Geisha Is the Most Exclusive Coffee on Earth. It Has Unexpected Origins

Growing this coffee is complicated. Discovered by chance, today it’s almost as expensive as gold.

Geisha coffee from Panama
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Whatever machine or method you use to prepare the coffee that wakes you up in the morning or relaxes you in the evening doesn't matter so much in the end. The most important thing is always the quality of the raw material, in this case, the coffee bean. Water is also significant, but that’s another matter. There are many specialty coffees and varieties that may seem extravagant to us. Among them, there’s one that's extraordinarily exclusive because of its price and the complexity of its cultivation.

We’re talking about Geisha, a coffee from the Arabica family originally from Ethiopia that's also cultivated in Panama—turning the Central American country into a place of reference for specialty coffee. This is its story.

Pure madness. First, we have to clarify that this coffee isn’t exclusive to Panama. Geisha requires certain conditions for its optimal cultivation, so you can find it in Ethiopia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and other countries. However, Panama has been standing out for its expertise in specialty coffee for years.

Geisha arrived in this small Central American country in 1963, the year a few farm owners began to grow it. At that time, the first critics didn’t believe there was anything special about it. They even said it didn’t taste like coffee because the producers had grown it at low altitudes. Due to the special conditions involved in its maturation and how complicated it was to cultivate, producing Geisha coffee became a unique challenge—a task for only the bravest souls.

“There’s no coffee in Panama.” In a documentary produced by the Panama Tourism Authority, Ricardo Koyner of the Kotowa farm explains that the country has never had a coffee culture. In fact, after a crisis 25 years ago, Koyner said the farm had to change the way it produced coffee. The reason was the explosion of specialty coffee consumption in certain countries. At this time, Koyner and other producers offered their coffee directly to North American buyers, who were surprised to find out where the beans came from. “They told us that Panama was a canal, that there was no coffee there,” Koyner said.

However, Panama did have coffee. In fact, Geisha rose to fame in 2004 when it won first place in the “Best of Panama” competition, an event organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama since 1997. This event was the window to the world of Panamanian coffee, as it served to attract specialized critics and buyers. And what a window it was.

La Esmeralda. There are several specialty coffee farms in Panama, but in 2004, Daniel Peterson, owner of the Hacienda La Esmeralda, was tasting several of his crops when he came across one he had set aside. Peterson said he had never tasted anything like it before and thought something was wrong because “it didn’t taste like Panama.”

The producers tried Peterson’s Geisha at the competition and were fascinated: It had all the qualities a coffee should have, but it was like nothing they had ever tasted before. Its producer claimed that it was simply a variety that he had left isolated. The coffee's main feature? An exotic flavor not found in any other coffee in the area. With that distinction, Peterson entered the competition, and buyers were amazed.

Other growers also realized they had Geisha on their plantations, so they began to promote the variety. A pound cost no more and no less than $800.

The perfect place to set up a Geisha farm The perfect place to set up a Geisha farm.

Blowing up at auction. With that victory in 2004, buyers flocked to the 2005 competition to find out what Geisha was all about. They went to Panama but also attended Internet auctions. Wilford Lamastus from the Elida Farm said that at one auction, a buyer offered a first bid of $10. Shortly afterwards, the technical manager in California closed the auction, and Lamastus called for an explanation.

The man in charge told him that the auction had been closed because officials suspected that hacker had gotten into the system. It was impossible for a bid to start at a few cents and then suddenly jump to $10, the official explained. However, after a while, the technical manager called back to confirm that there wasn’t a hacker. The bid was real and it was placed by someone who wanted the coffee. That’s when the Panamanian producers realized that Geisha was the future of coffee. However, cultivating it wasn’t going to be easy.

Perfect conditions. “This is a difficult place to grow coffee,” the farmer Ratibor Hartmann stated. Hartmann has produced several crops of Ethiopian and Geisha coffees on his Guarumo farm. Although this type of coffee isn’t exclusive to Panama, the country has ideal conditions for its cultivation. However, Hartmann states that “today, it seems that everything has to be Geisha and not everything can be Geisha. We must see which type of coffee is best suited to our environment and, based on that, cultivate it scientifically.”

He's clearly on to something. Hartmann has won several awards for his farm's Geisha coffees. Nonetheless, the question remains: Why is the Panamanian Geisha variety so prized? The key is the location: An altitude between 4,000 and 6,500 feet is ideal for a slower ripening process, allowing the fruit to absorb more flavors. The climate is also vital, with temperatures between 64- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit, as well as volcanic soil, and rainfall of about 80 inches annually.

Back in Guarumo, Hartmann explained that his farm is in a convergence zone: 41 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 26 from the Caribbean Sea, which allows for rainfall from waters that are quite, although it’s mainly a cold and dry zone. In addition, the climate and altitude make it a late-ripening zone, which is good for the Geisha variety of coffee.

Difficulties. It’s not enough to have ideal conditions to grow this coffee. The harvest that producers get isn’t the most exuberant. Productivity is low, harvesting is manual, and producers focus on preserving the citrus and floral aromas that the most demanding palates look for in this coffee throughout the entire process. You can already imagine where this is going...

Coffee at roughly $5,000 a pound. When Geisha coffee first began to attract international attention, the media reported on auctions where buyers had purchased a pound for $800. But that price is nothing compared to what it fetched at the recent "Best of Panama 2023" auction. Hold on to your seat, because the price is astonishing: The producers of the "Carmen Geisha - Carmen Estates by Panama Red Carmen Café Trading" variety sold their coffee for $4,538.19 per pound. The Coffee Tech company from New Zealand took the 55-pound lot, paying $250,125 for it.

One problem. Well, two, actually. Geisha has become one of the most popular coffees in barista competitions, but can we find it in our favorite coffee shop? There’s a fundamental problem here, and it’s the price. It isn’t just a specialty coffee, it's the specialty coffee of the moment. As such, the cost of a cup puts it out of reach of many local coffee shops.

On the other hand, it isn’t a coffee for all palates. We aren’t referring to its taste but to its preparation. Given that it's mild and has so many nuances, the ideal preparation technique is filtering. This technique is only found in specialty coffee shops, but not in all of them. Therefore, mixing it with regular milk or sugar—blasphemy in the world of specialty coffee—isn’t ideal.

But hey, at least you already know where this whole Geisha coffee thing comes from. As a coffee lover, I have to say that I've never seen it in a specialty coffee shop. Yes, I've seen Panamanian coffees, but not Geisha coffee. If you've had one and would like to share your experience in the comments, we would love to read about it.

Images | Alejandro Alcolea | Frank_am_Main | ATP Panamá

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