the middle of nowhere in Barreta, Coclé in Panama. We have included the first eight minutes of the podcast below for your reading pleasure, to hear the rest you can find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Deezer.
Abbas: Panamanian coffee. These two words bring up incredible feelings for many coffee drinkers around the world and rightfully so some of the rarest and most desirable coffees in the world are grown in Panama. In fact, the province of Chiriquí in Panama is known around the specialty coffee world as the Bordeaux of coffee. Now on today’s episode of the Coffee Nation podcast, I sit down with Damian Reed from La Buena Tierra in Panama.
Abbas However, this is not going to be a conversation with just any coffee producer in Panama. Damian produces coffee in a completely different province and a place known as Barreta in the province of Coclé in Panama.
Abbas: The majority of the specialty coffee world has not yet heard of this region. Now a quick note this podcast was actually recorded on two separate occasions on the first day we started recording the podcast with Damian and there was a huge storm outside his home in Panama and this made the audio quite unclear so you may notice that the audio at the beginning of the podcast it’s not super clear but it will become much better very quickly. So sit back, relax and join us on this journey about how Damian Reed built a coffee region in the middle of nowhere in Beretta, Cocle in Panama.
Abbas: Damian Reed has planned and piloted an impressive coffee project in the highlands of Barreta, Coclé in Panama. This is a true story but what you won’t believe is the story of how this happened.
Abbas: It all started back in 1994 when Damian Reed was living as an ex-Pat in Panama. He noticed how the national coffee companies took advantage of small coffee farmers with unfair compensation. He wanted to help but didn’t yet know how.
Abbas: He eventually ended up moving back home to Canada and didn’t know if he would ever return to Panama again. While in Canada one day he decided to buy a barbecue coffee drum roaster and this began his education a coffee. Many years later in 2008, the Reeds returned to Panama.
Abbas: Damian then put into action a plan to help the small coffee farmers he so fondly remembered from over a decade ago. He decided to open up a brand new specialty coffee region in an extremely isolated part of Panama. After twelve years and counting the project continues and Damian’s hands-on knowledge and experience have also advanced.
Abbas: He now has ample experience, knowledge, and relationships in everything coffee from the farm to the roaster. So with that, I’d like to thank you Damian for joining us today on the Coffee Nation.
Damian: Thank you very much, Abbas, it’s great to be here.
Abbas: Awesome how is Panama and how’s the situation there right now.
Damian: Well right now we’re still under a severe lockdown with the COVID situation and in some parts of the country it’s a lot worse. Where I particularly live it’s quite lowkey but you cannot travel into the Panama city and it looks like according to the main block of your region in Chiriquí is also quite restricted at this time. So, it is a little bit difficult right now.
Abbas: Okay that’s obviously not pleasant to hear, but I know you’ve been through a lot of challenges in the past—which we’ll get into later—and I’m sure you guys will figure out a way out.
Abbas: So I’m really excited to actually share the story of how this all came to be and how you ended up setting up a specialty coffee region in the middle of nowhere. So let’s kind of take it from the beginning, let’s start at the top, you know you obviously you move to Panama in the eighties how are things when you moved there.
Damian: Well Panama in 1988 was under the direction of General Noriega and things were very different. The whole world put Panama under sanctions so there was no money moving, all bank accounts were frozen. It was a very different place at that time. There was zero tourism, of course. Matter of fact, when I got here, there were only ten Canadians in the whole country, that includes the two old women that were at the consulate, there was no embassy then either, of course.
Damian: So everything was shut down really in Panama back then.
Abbas: Did you see there were ten people with—is that an exaggeration or?—
Damian: No, that’s the exact number and I knew three of them,plus the two women in the consulate. I knew five people, half of the Canadians in the whole country.
Abbas: Wow, that is incredible you were one of the first ten Canadians in Panama that is unbelievable, a little unsettling if you know—
Damian: Well, we were encouraged to leave.
Abbas: Wow, and I guess you didn’t listen.
Damian: No, I’m a rebel it seems.
Abbas: That’s awesome. Okay, so that is an interesting experience itself but how was Panama known back then for coffee? Was it known or was it still early for, you know, for the coffee scene over there?
Damian: It was early, I kind of thought it would be really good because it was a coffee place, but really it wasn’t known for specialty coffee at the time. As a matter of fact, the specialty wave didn’t even start at that time. The Best of Panama that didn’t exist at that time either so it was just coffee and really the coffee we bought at the stores from was horrendous. If you wanted gastritis problems and stomach aches, just buy a cup, you know, some coffee at the local store.
Abbas: That’s awesome, that’s hilarious! And were you a big coffee connoisseur at this time or was that later?
Damian: It was later. I mean I always liked my coffee but, yeah, I mean I never knew a good coffee from a bad Coffee, I was still on the first wave, and the second wave was moving along pretty good but I didn’t know much about it then so—
Abbas: So now tell me about when you had that Aha! moment. When did you discover that the coffee is different from your previous experiences?
Damian: Wow, that was an unforgettable moment really and it’s funny how people will always remember that Aha! moment. I like the way you said that. This was in 1994, way in the mountains of Barreta and it was just totally, totally isolated and there was nothing there. But there was a time when they were harvesting coffee and so I knew some of these people, so I helped harvest some coffee and we drank it and it just hit me, I mean this is what the coffee was about.
No stomach aches, no nothing like that, just tastes smooth and reminded me of Murchie’s coffee that I had in Victoria sometime before a long, long time ago and it was just delicious. That was my Aha! moment and I knew something’s got to be done to help these people. It’s to get this coffee out in the world.
Abbas: Okay, so at this point in time when you had this Aha! moment you were—
you’re still in Panama and somehow you ended up Barreta, in the province of Coclé. And it was basically the harvest was underway and you just happened to, kind of, find a coffee farm, like how did you even discover this place?
Damian: Well, I came to Panama as a missionary, okay, back in the ‘80s, and so what happened was, I used to go all over the country, and, you know, to all the nitty-gritty parts, I guess, and isolated areas and all over, so Barreta was on the list. Everybody was afraid to go to Barreta ‘cause it’s so isolated and then complaining about it, but really it was just beautiful and it was just untouched second growth jungle all over the place and it was just wonderful and so that’s why I went there. I got there and seeing people were harvesting coffee, I got to harvest coffee. I had to take pictures of that, I mean, how many Canadians can go on and harvest coffee, this is just the maximum, you know. So that was awesome.
Abbas: That was quite an experience, quite an experience, very fortunate you got to experience that and, you know, you mentioned that these farms are isolated. What were these guys doing with their coffee? Just kind of selling to the local coffee companies or, you know, what did they do with it?