12 Geisha coffees

Also listen to the podcast episode Episode 9 Geisha, part 1

Geisha is a botanical variety of the arabica coffee and is priced markedly higher than other great specialty coffees. Geisha has a big reputation for it’s great taste. A few years ago it was still very rare. So few people had tasted them.

The reputation started with the coffee farm Esmeralda in Panama. They have been doing auctions since 2008. Almost every year the top lot achieve higher price. Of course other coffee farmers saw the high prices and wanted to plant them as well. In the recent years a lot of Geishas from different countries have hit the marked.

That made me wonder:

How different are they ? Normally there is more to the taste of a coffee than the botanical variety.

And … how good are they ? How much is just hype ?

I had tasted the famous Esmeralda farm Geisha some years ago at The Coffee Collective here in Copenhagen, Denmark – and I did find it extraordinaire; very complex and dense in the taste. Impressive. But as prices was rising I was wondering about how overpriced they were.

How to do a comparison ?

When roasteries sell Geisha coffee it is often markedly more expensive than other coffee. Of course, since the green bean price is higher. Normally from a green bean company you can get samples. But rarely on the Geishas. If you want to participate in the Esmeralda farm auction you can buy samples for $ 300 ! Or that I heard some years ago.

My way of doing this is to ask around in the Danish coffee community if people want to join forces (money) and buy Geishas together for a cupping event.

They were game. Quickly we were 17. And some on the waiting list.

We bought coffees for more than € 400 !! The most expensive coffee tasting I have ever done.

Francesco Impallomeni invited us to do the cupping at Nordhavn Coffee Roasters, here in Copenhagen. Thanks for hosting ♥

Francesco-medpilPhoto by Gitte

Picking Geishas for the cupping event

We limited ourselves to 12 different coffees. Too many coffees can be overwhelming. A pity that good coffees drown in a crowd.

We selected them to try different countries, different processing (washed/natural/honey) and different roasteries. John Lindgreen and Andreas did the research and picked the coffees.

I got hold of one Geisha in green beans, 1 kilo. This we wanted to explore in different roasts.

Kaffelineup

We got 4 different Panama Geisha. At first no one had Geisha from the famous Esmeralda farm for sale. But when The Coffee Collective heard about our event they donated us 15 grams of Esmeralda. Just enough for one cupping cup.

Coffee farmers in Costa Rica had been quick to plant Geisha coffee. So much Geisha comes from there. We got hold of 5 Geishas from Costa Rica; different processing (red and white honey, washed and semi washed) and different farms.

Then we had 4 other countries with one coffee from each: Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras and Ethiopia.

Regarding the Ethiopian: it wasn’t a Geisha like the others. We expect all the other coffees to be the same botanical variety – gotten from Panama. But the Geisha variety grown in Panama for the past 100 years was imported from the Gesha area in Ethiopia. The same area where the Gesha Village coffee farm is situated today. Their coffee trees are from the local area. So the two kinds probably have similarities but may also have differences in the DNA.

The last round was one bean from Costa Rica; Santa Teresa, white honey. But in four different roasts. I had gotten hold of 1 kilo of green beans and had roasted 200 grams at a time.

I had heard that Geisha is only special in a very light roast. If you roast it darker it will be more ordinary. I had no idea exactly how far that was. But started by giving it 1 minute from first crack (=Development time =DT). I found it got dark very quickly. I tasted it 5 days later and found it a bit lighter. So I ventured shorter with the next roast: 45 seconds DT. Again tasted 4-5 days later. It could bear shorter. So the next batch I did 35 seconds. It seemed thinner. So I wouldn’t go shorter.

On the other hand, I wanted to explore “how to ruin a Geisha”. How little longer would it need to get boring ? My guess was 1:30 minutes DT.

The water

Here in Denmark we have great water from the tap. Very clean. It is just very hard = high in Calcium Carbonate (you can see the formation of lime scale in your kettle). That mutes many tastes in coffee. Especially in light roasted coffee.

So if you are enthusiastic about coffee you use filtered or spring water for coffee brewing. But that can be done in many ways.

So a few days before the cupping event; we tested 4 kinds of filtered water. We tested it on the Bolivia Geisha from The Coffee Collective. One of the waters was the one used for the espresso machine. That was the worst of the 4 waters. It made the coffee taste boring. The aroma of the coffee came out in the 3 other cups, but here it was muted.

With the two best waters one had a higher Calcium content – and that gave a little dryness to the coffee. The other had higher Magnesium and made the coffee taste the best.

This water had these specifications (in CaCO3 equivalents):
Magnesium 53 ppm
Calcium 55 ppm
HCO3- 54 ppm

So the ratio the KH to GH ratio was 1:2.
KH = Carbonate hardness
GH = General hardness (Magnesium plus Calcium)

The bottled water we started out with (Denice) had 117 ppm HCO3- But we lowered it by adding 7,2 mg citric acid per liter.

Such small amounts are difficult to do precise on a scale. So Andreas made a concentrated citric acid solution – and used a syringe to get the right amount for each 2 liter bottle:

Andreasfiflervand

Note: We didn’t test all kinds of water. Just the ones that would be operational for us to use in this cupping.

Grinding and dosage

When we tasted the water, we used a grinder in the roastery. But Andreas could remember that the Bolivia Geisha coffee tasted better with an EK43 grinder. Sweeter. Clearer aromas. So we brought a EK43.

EK43grindingGrind size: a bit finer than for drip coffee.

Dosage: 60 gram pr liter

We had 3 cups of each coffee because we were 17 people. We made 3 cupping spots with 5-6 people at each.

How did they taste?

First of all: you should always be careful not to judge a coffee from a single tasting. Different coffees are the best at different brewing techniques.

Here we opened the coffees on the day of the cupping. But some times a coffees get better a couple of days after opening – must be that a little oxygen does something good for taste at first.

But still it is useful to compare coffees like this – because differences stand out more clearly than when comparing out of memory.

The downside to having an all Geisha cupping is that the similarities won’t stand out. When I earlier have tasted Geishas, it has been the only one on a cupping table with other kinds of coffee. And each time the Geisha has stood out as something special: the taste was very “filled out”/ rich. And they had much sweetness.

PeoplecuppingtableWe tasted the coffees four at the time to avoid overload. To have enough time to focus on each coffee as they cooled down. That gave 4 rounds:

Round 1 “4 countries”

We started with this round because we expected here would be the biggest difference.

No 1: Bolivia – Takesi – washed.
Roasted by The Coffee Collective, Denmark

No 2: Colombia – Finca Rosenda – Washed.
Roasted by Ditta Artigianale, Italy

No 3: Honduras – Caballero – Washed.
Roasted by Tim Wendelboe.

No 4: Ethiopia – Gesha Village – Natural.
Roasted by Gardelli, Italy

The Bolivian and Ethiopian stood out.

The Bolivian had a very deep smell. Tasted very fruity (raspberry and abricot), soft, sweet and tea like. When it cooled a nice acidity came out and it had a hint of Ethiopian bergamotte.

The Honduras reminded me of a washed Ethiopian coffee. A roaster, Kenneth, described it as bergamotte but a bit herbal – and it was missing floral notes.

Gitte had it as her favourite in this round – she described it as chocolate and vanilla . Andreas said hazelnuts and honey melon.

The Colombia was weaker in the aroma than the others – and had bitterness. I would tend to think it was roasted too dark. When it was warm I found some caramel in the taste. Right after I found they also wrote that on the bag. It also said Tangerine. I found that as it had cooled down.

On week later a few of us tried it again in cupping. This time it was much better. I liked it.

The Ethiopean Gesha Village: Andreas and Francesco had it as their favorite of the whole cupping. It had a strong natural taste. To me it dominated it all and I didn’t find it interesting. It really divided people; they either really liked it or really didn’t. Very typical for naturals.

By the way; when the coffee had cooled all the way to room temperature the natural taste was more discreet/less pronounced – and I liked it better. Andreas liked it very much and as it cooled down he found: violets, honey and blackcurrant. Kenneth said; lime fruit.

Those who didn’t like it called it over-fermented or like olives.

By the way – the Ethiopian and Bolivian coffees had the highest cost per kilo of all the coffees.

Round 2 “Panama”

No 9: Panama – Ruiz family – Natural.
Roasted by Horsham Coffee Roaster, UK

No 10: Panama – Finca Hartmann – Washed.
Roasted by Ditta Artigianale, Italy

No 11. Panama – Finca Hartmann – Natural.
Roasted by Ditta Artigianale, Italy

No 12: Panama – Esmaralda – Natural.
Roasted by The Coffee Collective, Denmark

Even though 3 of these coffees were natural they didn’t have the strong natural aroma as the Ethiopian in round 1.

They were all very good. We agreed that this was the best round.

No 10 and 11 was from the same farm, Finca Hartmann – just different processing: washed and natural. We found the washed to have “classic Geisha taste”.

Kenneth noted no 10 as jasmin, green grapes, melon, coconut, nice sweetness and acidity. Funny enough he found the jasmin only when it was warm – where as the natural processed no 11 from the same farm, he first got the jasmin when it had cooled. No 11 he also found had plum and raisin. At a little strawberry jam at first – for him a typical sign of natural process.

John had the natural (no 11) as his favorite of the whole cupping. Gitte had no 10 as her second favorit of the whole cupping.

No 9 from the Ruiz family: here some said it was roasty. As it cooled down it became my favorite of the whole cupping. It had some very seductive aromas. Kenneth got some unpleasant bitterness when it was warm. But as it cooled it disappeared and he found it amazing – with warm spices (like cloves).

We cupped it a week later in both 60 and 50 grams per liter. It was the best in 50 g/l. This time the flavor was more funky and had a tast of heavy rum.

The Esmeralda: More than 10 people liked it the best. Roaster Ida Kofod from largest specialty roastery here in Denmark, Kontra Coffee said it was among her ALL TIME favorites coffees: “This coffee has everything! Totally balanced, sweet, acidic, bitter, heavy, thin, juicy, fruity, I could go on. A very complex and clean cup, I love it.”

Kenneth was also blown away: It stood out from the rest. So clear apple acidity. Great sweetness. So complex. So many fascinating aftertastes. Light years ahead of other good coffees. Perfectly roasted coffee. He felt overly stimulated here.

The funny thing was … when I first tasted it, I thought something was wrong. A defect bean or something. Because to me it had a bad taste, like vinegar/acetic acid. Andreas got the same. This just underlines how different we taste. Two of us have a receptor for some compound that the other 15 people didn’t have. But I had earlier tasted Esmeralda coffees were I was very impressed, so it might just be this particular coffee I had a problem with.

We concluded that Geishas grown in Panama are something special. And we think that the high auction prices at the Esmeralda farm are not pure hype.

Kenneth remarked that the Peterson family put a lot of work into making the coffee at the Esmeralda farm. So if you want to make great coffee there is no short cut in just planting a Geisha coffee.

After the cupping I talked to The Coffee Collective. They told me that this Esmeralda lot was the wildest tasting coffee they ever had. They had the same experience as us: Some did not like it – but most of them loved it and was in heaven. So they asked the Peterson family if they could reproduce that coffee; make the same taste next year. They said no. There had been some weird wheather conditions during the processing. They found the taste so different so the lot wasn’t a part of the auction.

By the way – The Coffee Collective also found vinegar in the taste (as Andreas and I).

Round 3 “Costa Rica”

No 5: Costa Rica – Doña Daisy Finca Don Pepe – Red Honey.
Roasted by Has Bean, UK

No 6: Costa Rica – Finca El Potrero – white honey.
Roasted by Has Bean, UK

No 7: Costa Rica – La Candelilla – washed.
Roasted by Gardelli, Italy

No 8: Costa Rica – Montebrisas – Semi Washed.
Roasted by Ditta Artigianale, Italy

We were a bit disappointed in this round. They were not as good as the Panamanian coffees. But that was also was also difficult to follow.

The first two from Has Bean we found too dark (but not as dark as Has Bean normally roasts, some remarked). Could have been interesting to see if they would have had more aroma at lower dosage. Maybe 50 grams per liter instead of the 60 we did here.

We tried that a week later. It was better in 50 g/l. More flavors came out. But to me it was still a bit too dark roasted.

Everybody found something was wrong with the La Candelilla coffee. It was hay like/grassy. One asked if it was an older crop. No, it was from 2017. The bag didn’t have a valve. So, the CO2 release made the bag a balloon (close to exploding).

I tried it several times in the following week hoping to crack the code for brewing it. But it was difficult.

Gitte had no 8 Montebrisas as her favorite in the whole cupping. When I tasted it again a week later I could agree with her. It had both the depht and a light aromas underlining the pleasant acidity.

Kenneth felt he didn’t give these Costa Ricas time enough. He was so blown away after the Panama round. His favorit in this round was no 8 Montebrisas. In general Costa Rica coffees are more delicate, he thinks: you have to work more on roast and the brewing.

By the way – the two Has Bean coffees had the lowest cost per kilo of all the coffees.

Round 4 “Different roasts of the same bean”

12.  Costa Rica – Santa Teresa – DT 35 seconds
14. Costa Rica – Santa Teresa – DT 45 seconds
15. Costa Rica – Santa Teresa – DT 1 minute
16. Costa Rica – Santa Teresa – DT 1:30 minutes

People agreed all four roasts tasted very different . And that the aroma was  different from the panamanian Geishas. It had notes of roasted hazelnuts and butter. It was very sweet but maybe too much.

People had different favorites among the first three. Almost equally distributed on the 35 secs, 45 secs and 1 minuts roasts.

Everybody agreed that the 1:30 minuts was too dark. Bitter, burnt and hardly any of the aroma. But again, the question was: would it be better at lower dosage ? We didn’t get around to that. But we did make an espresso with it. And it turned out good. Almost perfume like aroma.

Two persons at the cupping prefer some bitterness in their coffee. But even for them the DT 1:30 minuts was too much. They liked the 1 minute roast the best.

Some of the participants had high bitter sensitivity. Or rather; can taste types of bitterness most of us can’t. They found the DT 1 minute bitter. And they liked the 35 seconds the best. They found it had the highest sweetness. I too liked the 35 seconds the best.

To me who had roasted them and tasted along the way to plan the next roast … this coffee is the sweetest I have ever had. And it had a very distinct roasted hazelnut aroma (like in the Nez du Café aroma kit). I don’t think I have met such a powerful hazelnut aroma before.

Therese and Andreas

Conclusions

Just because you buy crazy expensive Geisha beans doesn’t mean you get great coffee automatically. You must work for it.

Do Geishas planted in other places than Panama have the same taste ?
No. Other factors like climate and soil does influence the taste. They are not all floral. But they seem all to have much sweetness.

Processing of course also influence. But the naturals from Panama were among the best naturals we have tasted.

Is the pricing of Geishas hyped ?
We think so. You can get other great tasting coffees not quite as expensive. But the famous Esmeralda farm in Panama do a good job, so we don’t think their high auctions prices are pure hype. There is a reason they are still high despite the increasing supply of Geishas from other farms. In Kenneths opinion they are light years ahead in making good coffees.

But even though there is an element of hype in the market for Geisha, I don’t think the hype is that bad. It is a driving force for the marked of high quality coffees. The hype makes buyers pay more for coffee. And the high prices makes it worth while for the coffee farmers to strive to produce superb coffee.

What I have heard from others

A Danish guy visited a Geisha farm in Panama last year. He said they  roasted Geisha only 20 seconds from First Crack.

A Danish coffee farmer in Mexico told me that Geisha grown lower than 1,500 meters is not interesting.

Norwegian roaster Tony Jacobsen writes about his experience with Geishas:
“We have had Geisha private reserve from Hacienda La Esmeralda and i have tried Geisha from Geisha Village, something from Ninety Plus, i have tried the geishas from Panama Varietals. And they are all unique in their way. Now we are actually importing a Peru Geisha, getting it by plane, hopefully next week. I remember Hacienda Esmeralda from 2007 Kaffa, it was a game changer. I love geishas, they are hard to roast as you mention. But if you get them right, they are the most amazing coffees from South America. Overpriced yes, but i guess it has its market. I like them clean, not naturals because of the botanically qualities as the sweetness – that i want to come from the bean and not the processing. But the floral notes are like catching butterflies in my mindset.”