Coffee is one of life’s great pleasures, and public appreciation for nuance and taste is a far cry from the canned Folgers or diner sludge of yesteryear. Coffee can be just as complex as wine, with special growing techniques, rigorous quality standards and careful attention paid to climate and terroir. Roasters are now experimenting with techniques like fermentation and carbonic maceration — often used in Beaujolais wines — to unlock new flavors and textures.
Luckily, caffeinated Washingtonians can explore those flavors and more at Café Unido, located in Union Market. Partners Benito Bermudez and Mario Castrellon started Café Unido in Panama eight years ago, where they were the only Panamanian company buying specialty lots directly from producers at origin. A decade later, the pair operates seven cafes and has built longstanding relationships with most of the specialty coffee producers in Panama.
They’ve brought this focus on a hyperlocal coffee scene to a cozy and sunny spot in La Cosecha, serving up not just the rarest of Panamanian coffees — the Geisha — but also a rotating offering of micro-lot coffees, iced drinks, baked goods and more.
“The idea of opening our first U.S. shop in a Latin American-themed market with other great vendors and ambassadors of Latino culture and gastronomy seemed like the perfect space to represent Panamanian coffee,” says Feres Yebaile, one of Café Unido’s DC partners. “So far, the reception and engagement has been great.”
Café Unido’s model focuses not just on good coffee, but on corporate responsibility, dedicating a percentage of sales to social and environmental projects in coffee-growing areas of Panama.
The cafe also supports local farmers and suppliers. It chooses to source responsibly, a phrase you may have come across in the coffee aisle at Whole Foods. This means the coffee comes from producers who meet the requirements of programs like Fairtrade, AAA Nespresso, the Rainforest Alliance or C.A.F.E. Practices. Each of these programs evaluate whether coffee producers comply with a minimum level of good environmental and social practices.
Panama is home to a wide variety of coffee varieties, and the star of the show at Café Unido is the washed, or natural, Panama Geisha. This coffee undergoes anaerobic fermentation and an exacting process: The cafe uses a precise ratio of coffee to water (about 1 part coffee to 15 or 16 parts water) and a medium/fine grind — the same consistency as a scoop of sand you’d find at Rehoboth. Using a gooseneck kettle, they pour filtered, soft water at a precise temperature (between 199 and 203 degrees Fahrenheit) in circular motions around the conical filter that contains the ground Geisha.
When it’s ready, they’ll serve it in a glass Hario decanter paired with a thick ceramic cup, so guests can pour their desired amount and take in the sensory experience. It’s a smooth, creamy drink (not from milk) that’s quite complex: I picked up jasmine, green tea and orange rind notes, and others might sense notes of honey, mango or cantaloupe. If you don’t want it hot, you can also try out an iced espresso or another cold drink.
For Feres, “A pour over is one of my favorite ways to brew a Panama Geisha because it really highlights the origin flavors in a clear way.”
At over $130 per pound, this coffee is beyond the reach of most of us for home-brewing. But you can always swing by Café Unido and explore the coffee, and the ritual, for yourself.
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