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February 04, 2020 5 min read

There's Geisha- and then the rest…

If one could sum up the past fifteen odd years or so of specialty coffee in a few words, it might be those. Expensive? Yes. Prize winning? For sure. And in 2019, it fetched a jaw-dropping price of $1029 per pound!  For those who may be perplexed, we are still talking about coffee beans here!

But to refer to Geisha as just mere “coffee beans” would be short of blasphemy for many a barista. No matter what metric you use- price, taste, aroma- this rare bean usually comes out on top. 

But what’s so special about Geisha? And is it worth the hefty price? In this article, we will explore the rare, exotic and exquisite coffee phenomena that is Geisha coffee.

What’s Special about Geisha Coffee?

The world didn’t know about Geisha until 2004 when a small coffee miracle occurred. In Panama, at the now legendary coffee estate Hacienda la Esmeralda, it was noted that some of the plants looked different and exhibited superior disease resistance. Previously, their cherries had been mixed with other plants grown at the farm, but in 2004, they were processed at a separate lot for the first time.

It turned out that these slightly elongated beans were something unique- by what appears to be a very happy accident, the Geisha coffee bean was born.  The taste of this new bean was more akin to Ethiopian coffee than any variety normally grown in Latin America. Panamanian coffee, like its Central American cousins, commonly contains flavor notes of nuts or chocolate, usually with medium to high acidity. However, Geishas often have intense floral aromas accompanied by a variety of more exotic notes- raspberry, violets, peach, mango, lime, bergamot and more!

For those who have been treated to a superb Ethiopian, especially a naturally processed one, the flavors and aromas described above may sound familiar! It was later established that these unusual coffee beans originated from an Ethiopian variety.  On Mount Geisha, the British consul Richard Whalley collected this variety in 1936 as a part of a larger expedition aiming to map out wild coffee with commercial potential across the region. After stops in Tanzania and then to Costa Rica, the seeds eventually made their way to Panama in the 1960s. In Panama, Geisha grew in relative obscurity for close to fifty years before being finally discovered again.

After its discovery, the coffee went on to win the national competition in Panama repeatedly, capturing the eye of wealthy international buyers. This led to ferocious demand for the beans- and with the beans in short supply, prices are generally very high.  Geisha would go on to set new price records year after year. In 2018, the most expensive coffee in the world was a $803 per pound Geisha from the Lamastus Family Estates in Boquete, Panama. In July 2019 the record was once again broken by the very same producer- but with an even steeper price tag set at $1029 per pound!

Today, a cup of coffee made with Geisha will still cost you nearly 10 times as much as an average cup of coffee.

Geisha or Gesha: What's in a name?

As mentioned above, the name of these beans is not a reference to Japanese Geisha, despite the spelling being the same. I But how did “Gesha” the town in Ethiopia where these beans originally came from become “geisha”? Often, when words originate in one language and are converted to another, various alterations occur. The variations produced by this phenomenon are known as exonym. Another example is the case of a number of different European capitals, which carry both an English name and a native one (native English speakers hearing the authentic pronunciation of “Munich” might be quite surprised!).

For whatever reason, it seems that the international coffee community has settled on its preferred spelling:Geisha with an ‘i.’ The controversy continues a bit though, because coffee grown in the Ethiopian region of the same name, however, is instead spelled ‘Gesha.’ So...which one is which and which one is the real “Geisha/Gesha”?

An American-Ethiopian company named ‘Gesha Village’ was launched a few years ago to retrace and produce the original bean from the eponymous forest in the remote Ethiopian region of Bench Maji. The coffee from this project garnered much praise- fetching prices almost as high as the Panamanian version. The Panamanian variant of course remains “Geisha” with an “i”, while this traditional Ethiopian bean is “Gesha”. However, as time goes on, these two beans may become quite different beans with diverse flavor profiles and aromas so the two different names may serve an important distinction that will be more pronounced in years to come.

Geisha Coffee Around the World

With Geisha bursting onto the craft coffee scene in such a big way, growers from different regions have decided to try cultivating their own Geisha coffees.  While the flavor of Geisha inevitably will vary bean to bean, here are some flavor profiles common in Geishas from different regions:

Bolivian Geisha

Bolivian Geishas often have very rich aromas with a soft texture akin to tea.  Raspberry and apricot are common flavor notes along with hints of bergamon.

Colombia 

Colombian Geishas are a bit weaker in the aroma department than some others. Caramel and tangerine notes are common.

Honduran Geisha  

Honduran Geishas sometimes carry a more herbal flavor and, in contrast to other Geishas, a less fruity taste. Chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, and honey melon are common flavor notes.

Costa Rican Geisha

Costa Rican Geishas are often particularly light in body and often carry a gentle aroma with a floral, light (not sappy/overpowering) sweetness.

Ethiopian Gesha

Gesha often carries notes of violets, honey and blackcurrant, but can even carry more exotic notes like lime.  Generally, the profile is somewhat floral/herby and is sometimes characterized as “grassy”.

Panama Geisha

We decided to take a special look at Panama Geisha with a bit of a taste test of La Colombe’s natural washed Geisha.

This Geisha appeared to be a light to medium roast and the label indicated notes of blueberry honey, passionfruit, and lilac.

We found it to be an all around excellent coffee! The thing that really differentiated it from most non-Geisha coffee was its lightness.  Even when brewed relatively strong (Aeropress with 20g/230mL at 1:45), the texture was remarkably soft/gentle.

The notes that stuck out were the blueberry honey and lilac.  The passionfruit wasn’t particularly detectable. Versus other coffees featuring fruity flavors, this Geisha came across as less syrupy or less like a jam/marmalade.  If this price wasn’t so high, this could easily make for an everyday cup of coffee its profile was overall very subtle.

What Roast is Ideal for Geisha?

Generally, Geishas are light to medium roasted to preserve more exotic flavor notes.  As roasting increases, notes of roasted hazelnuts and butter make guest appearances in the flavor profiles.

Coffee made with darker roasted Geishas carries the potential to taste a bit burnt- but don't count out dark roasted Geisha just yet! Espresso brewed using the dark roasted Geisha can be sublime, with an aroma akin to perfume. With a flavor profile including roasted hazelnuts, espresso made from dark roasted Geisha is a must try!


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