As we continue around our look at the various cacao-growing countries we move on to the relatively obscure 'origin' of Panama. Settled west of Columbia - the world's 11th largest producer of cocoa beans we have Panama which is the 31st largest producer with a total production of an estimated 900 tones which works out at about 0.018% of the cocoa produced in 2012. Panama may not be a powerhouse in terms of mass-produced cocoa, but you will see it is important when it comes to quality.
The historic peoples of Panama still use cocoa in various different ways. Often cocoa beans are burned as a ritual to the spirits when people are ill, the cocoa butter is mixed with the seeds of the achiote shrub as a beauty product for the skin or with the leaves of the mageb plant to treat acne as well as various ceremonies related to birth, puberty and death (find out more) There has also been done some research on the Kuna people due to their relative lack of age-related blood pressure and how it is believed that consumption of the local cocoa has a part to play and which has led some to wonder if cocoa could be considered a 'wonder drug'?
As far as I'm aware all of the commercially grown cacao trees are located in the Boscas del Toro region of northern Panama and is home to co-operative growers such as Cocabo and a growing eco-tourism market. For those engaged in agriculture as their main source of income isn't actually agriculture, but other sources, however, in terms of produce cacao appears to dominate (source). The most worrying aspect of these small-holders is that around 70% live on or below the poverty-line.
Panama, as you would expect, being a 'pinch-point' for flora and fauna 'moving' from South America into Central America has cacao, in one form or another, present at least in the early 17th century as documented by Rosés Alvarado 1982 in the work El ciclo del cacao en la economía colonial de Costa Rica, 1650-1794 published in 1982 (cacao obviously spreads across boundaries and so do natural habitats for the crop), the problem is, other than the use of cocoa by the Kunas and then the United Fruit Company transplanting plant material to the country from Ecuador in the 1930's, there doesn't seem to be a great analysis (in English, at least) as to the natural history of cacao in Panama.
In terms of flavour profile that you may experience the level of sampling to 'pigeon-hole' chocolate made from Panamanian cocoa is limited. If one had to generalise then we wouldn't see this type of chocolate as overly complex or, indeed, stridently astringent and this is evidenced by Duffy's 100% which obviously being a high cocoa chocolate, and not relatively high cocoa butter one either, it doesn't hit you with astringency, tannins, yes, but at a level that does show some natural flavour. Whilst the Doble and Bignall 72% bar from the same beans offers coffee and Black Forest gateaux notes. Whilst Zotter have also created some well-received chocolates at both the milk and dark level.
It is unfortunate that chocolate makers seem unable to offer more from this very small national-cocoa growing nation. We will endeavour to source more chocolate made from beans grown in Panama for you.