On Geisha

The World Barista Championship, and the World Brewers Cup in Dublin this year produced two worthy champions. They also produced a lot of discussion about one particular variety: Geisha a.

The reason for the discussion was the dominance in the competitions of this one particular variety. Four of the six finalists, in both World Brewers Cup and the World Barista Championship, had a Geisha varietal coffee in their routines.

I should be clear from the off: this is not a criticism of the baristas who chose to use these coffees. I understand the appeal of them, professionally and competitively. It is also hard to argue the results of using this kind of coffee, which speak for themselves.

It is, however, worth considering the implications of this. We’ve continued to elevate this variety to ever loftier heights. A challenge facing the competition is whether they want to continue to foster and encourage this particular trend, as it does come with some implications and effects.

For those unfamiliar with the competitions, the reason coffees like this are popular is that they are very easy to describe accurately. You can use words like peach, mango, tropical, floral, citrus and your descriptions are not only evident in the cup but also entirely reasonable. Describing complex lots of varieties like Caturra from Costa Rica, or from Colombia, is more difficult. However, describability is not correlated to drinkability.

Outside of competitions, I want to examine the public facing side of our love affair with this variety. The reason this variety, in particular the lots that came from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, has gained such notoriety and those astonishing prices at auctions is not solely because it tastes good. What really astonished green coffee buyers is that the cups it produced were so unexpected and different from the coffees they had come to know from that farm, that region or that country.

To really appreciate Geisha in your first encounter, you need understanding and context.

However, when we champion this coffee to consumers we can’t be sure they have that same understanding and expectation of how most varieties taste, in the countries that grow them. If I’ve come from commodity coffee, or commercialised coffee, then a juicy, jammy cup from Nyeri in Kenya is just as weird as a lot of Geisha from Panama. How do we justify the price? More than that – how do we justify the price when we compare that Geisha, cup for cup, with a beautiful coffee from Yirgacheffe?

I think the single thing I love most about Geisha is that farmers are able to achieve significantly higher prices, in excess of the increased costs of production. I know it yields less than other varieties, but not that much less. As much as speciality in general tries to disconnect from commodity pricing, Geisha disconnects from speciality pricing in a whole other way – and I love that farmers are getting the prices they are asking.

Personally I’ve struggled to enjoy just about every lot of Geisha I’ve ever cupped and consumed. I’ve never had that “a-ha!” moment, it has never seemed revelatory to me. I think that many people roast to maximise a floral characteristic that leads to a heady cup that is great on the cupping table but I’m unable to finish a cup because it lacks real sweetness, and the astringency is just wearing me down. I’ll never say never – I would never refuse to buy or drink a coffee because it was Geisha, but I must confess I often feel disconnected from the excitement that surrounds it.

I’m not writing this as a curmudgeon. I’m not writing this as an attempt to claim some superiority in my preferences. I’m writing this because I’m not comfortable with the decision, that appears increasingly collective, that this is the thing we should champion. I don’t think the value proposition makes sense most of the time. I don’t think these cups are revelatory and mind-opening to enough of the people we’ve managed to tempt into spending a little more one particular cup of coffee.

I might stand alone on this, but I’ve spoken to enough people about it that I think it merits further discussion. The industry, from our competitions to our cafes, is steering a very particular course that I don’t believe will bear the fruit we are hoping for. Great Ethiopian coffees aren’t particularly different, feel like a bargain, and still haven’t swayed most people the way we seem to expect a Geisha lot to. Perhaps put another way, if a great Ethiopian coffee hasn’t excited me, why double down and charge me a lot more for something that isn’t really that different?

I’m not advocating abandoning the variety, not at all. I think the coffees that taste different (in a good way) from our expectations are powerful, enjoying and engaging cups. They just aren’t as universal as we sometimes seem to think. For a small, very engaged and knowledgeable part of our audience they’re a perfect fit. However, I’d like to encourage exploration of other opportunities in the hunt for more “a-ha!” moments as we grow the audience for what we do.

  1. I’m going to use this name for the variety throughout. I am aware of the Geisha/Gesha thing – but at this point it seems that (like it or not) Geisha has won out across the industry.  (back)