30 Days of Blog - Day 21 - Geisha coffee

Welcome to day 21 of 30. With the third week of blogging now finished I definitely feel more comfortable writing every day, and though I haven’t been timing myself it seems like posts are finishing faster each day. The biggest problem I’m having at this point is coming up with great topics to talk about. Well that and writing during work trips is tough as well. So if there is something you would like to hear my take on, send me a message or comment and let me know!

Today I want to talk about the gesha/geisha coffee varietal. I will use the geisha spelling because that is what I originally was exposed to and I still to this day don’t know if one spelling is appropriate over the other. It is easy to say that this is one of the most infamous varieties of coffee in the specialty industry, but why does it get so much attention and what does the future hold?

I was first introduced to “geisha” coffee around 2006 (I don’t recall exactly when) when Hacienda la Esmeralda from Panama made a huge splash in the US. This was still a very early time in my personal palate development, but it was immediately obvious that the coffee was very good. I remember taking a small bag of beans on vacation with my family and everyone raved about it, even the family members who usually don’t like coffee at all. It almost seemed to explode with flavor in your mouth.

This was one of the first times I distinctly noticed sweetness in black coffee.

Now fast forward to today, more than a decade later, and we have geisha coffees growing in almost every country imaginable. Of course it is interesting to see that few countries have been as widely successful as Panama has been. This could be terroir, different strains of the variety, longer adaptation in Panama, or numerous other factors. 

The desirable cup profile as well as potential price point of geisha has caused a gold rush of sorts, with farmers buying land or replanting in hopes of more appealing product selection and higher income. 

A high price for some of these coffees makes sense as the trees do not produce high quantities of cherry and the amount of overall production is typically fairly low, while the demand keeps growing and growing. Unfortunately, there are plenty of geisha coffees out there with a rather poor to average cup quality but still a very high price per pound. I account this to high demand, low supply, and the occasional inexperienced cupper who wants to buy the name rather than the quality. 

This is my first issue with geisha coffee varieties. In some (definitely not all) ways the nature of this low supply, high demand market keeps the price inflated for anything that can be called geisha. I remember seeing the same thing with Kona coffee in Hawaii. The fact that the coffee carried the name meant that tourists would buy it at almost any price with little or no regard for quality. However, geisha is rather fortunate that when it is done moderately well it can be worth a very good price. (For the record $5000/kg is absurd though)

So the price is quite high for these coffees and it can be a bit too much for consumers (especially in the US) to justify. High prices themselves don’t bother me though as long as the quality is outstanding. An extremely expensive wine or scotch (we're talking hundreds to thousands here) is not purchased by many people, but the flavor experience can justify the expense, and I believe that should be the same case in coffee. The higher the price, the more uncommon the sale of the product. This is essentially the luxury market in action. The price is truly only an issue when the quality of either the green production or roasting is poor. You don't see any industry defining business based on the top 1% of products however. 

Then there is another issue, which is coffee competitions. Brewer’s cup and Barista championships, both of which being heavily reliant on flavor quality and flavor articulation, are getting dominated by geisha coffees recently. This has a lot to do with the way we score quality in the industry. Our expectations of quality always go back to a combination of base quality and intensity when we identify excellent coffee, and geisha is one of the few coffee varieties that fills this expectation almost exactly the way we have defined the “ideal”. Medium to high, but delicate, acidity, high sweetness, highly complex, screamingly intense on the palate, consistently pleasant texture, ultra smooth, etc, etc, etc. It is honestly hard not to love these coffees when you taste them. They epitomize high quality coffee when done well!

So the problem with these coffees in competition is not that they are loud, but rather this is where the price gets us in a little trouble. Many smaller companies have a hard time justifying the purchase of a $30/lb (or a LOT more) coffee they will rarely if ever be selling to their customers. This has led to some competitors and business owners feeling that the competition has become a “pay to win” format. You have to buy expensive coffee to win. I don’t believe it is quite that simple, and I will always stand by the fairness of the judges deciding the winners. They actually work insanely hard to make sure they are fair and accurate. The issue has much more to do with our approach in the competition format and scoring criteria, which I believe will be addressed in the coming years of competitions (please?).

The nature of geisha coffee is just so tasty that when a well trained barista uses an excellent geisha it is hard to find the flaws in the coffee. This is why everyone has been talking about them in competitions, and quite honestly it makes sense that they should be allowed. If you are looking for the best in the industry you generally don’t take away the best products. Of course that takes it back to the idea that the test of the "barista competition" should be based off of more than just the amount they can spend on coffee. And THAT I do agree with.

Now what does the future hold? As far as pricing, I doubt the prices of the high quality ones will go down much anytime soon. Lower quality cups may go down in price as more and more average level geishas hit the market. When it comes to competitions, they are almost certainly going to continue dominating until the scoring changes or the rules change (or both). Wild and cultivated hybrids may show up soon, lending unique cup character and other beneficial elements of the variety to higher yielding, or easier producing, varieties. 

Overall, this variety is here and it has been accepted far and wide. What we really need is to start defining where and when these coffees should be represented in the industry. Should they be considered the standard that other varieties must live up to? My personal answer to that is a firm 'No', but I do believe they should be showcased as a part of the exceptional potential that specialty coffee has to offer. We should be cultivating the high dollar market for these coffees so that they have a place to be sold consistently, with flavor experiences that match the price. They should not be primarily tasted by a panel of judges. They should be given a context that shows consumers they should spend more money on coffee. 

Maybe it can put a dent in the animal feces based luxury coffee market we all know about. 

In the end there are numerous beautiful coffee varieties in the world, and geisha is one of them, but this one coffee should not supplant our enjoyment of others. It should enhance the world of variety that we have in this industry. We should stop thinking of excellent coffees in terms of competitions, and more in what flavor experiences and pricing points we can offer. 

I bet you have an opinion about geisha coffees. Sound off or tag me if you do!

See you tomorrow,

Pete

 

Posted on September 26, 2017 and filed under Blog.