A coffee roaster’s guide to Geisha

Peter Lancashire
November 9, 2021
geisha coffee

Geisha or – depending on who you talk to – Gesha, is a variety of arabica coffee that has grown to become one of the most widely sought after and expensive on the market.

Originating from the Gori Gesha forest in Ethiopia, it was first identified by British officials in the 1930s, who collected seeds and planted them in Tanzania and Costa Rica.

However, it wasn’t until the variety was introduced  to Panama in the 1960s that the world really started to take an interest.

To this day, Panamanian Geisha continue to be some of the world’s best, offering a distinct combination of flavour notes and fetching high prices on the market as a result.

Yet good quality lots can also be found in a number of other countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where they are generally recognised for producing coffees with distinct floral and aromatic qualities, and sweet, balanced acidity.

To find out more about Geisha and why it stands out from other coffee varieties, I spoke with 2019 Roast Masters Champion and Head Roaster at Cafes Belleville, Mihaela Iordache.

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geisha coffee cherries
Geisha performs best when grown at high altitudes

What are the characteristics of Geisha coffee?

In the specialty coffee industry, Geisha is one of the highly regarded varieties not only among consumers, but on the world stage.

In 2020, a washed Geisha won Guatemala’s most prestigious award – the Cup of Excellence (CoE) – after scoring more than 91 on the SCA chart. The year before, a natural Geisha achieved the highest score for a coffee at Mexico’s CoE, with 93.04.

One of the reasons behind its coveted status is its unique flavour profile. Mihaela tells me that while it may not be to everyone’s preference, it presents a different idea of what coffee can be.

“From a Geisha, I would expect very clean flavours,” she says. “Depending on the fermentation, jasmine notes and lots of tropical fruits.

“It’s a coffee that doesn’t taste like what a customer would identify as generic – none of the chocolatey or nutty flavours. It’s very clean and elegant.”

Geisha, like all coffee varieties, is influenced by both the way in which it’s processed and the conditions in which it’s grown.

For example, a washed Geisha grown at altitudes above 1,600 masl will have considerably different characteristics to a natural, shade-grown Geisha grown at heights of 1,800 masl.

“In terms of natural or different experimental fermentations, you would get more of that kind of boozy taste that certain types of fermentation and natural coffees are known for,” she says. 

“But because they tend to be expensive coffees, I think when you get very fermented coffees, they all end up tasting more or less in the same direction of overly ripe fruit. 

“So I have a preference for clean, elegant, and subtle Geishas, which is more associated with washed coffees.”

cup tasting at the best of panama competition
Cup tasting at the Best of Panama competition, where a Geisha lot fetched a record-breaking price

Why is Geisha so expensive?

In September 2020, a Geisha crop sold for a record-breaking $1,300 per pound at the Best of Panama (BoP) coffee competition.

This smashed the previous record of $800, which was also a Geisha. To put that perspective, the median price paid for a micro lot of high-quality green coffee in 2018 was US $4.00 to $4.55.

So what’s driving these exceptionally high prices?

“[Geisha] is so clean that if you do a good job with it as a roaster and brewer, the coffee is naturally going to be special.”

For one, Geisha requires specific growing conditions to reach its full potential. In Panama, Geisha is typically grown in nutrient-rich volcanic soils at high altitudes. Here, it receives almost consistent, year-round sunshine and exposure to oceanic winds.

This, together with an equatorial climate, contributes to the characteristic sweetness and lightness that makes Panamanian Geisha highly sought after among consumers and coffee professionals.

Mihaela explains that its consistently high scores and ability to “wow” judges has also made it a popular choice in coffee competitions.

“Most times I’ve tasted Geisha has been when judging the Brewers Cup,” she says. “Probably around 80% of the competitors compete with a Geisha.

“They can be exceptional and perform very well on the score sheet because they’re coffees that have clear acidity and sweetness – you can easily score the qualities they have.

“Geisha also tends to evolve nicely with a cooling of the cup. They’re are so clean that if you do a good job with them as a roaster and brewer, the coffee is naturally going to be something special.”

roasting coffee beans
Light roasts help to accentuate Geisha’s distinct characteristics

Is there a roasting style that matches Geisha beans?

One of the challenges roasters face when purchasing Geisha coffee beans is not only bringing out their full potential, but also developing a roast profile that matches their customers’ tastes.

Mihaela tells me that most of her roasting experience comes from using a classic drum roaster and that she believes there is a roast style that helps bring the most out of the rare beans.

“You want to aim for the light side of the roasting techniques,” she says. “Mainly because what you’re trying to develop is floral and fruity notes; I’m not sure there’s a point in developing very dark in most cases.”

Generally, lighter roasts allow the natural characteristics of the beans to shine without being affected by the influence of the roast. This helps maintain the full complexity of flavours from the Geisha coffee, as well as its inherent acidity and sweetness.

“I just try to accentuate the florals as much as possible,” Mihaela says. “In the French market, we aim for sweetness, so if I have a very light roasted coffee, we will accentuate the acidity and most likely find a decrease in the body – so it balances out.”

pour over coffee in a chemex
Using high-quality coffee packaging is key to preserving the freshness of Geisha

Since bursting onto the scene in the mid-20th century, Geisha has enjoyed an almost cult-like status among coffee professionals and consumers alike. Its distinct flavour profile, developed in very particular growing conditions, means that it consistently fetches some of the market’s highest prices for coffee.

In addition to properly roasting Geisha, it’s crucial that roasters preserve its freshness by packaging it in high-barrier coffee bags that prevent exposure to oxygen, moisture, heat, and light.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee bags that will not only protect your roasted coffee, but also showcase your commitment to environmental sustainability. Our expert design team can also work with you to develop branding that ensures your packaging stands out on the shelf.

For information on our high-barrier coffee bags, contact our team.

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