I have noticed a trend. When a new acquaintance learns that I work in the coffee industry, the conversation will generally go one of two ways. Either towards automated coffee pod machines, or it will veer crazily towards super-duper, expensive coffee. Fitting snugly into that category of super-duper expensive coffee is the infamous Geisha variety.
The Petersons. Source: www.haciendaesmeralda.com
The recent history of Geisha began in 1996 when a father-son duo, Price and Daniel Peterson, purchased a new addition to their coffee farm in the region of Boquete, Panama. They went ahead and cultivated some odd looking, spindly, wild coffee trees. The first crop from this cultivation was harvested and processed in 2004. It went on to become a 96 point coffee (specialty grade coffee is +80) and sold for an unprecedented price at auction.
The flavour profile was unparalleled, especially in this region, and incredibly distinct from other varieties being tasted. Called La Esmeralda, the coffee world was soon hooked and Geisha was rediscovered!
Since 2004, other farms have discovered Geisha trees growing in the regions surrounding the Peterson’s family farm, and many others have planted the variety. With a lot of digging and research, it was discovered that Geisha originated from the Ethiopian village, Gesha, and the name was misspelt somewhere along the way! Geisha found its way to Panama through its neighbours due to its high resistance to the Coffee Leaf Rust disease.
Carlos Aguilera with his Geisha trees. Source: Carmen Estate Coffee.
Panama’s unique terroir offers the perfect growing conditions for Geisha to thrive. Micro climates caused by many differentiating terrains (hills, mountains, rivers, ravines etc.) combined with high elevations, nutrient-rich volcanic soils, mist-creating winds and cool nights all work to enhance the coffee’s flavour complexity.
And what flavours Geisha has! Sweet florals, citrus blossoms, jasmines, honeys and certain types of fruits to name but a few.
These notes, together with the characteristic aromatics (that Jasmine again!), perfect balance of delicate acidity, clarity through the body and creamy mouthfeel, mean that Geisha is one of the most sought after coffee beans in the world. If complexity and flavour clarity is what you’re after, Geisha is possibly the closest to a perfect cup that you’ll ever find.
Sure, all this makes for a cool conversation, but we haven’t yet covered the monetary part! Why exactly does this one type of coffee, grown spectacularly in a corner of the world so far from its birth place, cost so much? Well, firstly there is more demand than supply. Other countries are growing the variety now, but the Panama Geishas still demand some of the highest prices because of their iconic cup profile.
Geisha is also a hard variety to grow. The plants are low yielding and high maintenance.
The Geisha trees have shorter root systems than normal and are temperamental about altitude. If they are grown too low (below 1600 MASL), the plants are susceptible to dieback and fungus. But if they are grown too high (above 2100 MASL), the leaves and cherries are exposed to the sun and liable to burn.
Geisha also requires commitment and education. For the same amount of time and energy that are essential to growing a brilliant Geisha crop, many farmers could have established other coffee trees and started profiting from their crop. Geisha coffee trees take longer than the average coffee tree to fruit, needing 8 years as opposed to the usual 4-5 years. So while Geisha can offer an incredible coffee experience, it doesn’t come without its fair share of risks and challenges for those who seek to produce it.
For me, I tell my newly educated friend (who unfortunately probably only wanted to talk about Kopi Luwak before I shut that down), the thing I love most about Geisha is not the price, the mystique or the hype. What I love most is how it has inspired a new level of striving for progress and perfection amongst farmers and roasters alike. From growing to roasting, through to brewing and the final service, the Geisha varietal drives people further in their precision, respect and passion for sublime coffee experiences!
Cover image by Lindsay at Frugal Frolicker.