Updated: Apr 10, 2018
The specialty coffee market appears to be flooded with companies flaunting their high quality, Geisha (also spelt Gesha) variety coffee. Even Starbucks are plastering pictures and painting it in their shops. The price is high, its aromatic/floral flavours big, and it is treated with great reverence in some places, particularly China where the price of a cup can fetch over 100 RMB ($15, £11 2017). Some tasting it for the first time look disappointed based on the reputation, so what’s the big deal? Let’s first look at its history.
A short history of the Geisha
The Geisha variety is one of the many heirloom coffees of Ethiopia, said to originate near the town of Gesha (thus the name, it’s not a Japanese hostess). It, along with other Ethiopian varieties, was brought to Costa Rica. Then in the 1960s, Don Pachi took the variety to Panama partly for its rust-resistant qualities.
However, it went largely unnoticed until it burst onto the scene by winning the Best of Panama competition in 2004. The Peterson family, owners of Hacienda La Esmeralda, brought worldwide recognition to the variety and its paradoxically delicate yet luscious flavours. It has since skyrocketed in popularity, one crop this year (2017) fetching a ridiculous price of $601/lb. For some context, prices at the competition averaged around $60/lb. The commodity price for coffee in the same year averaged around $1.27.
Is it that good? The first time I tried a Geisha was during a cupping session alongside 5 other coffees. The coffees on the table were unknown to me and at first I assumed it was a pleasant, dry processed Ethiopian coffee. As I circled the table I kept going back to that cup, enjoying it more on each sip. As it cooled it just got better and better, juicier and sweeter, with a long aftertaste which I could recall for months after.
And this is the thing with a good Geisha. On first sip it’s nice but nothing special. I’ve seen many people show initial disappointment if they’d heard the reputation. But after 5-10 seconds they want more, and then some more, and then it’s all gone. However, even after it’s gone the pleasant aromas and floral notes come back again and again. I don't think there is any flavour sensation I can recall as easily as a good Geisha.
One anecdote sums up its quality for me. My brother is a fan of dark roasted, commercial grade coffees. He tries specialty grade, non-espresso coffee and describes it as “piss water”. I once brought home 20g of a Geisha varietal. I made one brew and sat down next to him to watch the cricket. I asked him to try the coffee, which he did and then shrugged. But then I kept seeing his hand creep back over to steal the cup for another sip. And another. This was very unusual for him as someone who exclusively drinks dark, milky, sugary coffee. In the end I switched from sharing to jealously guarding what little I had left.
But is it worth the price?
Geisha’s can be incredibly wonderful; aromas and flavours reminiscent of a fresh, delicious, south-east Asian salad … that is lime, jasmine, lemongrass, basil and a slight nuttiness (among many others). But nothing is worth emptying your bank account over. The sky high prices for some Geishas are just not worth it, especially if they’ve been roasted or brewed poorly. Others are just not that good in the first place because of unspectacular farming methods.
Further to this, coffee is ultimately subjective. My brother would rather spend his money on Lavazza and enjoy it just as much; he knows what he wants from coffee. And this is where I think the point is. It is understanding your own preferences and weighing up whether spending that much more is worth it, especially when there are so many exceptional yet cheap coffees in the world. For any specialty coffee lover though, a top Geisha is something that must be tried at least once.
Note – I’ve never tried the $601/lb Geisha. I could be really wrong.
A pretty Geisha