A few gimmicky poo coffees of dubious merit aside, a handful of select coffee bean types exist that can fetch the very highest prices at auction.
Of these, one pre-eminent bean is held in the utmost esteem. The current darling of the coffee world, a bean that commands the most astounding prices, is the near-mythical Geisha.
If you have never heard of Geisha coffee and are wondering how a humble coffee bean can come to be so prized, please read on. If you know of this fabled bean but want to learn more – including how it’s related to those dainty Japanese women (it’s not!) – we have the answers you are looking for.
Geisha Coffee Prices and flavor
Back in 2004, a new variety of coffee bean announced itself to the world. At that year’s Best of Panama cupping competition, a highly-respected event that has been held since 1997, a previously obscure bean came from nowhere to scoop the main prize with improbably high tasting scores.
Since then, the bean has regularly led the field at international contests, continuing to collect countless awards. It took first place at the Specialty Coffee Association of America Roasters Guild three years in a row (1).
The bean has established itself as the weapon of choice for world-class baristas at international barista competitions, and in 2017, a batch of Panama Geisha beans from Hacienda La Esmerelda smashed previous records when it sold for an astonishing $601/lb (2).
So how has this bean become so venerated by coffee aficionados, inspiring such awe in buyers that they are willing to hand over these mind-boggling amounts of cash to get their hands on it? First, let’s have a look at some background and history.
First the basics of Geisha Coffee
Let’s start with the basics. The familiar drink we know as coffee, in its many forms, is made from seeds of the fruit of the Coffea plant. When processed, these seeds are what we commonly call coffee “beans”.
There are many species of Coffea, but only two are widely cultivated for coffee production, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. This latter is more commonly known as robusta.
Robusta, as can be surmised from the name, is the hardier of the two. It is more resistant to pests and disease and is more tolerant of a range of growing conditions. Robusta has a higher caffeine content and gives a higher yield, but unfortunately, robusta beans produce inferior, bitter coffee.
Arabica, on the other hand, is the more highly prized of the two. Coffee made from arabica beans is less bitter and generally has a much more complex flavor profile. All specialty coffees are arabica, and top-quality arabica beans are highly sought-after, selling for much more than robusta beans.
Arabicas are the fine wines of the coffee world while robustas are plain table wines.
The problem is, arabica is also more susceptible to pests and disease and is less tolerant of unsuitable growing conditions. Arabica may fetch a higher price, but it is also more expensive and more labor-intensive to cultivate.
Types of Arabica
Within each of these two species, arabica and robusta, there are many different types – or varietals – each with subtly, or sometimes markedly, different flavor profiles. Coffees grown from two different arabica varietals will not taste the same when poured into your cup.
Arabica coffee is native to Ethiopia. From there, it was transported to Yemen by Arab traders and subsequently made its way to the Indonesian island of Java with Dutch colonialists. This was the origin of a varietal of arabica now known as “Typica”.
Arabica beans were also carried to the island of Bourbon, now the French island known as Réunion, which gave rise to the “Bourbon” varietal.
While there is a staggering amount of genetic diversity seen in coffee in its native Ethiopia – as much as 99% more than the rest of the world combined – most arabica varietals outside of the country are descended from either Typica or Bourbon. This is especially true of South American varietals (3).
If we draw a comparison with wine (and simplify things slightly), this is the same as if the majority of all the wine in the world came from just two types of grape.
So where does Geisha fit in?
This lack of genetic variation means that if a disease arises that threatens the species, there is a great danger to coffee production all over the world since there is little natural resistance in the global population. In fact, this is precisely what happened.
In the 19th century, a disease known colloquially as “coffee leaf rust” appeared, all but destroying the coffee industry in Sri Lanka. From there it spread around the world, threatening farmers’ ability to cultivate the crop.
In an attempt to combat the threat, some people tried crossing arabica plants with robusta plants in the hope of combining the hardiness of robusta with the more sought-after flavor profiles typical of arabica.
Results were mixed. For example, one new varietal known as Catimor was produced, but the resulting coffee simply does not reach the heights of a top quality pure Arabica (4).
The disease is an ever-present menace to the coffee-growing industry and it continues to flare up from time to time. Efforts continue in the search for varietals resistant to the rust.
The Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Education (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, CATIE) in Costa Rica has been at the forefront of this fight for many years. Here, many less common varietals of both arabicas and robustas are grown for research purposes.
In 1953, an arabica varietal that had first been collected in the 1930s from an Ethiopian village called Gesha arrived at CATIE. The varietal was logged simply as T2722.
At the time, it was not considered a promising bean since the plants were delicate, with brittle branches. However, it did demonstrate a certain amount of resistance to coffee rust. Due to this resistance, it was distributed to Panama for cultivation but was then largely dismissed and forgotten.
T2722 remained hidden on various plantations until 2004. Then, as the story goes, a family by the name of Peterson enlarged their farm in the Boquete region of Panama in 1996. On their new land, they discovered some unusual-looking coffee plants, which they decided to cultivate (5, 6).
What happened next has passed into coffee lore. They entered these beans into the Best of Panama competition of 2004 and they blew away the competition, unleashing the Geisha bean upon the world.
Naming and confusion Geisha Coffee
As you have probably worked out by now, the name “Geisha” is a transformation of the name of Gesha village in Ethiopia where the plants were first discovered; in fact, both “Gesha” and “Geisha” are used interchangeably – and the beans have nothing whatsoever to do with Japan.
Further confusion comes from the fact that several types of genetically distinct Geisha beans have been identified.
The highly prized beans descended from the T2722 varietal identified and logged by CATIE are now properly known as Panamanian Geisha. The most famous Panamanian Geisha beans come from Hacienda La Esmeralda, although many other farms cultivate excellent Panamanian Geishas.
Why is Geisha Coffee so expensive?
The reason Geisha beans were identified as something special in 2004 was their performance in the cupping competition. For professional coffee tasters and judges, their flavor profile is incredibly complex and distinct.
Coffee made from the best quality Geisha beans is said to have a floral bouquet with an explosion of fruitiness.
Some tasters have noted the presence of berries, citrus flavors, mango, papaya, peach, pineapple, and guava. Others speak of a floral profile that includes honeysuckle and jasmine, while yet others find mandarin, lychee and even green pepper. Most people mention bergamot and orange peel (7).
However, it is not the flavor alone that makes top-quality Geisha beans the world’s most expensive.
As we mentioned, Geisha plants are fragile and temperamental. Although they are resistant to disease, they are not easy to grow.
Furthermore, to obtain beans that make the best quality coffee, they must be grown at high altitude. This is one of the reasons why they were not discovered before: if they are not grown in the right conditions and at the right elevations, the beans they yield are unremarkable.
It was only when the beans were grown in the Boquete region of Panama that the optimum growing conditions for Geisha beans were found.
The microclimates at high altitudes in the Panamanian hills and mountains, the fertile volcanic soils, the misty breezes and the cool nights all combine to allow the most exquisite Geisha beans to develop.
Geisha beans are high maintenance, low yield plants that only thrive in very limited conditions. They are labor-intensive and must be processed by hand to ensure quality.
However, if nurtured carefully in the right conditions, the resulting coffee is one of the most delicately complex and distinctive in the world.
It is these factors together, the restricted growing conditions, the cost of labor, the rarity of the beans and the flavor profile of the best examples that mean these beans have become the most valuable on Earth.
Where can I try Geisha Coffee?
Unsurprisingly, such rare and expensive beans are not going to be served in your local branch of an international coffee chain from Seattle with a green and white logo. Even most specialist Third Wave coffee shops are unlikely to offer these beans, and for a few good reasons.
First, the price. If you find somewhere selling coffee made from Geisha beans, you will probably have to pay upwards of $25 for a single cup. Your average customer is unlikely to be willing to part with so much money, even if it is to taste one of the most famous coffees in the world.
The average patron of a coffee shop, even a coffee enthusiast with a certain amount of knowledge and experience, may not be able to appreciate the coffee for what it is. To the untrained palate, such a rich mix of fruity and floral flavors may be overwhelming rather than pleasurable.
Taste in coffee is subjective, and a high price tag does not guarantee it will be to your liking. For regular coffee drinkers, Geisha can sometimes seem too delicate or to lacking in body.
There is simply not enough demand for such a specialist coffee at these prices, and it makes little sense for regular coffee shops to try to acquire the beans.
When establishments do manage to obtain the best Panama Geisha beans, often the number of cups served per day is limited. One coffee shop in Hong Kong that purchased some Hacienda La Esmerelda Panama Geisha beans, for example, limited servings to five cups per day (8).
The beans have become a favorite of baristas in competitions, almost to the point where it is almost expected that they will work Geishas. Now, more creative and daring baristas are attempting to use other beans in an effort to stand out from the crowd.
Outside of professional, specialist circles, these beans are hard to find. If you find an establishment that does offer them, you will have a decision to make. Are you willing to part with so much money just to try one cup of coffee that you may not appreciate or even like?
Perhaps you can look at it this way: for a true coffee enthusiast, there is far more kudos in having tried a coffee revered for its exquisite, delicate flavors than for having tasted a coffee famous for being expensive due to having passed through the gut of an elephant.
Rare coffees and vintage wines
Specialty coffees such as this are not the kind of beverage you consume every day and many people would not be able to appreciate the subtle flavors anyway.
Drinking expensive coffee is like buying fine wine; for some, it is one of the great pleasures in life, for others just an incomprehensible waste of money. At least if you have the good fortune one day to taste some, you will be able to decide for yourself if a coffee can truly be worth $25 a cup.
What is the most expensive coffee you have tried? Have you tasted a Geisha coffee? How much would you be willing to pay for a cup? Please leave a comment as we love hearing from you – and if you enjoyed this article, please don’t forget to share!