It wasn't until 2004 that Geisha gained the recognition it deserved on the Specialty Coffee scene. In a gutsy move, one farm entered a sample of their Geisha in that year's Best of Panama competition. The lot created a sensation, not only winning the competition by a mile but earning staggering reviews from the judges.
Since then, Geisha is by many considered the most complex and intensely flavoured of all coffee varietals. Today it is grown in many different countries due to the excellent cup profile and high-yielding price. Often at great risk to the farmers, as the plant is very demanding, it's susceptible to an array of diseases, and trees require a great deal of stringent and very particular care and maintenance to ensure a decent crop.
The lost varietal...
But where did this unique coffee varietal come from, and how did it end up in Panama of all places? The story takes us way back to the 1930s East Africa…
In 1931, the British government tasked its consul in Ethiopia, Captain Richard Whalley, with collecting coffee seeds as part of a census of Ethiopian wild coffee varieties. Whalley travelled south to the Ethiopian highlands in search of new genetic material. Southern Ethiopia and Sudan's wild forests are considered coffee's birthplace.
At the end of the First World War, German East Africa had been broken up and given way to British Rule. It now fell to the British to industrialize and commercialize coffee farming in the regions. The industry had been plagued with bad quality, low yields and all too frequent crop failures due to disease. This survey was done to assess the commercial viability of hundreds of accessions (small, regional mutations in a main coffee variety) for planting in other British colonies such as Kenya and Tanzania.
Hundreds of samples were picked and named after the nearest location where they grew. Captain Whalley then sent them to agricultural research stations for evaluation. One variety the diplomat chose by happenstance proved robust, disease resistant, and intensely flavorful - although that trait would not be revealed for decades. The seeds are believed to have been sourced in the highlands near Maji and Goldija and labelled with some variant of Geisha after one of three like-sounding places (Gesha, Geiscia, and Gescia). At the time, it was just another seed in the sack.
"One variety proved robust, disease resistant, and intensely flavorful - although that trait would not be revealed for decades."
When planted at 1,400 meters and below, the elliptical cherry from the tall and gangly, low-yielding plants revealed little promise in the cup. Fortunately, the researchers in Tanganyika discovered that the big oval leaf trees showed some resistance to disease – especially fungus. Therefore, the varietal was sent in July 1953 to Costa Rica's coffee research center.
In 1963 the coffee made its way to neighbouring Panama, where seeds obtained by Don Pachi Serracin were planted in the mountains near Boquete, a small town just on the other side of the Costa Rican border.
This volcanic mountain region offers breathtaking vistas, with lush greenery and flowers blanketing the hills - it is also one of the best terroirs for coffee growing in the world.
In addition to Panama, Geisha found its way to Jamaica, Brazil, and Colombia, where researchers sought fungus-resistant varieties. But because the plant's branches were brittle, low yielding and not favoured by farmers, it was not widely planted. However, the trees seemed to do better at the extreme altitudes of Panama's Boquete region. Some geisha trees continued to be grown alongside more commercial varieties – only to be mixed and shipped as a blend, which had always been the norm.
It would take another 40 years before someone thought to change it.
In 1996, the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmeralda sought to expand. They came together to purchase another farm in Boquete, Esmeralda Jaramillo. The farm had recently been devastated by coffee leaf rust. Still, Daniel Peterson noticed that the fungus had not hurt the Geisha trees as badly, so they decided to plant Geisha on more parts of the farm. Including sections above 1650 meters above sea level, higher than Geisha had ever been planted before…
A real breakthrough happened in 2004 when the family thought to try something different – separating the beans from each parcel to better understand the differences between their farming locations. It happened in the leadup to the Best of Panama competition, an annual coffee cupping competition and auction that had been gaining significant interest amongst a group of next-generation coffee producers in Panama. One of the lots they separated came from high up in Jaramillo, and when it landed on the cupping table, it blew everyone away. It had to be submitted to the competition!
"The explosion of juicy brightness and multi-layered aromatics in a high-altitude Geisha coffee was more reminiscent of a coffee from Ethiopia than Latin America."
This was the first-time cuppers had gotten to taste a sample that was 100% Geisha coffee. When they did, it was clear Hacienda La Esmeralda had something new on their hands. The explosion of juicy brightness and multi-layered aromatics in a high-altitude Geisha coffee was more reminiscent of a coffee from Ethiopia than Latin America. Once they had processed the initial shock, the cuppers couldn't get enough of it.
Hacienda La Esmeralda went on to win the 2004 Best of Panama competition with their Geisha coffee, and that year set a record for the highest price ever paid for a coffee at auction, $21 per pound.
In today's international coffee market, the best Geisha beans sell for $140 per pound!
Geisha or Gesha
The spellings Geisha and Gesha are often used interchangeably, relating to the fact that there is no set translation from the dialects of Ethiopia to English. The coffee was first recorded in germplasm records with the spelling "Geisha," and coffee researchers and germplasm banks have mostly maintained that spelling over many decades, leading that spelling to be promoted and used first in the coffee industry.
There is significant confusion about Geisha because multiple genetically distinct plant types have been referred to as Geisha, many of which share similar geographic origins in Ethiopia. Recent genetic diversity analyses conducted by World Coffee Research confirm that Panamanian Geisha descendent from T2722 is distinct and uniform.