April of ‘04 the story goes, in Panama’s Boquete region at the Peterson family farm there was a Best of Panama. That was the event that captured the coffee industry’s imagination. The coffee varietal geisha was first tasted by a panel of international coffee professionals and since then it has won countless awards and praise from the coffee industry.
To explain why people like geisha first there is a need to explain how the coffee industry looks at quality. As an industry the coffee world has informally agreed and generally calibrated that certain flavours and sensations are better than others. This concept of better is built on the idea that if a flavour or sensation is rarer or more clearly perceived it is superior. The flavours though must be driven by either fruit, tea, and or florality, just because there aren’t many coffees that taste like car tyre doesn’t make car tyre “good.” Of course there is a huge gaping hole in this idea in that quality at the consumer level is defined not by what flavours are rare but what each individual person desires. And of course there is nothing right or wrong with a persons taste in coffee but like many markets we have created a hierarchy of desirable things that are also often attached to scarcity and difficulty to produce which dictate price.
Geisha in the cup is complex, floral, expressive, clear, vibrant, and delicious (to me). It is a unique coffee that has attracted prices because of this uniqueness. A lot of what is delicious about geisha can be traced back to its origin, Ethiopia. It’s important to recognise that geisha is a varietal not a cultivar. It is a naturally mutated species in the Arabica family. In attempting to trace the history of the coffee it really needs to be recognised that any attempt at tracing it is a best guess game and not certain. Coffee has no barcode, people write scarce notes and of course people make mistakes, things do get mixed up. There is evidence to point to a British led UN Food and Agricultural research trip in the early 60’s that first found the varietal, or it comes from a sample taken in the 30’s or many other possible stories that brought it to Costa Rica which is where the story gets much more certain. In Costa Rica the famed coffee producer Don Pachi bought it from the agricultural research organization CATIE. Don Pachi brought the seeds to Panama because they seemed to grow into rust resistant trees. From there he apparently gave them to his neighbours at Esmeralda, Mama Cata and La Esperenza.
The stories do make it difficult to tell the early history and it’s that early history that the conversation about the name starts. Geisha or Gesha? That collection of stories of where it was first found do tend to point to a relationship with the varietal to the Gesha Mountain (also named Getcha) in Ethiopia’s Kaffa region. The usage of geisha or gesha tends to be dictated by the producer which tends to dictated by culture. Producers in Ethiopia tend to retain the name that nods to its local origins while those in Latin America tend to go with geisha. Where the name geisha comes from is also potentially incorrect but it seems to be an attempt to make the gesha more familiar to non-Ethiopians.
This culturally led identification of the coffee can also cause a bit of confusion, well, more confusion. Producers in Ethiopia who are selling gesha are not necessarily selling the coffee varietal that those in Latin America are, they are often selling a mix of unidentified varietals known as heirloom that come from near or on the Gesha Mountain. This could make the coffee the same as geisha or it could be dozens or more of different varietals that have been growing wildly there. In the context this makes sense. Historically Ethiopian coffee has been traded on flavour profile, Yirgacheffe is of course a place but it used to mean a coffee which is fruity and floral. To identify a coffee by its general place and profile makes sense in the Ethiopian coffee trade history.
The price of geisha has not gone unnoticed by producers and it is now very common to see it all over. With its spread we are also experiencing the range of flavours of geisha. From exceptional to mediocre it has come to pass that the word geisha no longer means special. Like other varietals it comes down to the producer, the land and the processing. We have now experienced the potential of geisha - and it is spectacular - but it is not without the incredible work of the people who cultivate it.
- written by Joshua Tarlo, Head of Coffee
I’ve got to say thank you to these two articles for helping me write this; Read their stuff, they know what’s up more than I ever will.
Miguel Meza of Coffee Review
Tom Own of Sweet Maria’s