She is rare, exclusive and much sought after – with a stellar reputation and a price tag to match. No other coffee varietal has received quite as much acclaim as the Geisha, but what is this unusual coffee’s story and is it worth the hype?
Geisha is often associated with Panama, where it first shot to fame – but it has actually only been grown there since the 1960s. In fact Geisha’s story began several decades earlier in Ethiopia, when it was ‘discovered’ in the 1930s in the mountains around the south-western town of Gesha. Over the next few years these unusual trees were planted in a few experimental lots in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It wasn’t until the early 1950s, however, that Geisha made the journey across the Atlantic, when some seeds were sent from Tanzania to Costa Rica’s CATIE coffee research centre. A decade or so later these tall, sparsely foliated trees eventually found their way to Panama.
However, early attempts to grow this temperamental varietal, which thrives at high altitude, weren’t a success. It seems that the trees were planted too low down and – incredibly! – produced poor tasting coffee. The varietal fell into obscurity for decades – although some tress survived on a handful of farms in Costa Rica and Panama, their cherries were mixed together with the rest of the harvest and so their distinctive flavour was lost. It was only in 2004 that the Geisha was ‘rediscovered’ – when an enterprising farm in Panama isolated the production from its Geisha trees and entered the beans in that year’s Taste of Panama coffee competition. Not only did the Geisha lot win, but its extraordinary cup profile – more reminiscent of a fine Yirgacheffe than a Central – completely blew the judges away.
Since its surprise triumph in 2004, the Geisha varietal has gained something of a cult following in the specialty coffee world – where it is famed for its complex and unique cup profile. Geisha beans change hands for regal sums – as high, if not higher, than top Cup of Excellence lots. But do they live up to their reputation?
For us, each coffee’s worth begins and ends on the cupping table. We blind-cupped our current Geisha arrival sample – from La Candelilla Estate in Costa Rica – alongside a Sidamo and a Kenya Gethumbwini Peaberry. And, for all our cuppers, the Geisha came out on top – bringing to the cup a vibrant and zesty citrus acidity, with distinct notes of jasmine and bergamot and a lovely delicate mouthfeel. It’s an expensive coffee – but it is also unique, exquisite and very rare.
Of course, this outstanding cup profile is not simply down to the varietal. Finca La Candelilla, high in Costa Rica’s Tarrazú region, provides near perfect growing conditions and an exceptional level of care in farm management and processing. As Geisha’s popularity grows, and more farms across Central America and Colombia experiment with lots, it remains to be seen if this varietal’s distinctive attributes can be replicated on a grander scale. For now, it is tasting fantastic and supply remains limited. Priceless!