In the United States, a cup of long black coffee costs an average of USD 2.70. In New York City, the average price is USD 3.12. Understandable. New York is an expensive city, after all.
However, also in New York City, a particular coffee varietal could retail for six times the city’s average cost per cup at USD 18. The same coffee can set you back by USD 68, even up to USD 250 a cup in Dubai.
This pricey varietal coffee is called Geisha, particularly Panama Geisha coffee, currently the world’s most expensive coffee.
In 2004, when the Panama Geisha coffee variety debuted on the world stage, it sold for USD 46.30 per kilogram, a record in itself because it was four times the average price for coffee beans at that time. Since then, its valuation has continued to rise, beating its record year after year until the historic USD 10,000 per kilogram sale of Ninety Plus prototype Geisha in 2019. However, it is typical for speciality Geisha coffee beans from Panama to sell for greater than USD 2,200 per kilogram.
Geisha coffee — what is it, and why is it commanding such exorbitant prices? Read on to find out.
What Is Panama Geisha Coffee?
To tell the history of Panamanian Geisha is to recount the story of Hacienda La Esmeralda.
Hacienda La Esmeralda is a speciality coffee company located in the Boquete Highlands of Panama. The Peterson family that owns the company primarily grew cattle, but they eventually decided to diversify their interests to include coffee. Thus, they bought a high-altitude plot on the sides of Volcan Baru — named Jaramillo — to provide more favourable conditions for growing coffee.
Geisha coffee trees had always been in Hacienda La Esmeralda, grown from seeds acquired by the hacienda from Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza in Costa Rica. But Geisha is not Costa Rican Coffee. It is Ethiopian.
In the 1930s, the Director of Agriculture in Kenya tasked Captain Richard Whalley to conduct a census of Ethiopia’s wild coffee varieties. While fulfilling his mandate, he collected some four and a half kilograms of seeds from around Geisha Mountain, also known as the Gesha or Gecha area.
Note: The coffee seeds collected from Geisha were wild offshoots of the ubiquitous Arabica coffee.
These Geisha seeds then made their way to Tanzania, were exchanged in gene banks and coffee research stations and arrived at Costa Rica’s CATIE, where Hacienda La Esmeralda subsequently acquired them.
However, the hacienda did not give their Geisha trees any special treatment or attention. They were harvested and mixed with the rest of the varieties on the farm. That’s the extent of their contribution to the hacienda’s coffee production.
That all changed, though, when coffee leaf rust devastated the hacienda’s coffee farm. While most of their coffee trees suffered, the Petersons noticed that their Geisha coffee trees fared relatively well in comparison.
Thus, they decided to plant more Geisha trees. They planted Geisha trees even in the highest parts of their farm (more than 1650 metres above sea level).
In the term leading up to the 2004 Best of Panama coffee cupping competition, the Petersons separated their harvest according to individual lots and processed them separately. When the judges cupped the single-origin, micro-lot Geisha coffee from the high-altitude portion of the Jaramillo farm, they were blown away.
Geisha’s Ethiopian traits, such as its intense floral aroma and fruity notes, were enhanced by the perfect growing conditions high up in Jaramillo. The result was an outstanding brew that blew the competition out of the water. At that moment in 2004, Panama Geisha decisively broke out of obscurity.
After the unqualified success of the Panama Geisha, more coffee producers from Panama focused on producing Geisha trees, and producers from other countries also started planting Panamanian Geisha. While Hacienda La Esmeralda no longer holds a monopoly on the variety they launched to global acclaim, they remain one of the primary producers of this prized coffee variety.
Why Is Geisha coffee so expensive?
As mentioned above, Geisha coffee is no longer as scarce as it used to be. In 2004 when coffee experts could talk of nothing but Panamanian Geisha and only Hacienda La Esmeralda had it ready for the market, Panama Geisha had to be expensive. That’s just the way the law of supply and demand works.
However, even when more and more Panama coffee growers produced Geisha coffee, the price of Geisha did not suffer a downturn but continued to rise. What makes Geisha so expensive?
One thing that makes Geisha coffee so expensive is its undeniable pre-eminence when it comes to quality. It consistently gets high scores in coffee cupping competitions, including the event that catapulted it to fame, the Best of Panama.
Panama Geisha varietal coffees, especially from top-rung Panama Geisha coffee producers, are characterised by intense aroma, depth and complexity of flavour, a silky, smooth mouthfeel, and a delicate, tea-like body.
You will often hear it described as fruity and floral. Cupping notes often mention a fruit-forward bouquet (mango, peach, guava, and papaya), hints of citrus like lime and bergamot, and floral notes of rose, jasmine and honeysuckle.
Difficulty of Cultivation
For all its hardiness against leaf rust, Geisha coffee is not easy to cultivate.
For instance, Panama Geisha coffee trees must be grown in high altitudes to produce exceptional fruits. The best coffee comes from lots around 1,700 metres above sea level.
Additionally, Geisha trees are inefficient at taking water off the ground and synthesising energy from sunlight. Therefore, Geisha trees produce fewer berries than other varieties.
Moreover, Geisha cherries are very time-sensitive. Producers must pick them at the peak of maturity, not before or after, or the beans they will make will not have the prized Geisha traits. Also, once harvested, they must be processed immediately for the same reason.
Is Geisha Worth the Hefty Price Tag?
Panama Geisha is one of the most celebrated varieties in the world. Its aroma, complexity of flavour, texture, and mouthfeel are remarkable, and its tremendously high price reflects that.
Is it worth the price? Yes, it is. Geisha coffees from Panama are consistently good and, at the moment, they’re much better than Geishas from elsewhere. It’s like comparing Champagne and sparkling wine; Champagnes are in a class of their own, just like Panama Geishas are currently unbeatable.
However, even Panama Geishas are not created equal. Some are more deserving of the hefty price tag than others. It’s up to you to discern which particular Panamanian Geisha is worth the hype.
Drew Dennehy is the co-founder of THREE Coffee, one of the region’s leading specialty coffee companies, headquartered in Dubai. His passion for coffee has led to the pursuit of career opportunities around the world from New Zealand and Europe to the United Arab Emirates. Drew’s goal is to enhance coffee experiences and ensure the industry is sustainable at every level. “We will achieve this by telling the story of the farmers who make each cup possible.”