There are many aspects of coffee that impacts what you grind and brew each morning for your cup of coffee. One of these that people often forget or develop misconceptions about is the coffee’s varietal. Varietals are essentially variations of the coffee plant. For coffees at Sagebrush they are all variations of the Arabica coffee plant, but each varietal has a slight difference in genetic make-up due to generations of development in different surroundings. Visualize this concept by comparing it to apples. All apple trees are essentially the same tree. But there are drastic differences in texture, mouthfeel, acidity, sweetness, and even color of the apple fruit itself depending on which cultivars (the "varietal" of apples) are being grown. Coffee is remarkably similar in this sense. All arabica coffee beans are arabica coffee beans (all Robusta beans are garbage), but the slight differences in plant type make a world of difference.
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The most exclusive and unique coffee varietal is called Geisha. It is known as the top tier royalty of the coffee varietals. This varietal has broken records in auction prices at coffee competitions. In August 2021, a specific lot of Geisha topped out at $4,100 per unroasted pound. That is not a typo; this coffee varietal costs a pretty penny! Geisha coffees are incredibly dynamic with powerful flavor notes. After spiking in popularity about 15 years ago, many farms that are capable of sustaining it have planted this varietal. We have even been lucky enough to get our hands on a selection of Geisha beans several times in the past and are always on the lookout for a new amazing one. So, what makes a Geisha coffee so special, and how can it possibly be so expensive?
What is Geisha Coffee?
The Geisha coffee is a hybrid varietal of the Arabica plant family. It is often correlated with coffee from Panama, when in fact, Geisha beans did not begin growing there until the 1960s. Instead, they originated in 1931 from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, specifically in the Gori Gesha forest. The story of how the varietal got its name is not set in stone, but many assume it was named after the Gesha Mountain. The spelling adjustment to "Geisha" is not believed to be related to the Japanese women entertainers but is used as an attempt to make the Gesha name more familiar to countries outside of Ethiopia. Both terms are acceptable and can be used interchangeably.
In the 1950s, Geisha coffee was exported to Costa Rica from Ethiopia and brought to the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center for further study and cultivation. It finally found its way to Panama as a new and exciting coffee varietal, and the seeds were planted in a farm called Hacienda la Esmeralda. After many years of perfecting the Geisha coffee plant, the Hacienda la Esmeralda farm introduced Geisha beans at the 2004 "Best of Panama" coffee auction. The taste evaluators were floored with how delicious and unique the flavors were, and the acclaim of Geisha beans blew up worldwide overnight. Due to the overwhelming popularity and limited supply, they became the most expensive coffees in the world. By 2018, coffee beans sold for $803 per pound. There are even some coffee shops that will sell a cup of Geisha for $110. And we thought Starbucks was expensive!
Geisha beans are known for having a very unique flavor profile. They are distinctively floral and intensely fruit-forward. The type of fruit flavor can vary depending on the origin. In general, it often has notes of mango, guava, papaya, and citrus. The unique taste can be traced back to Ethiopia, the origin of Geisha beans. This complex and vibrant flavor profile is not the norm for Latin American grown coffee. The exceptional flavor has given Geisha coffee a reputation that has attracted passionate coffee-drinkers far and wide.
Why Is It So Expensive?
As I mentioned, the Geisha varietal produces the most expensive coffee in the world, and I do not see the demand or cost slowing down anytime soon. The price of Geisha beans can vary depending on the crop, country, and status of the roaster or coffee shop. Some coffee shops will sell a cup for as low as $9, while another shop will sell it for $75 or more. Geisha coffee sold from the infamous Hacienda la Esmeralda farm will often be the most expensive, although my experience is that it isn’t always the best.
Multiple factors contribute to the high price of Geisha beans. The first is that it is a tricky plant to cultivate. For a successful crop, you need to have a higher altitude (1,700-1,950m), and the timing of the harvest has to be precise with expedited processing. Also, the foliar system of the Geisha plant is thinner than other varietals, which makes the photosynthesis less competent. The root system can also be feeble, not allowing sufficient water and energy intake. This means that the Geisha plant cannot produce as many beans as other coffee plant varietals.
With Geisha beans, it is more about quality than quantity. Year after year, the Panama Geisha varietal has received the highest scores from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Out of the SCA's 100-point scoring system, Geisha has consistently scored above 90. Between the top scores, rare flavors, limited supply, and worldwide success, there is no doubt why the value and price of Geisha coffee have dramatically increased.
Is Geisha Worth the Price?
Geisha coffee is the priciest coffee in the world, but I do not think it is overrated. Unless you can easily put down a hefty dollar for a regular supply, it is probably not worth it for an everyday coffee. If you are passionate about coffee and want a one-of-a-kind taste experience once in a while, then you should definitely try it out. You want to think of Geisha (and really all coffee) as the coffee equivalent of a bottle of wine. I drink wine in bottle varying from less than $10 a bottle and for special occasions, I can get a $100 bottle. Coffee is the same, except you get to enjoy a bag for more than one or two sittings. Brew it with care and reward yourself with an exceptional cup of Geisha. It is important to celebrate the incredible work of the farmers who produce these wonders of the coffee world!