Memoirs of a Geisha: The history of the record-breaking coffee varietal

History was made on 16 July when the auction price for the top-placed natural Geisha in the 2019 Best of Panama (BOP) crossed the four-figure threshold. The coffee, from producer Wilford Lamastus and his family of Elida Estate, had set a record for the BOP’s highest cupping coffee with a score of 95.25 out of 100, and sold for a record US$1029 per pound. Wilford Lamastus Jr says the Geisha coffee varietal has unique tastes and characteristics that makes it so highly demanded in the market. “If you grow Geisha in lower altitudes, it will taste like any other variety – very commercial. But if you grow it in highlands and take care of it, it will be completely different. You can first sense it in the aroma – it has a perfume-like smell,” Lamastus Jr tells Global Coffee Report. “Most specialty coffee will always have a hint of bitterness or nutty flavours to it. A good Geisha that’s been well taken care of won’t have these tastes. Its floral and fruity flavours are more pronounced.” Geisha coffees from the BOP competition has set new records in public auctions for the past three years. Elida Estate’s natural Geisha sold for US$803 per pound in 2018 and Hacienda La Esmeralda’s received $601 per pound in 2017. While Geisha is now recognised for its quality and connection to Panama, Lamastus says this was not always the case. “Like all coffee varieties, Geisha originates in Ethiopia. In 1931, a British Consul named Richard Whally was asked by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture to pick specific coffee cherries from the western region of Ethiopia for research,” Lamastus says. “He went with his team to a town called Gesha, and his misspelling led to the coffee’s name.” In 1936, the coffee was sent to Tanzania where it was planted in an experimental farm. There, it was discovered the plant was resistant to fungi such as leaf rust. When the fungus hit Panama in the 1960s, Geisha was introduced to the country to fight back against the disease. “However, the plant isn’t highly productive and is very weak with a small root system. Back then, there was no specialty coffee, flavour picking, or cupping, so the farmers stopped planting the trees and replaced them with ones with higher production, like Caturra and Catuai,” Lamastus says. “Geisha became a forgotten variety.” That is, until the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmeralda stumbled upon the varietal in the late 1990s. Rachel Peterson tells GCR her family found the coffee plant thriving in an abandoned farm her family had purchased. “We were looking at how to bring the farm back to life. It was a bad year for fungi, and we found this one plant at the farm that was not suffering from the disease. We took its seeds and replanted them across an entire area of the farm, so we had a lot to work with,” Peterson says. “When my brother [Daniel Peterson] learnt to cup in 2003, he noticed a big difference between this coffee and our others. The next year, he took it to Ric Rhinehart – a coffee buyer and BOP judge at the time – who was giving a cupping course in Panama.” Peterson says Rhinehart didn’t believe the coffee was from Panama when he first tried it. “Ric got confused at the cupping table and thought maybe he mixed up our Geisha with one of his Ethiopian coffees. He said we should go ahead and enter it in that year’s BOP, so that’s what we did,” she says. “When it came up in the competition, there was more confusion about it. It was a flavour way too fruity for what would normally be a Panama coffee. My brother thought it could be disqualified because people thought it was a weird ferment or from a different country. Fortunately, Ric knew about the coffee, and it went on to win.” The coffee sold for US$21 per pound, a record for BOP at the time. Peterson says many people believed Geisha’s popularity was a trend that would die off. “People were saying: ‘It’s a fad. It’ll be done in three of four years. People will get tired of it.’ But it has kept going and is still a sought-after product,” she says. “I think this is partly because back in 2004, when we were the only ones who had the volume and capacity to sell it, we decided to do two things: get it out to as many places in the world as possible, and share it with our neighbours in Panama as well as surrounding countries – Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. This meant Geisha could grow and develop different profiles.” International appeal
Geisha’s floral notes have endeared the coffee to many markets around the world, and while popular in North America and Europe, it’s the Asian market that has most taken to the coffee. Mike Perry, CEO of Klatch Coffee in the United States, says BOP’s demographics have shifted since he became a judge in 2006. “BOP and Geisha has really exploded in popularity as the coffee market becomes more global,” Perry tells GCR. “When I became involved in the BOP, all of the judges and buyers were American or European. Then Australians and Asians slowly became more involved, and now, we have a much more balanced panel.”
This diversity is also reflected in BOP’s auction, where Asian countries – such as Japan, Taiwan, and China – dominate the top of the charts. Perry says this is particularly pronounced with naturally processed coffees, where flavours appeal to tea drinking countries. “You don’t get the flavours of a Geisha in other coffees. Geisha has prominent jasmine, with sugarcane, bergamot, and citrus coming through,” he says. “The natural process adds fruity flavours  and floral notes – stone fruit, peach, plum, apricot – a complexity of flavours that is still transparent and clean. When you combine natural process with a Geisha, no one will try it for the first time and say, ‘that just tastes like coffee’.” Klatch Coffee made headlines around the world in mid-2019 when it sold Lamastus’s 2018 BOP-winning coffee for US$75 per cup. Perry says this displays the general community’s lack of familiarity with premium coffee. “People hadn’t associated coffee to that level of quality yet. That price is actually quite a bargain,” he says. “If your average roaster buys specialty coffee for US$4 per pound and sells it for US$4 per cup, and we’ve bought this coffee for US$803 per pound it should be US$803 per cup. But it’s less than a 10th of that.” Klatch sold the coffee as a ‘Geisha Experience’, running it like a wine tasting where people came in, experienced the coffee, and discussed it with the Klatch team. “Some of the people who bought the coffee were quite affluent, but most just wanted to treat themselves,” Perry says. Klatch hopes to run similar experiences with the 2019 BOP-winning coffee and partnered with several international buyers from Japan, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Australia, and the United Kingdom to buy it at auction. “The coffee was so sweet, with flavourful candy-like flavours. It’s a delight. It received higher scores from judges across the board, and is just a different, clean coffee,” Perry says. “It still had everything you’d expect from a Geisha – that wonderful jasmine aroma and taste – but this was highlighted by those candy flavours. “When we judge the coffees, we go in blind without any knowledge of the process or producer. We all guessed [the winning coffee] was a natural coffee that must’ve been grown at a very high altitude. When they announced Wilford as the farmer – and winner of the competition – I learnt he’d created a whole new processing method to create those flavours.” New applications
Elida Estate applied a fermentation method to its natural Geisha Lamastus dubbed anaerobic slow dry (ASD). This involved leaving the coffee cherries in sealed-off fermentation tanks before being slowly dried over 40 days. Lamastus says this concentrates more sugar in the coffee bean within the cherry. “We determined through experimentation that five days was the best time to ferment but not over-ferment the coffee in the tanks. Any longer and it developed bitter and fatty flavours,” Lamastus says. “The coffee is then moved to raised beds, where it’s dried uniformly while in a thick layer of cherries to slow down the process, bringing out more flavours than if it dried faster. This means constantly raking the cherries, so they all have the same amount of contact with the air and sun.” He adds, while anaerobic or similar fermentation can drastically improve lower quality coffees, these processes instead complement or add components to a high-scoring Geisha. “The difference is less an improvement and more of an addition or change in the flavour notes,” Lamastus says. “When people learn about ASD – that it’s fermented for five days and dried over six weeks – they expect a highly processed coffee with intense liqueur flavours, but when they taste it, they find that it’s much more delicate. Due to the altitude and weather conditions of where the Geisha was grown, its natural elements aren’t overshadowed.” Staying true
Rachel Peterson was a part of the national jury that decided which coffees would be presented to the 2019 BOP’s international judges. Her family also won the Panama Cup for overall quality in the competition. Peterson calls Lamastus’s ASD natural Geisha an “outstanding” coffee. “Wilford’s coffees were still quite traditional in terms of the flavour profile. They were clean with all of the attributes I think are important when looking for a high-quality Geisha,” Peterson says. “They show how these processes can be used to further differentiate these coffees.” However, she feels some of the other entrants lost sight of what makes Geisha special. “You need to know what you’re doing, and more importantly, what you want your end product to taste like,” Peterson says. “These experimental processes can enhance the coffee as long as they’re used on a small scale. If you over do it, it can result in some funky flavours.” Ultimately, she says the coffee should maintain the attributes that make Geisha coffee special. “People fall in love with the taste profile and aromatics of Geisha. Over the past 15 years, we’ve learned a lot about the plant, how to grow and roast it better, and what brings out a more solid cup,” Peterson says. “When working with these new methods, the most important thing is to have the inherent attributes of Geisha come through.” Follow Global Coffee Report on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter for up-to-date news and analysis of the global coffee industry.

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend