WTF is Geisha?

Here at Caffeine, we love to explore the more esoteric elements of the coffee industry. Drum roll please... this is Jonathan Tam’s guide to Geisha! Photo by Blake Richard Verdoorn.

Geisha is a highly sought-after coffee varietal commanding near-legendary status within speciality coffee circles. The name comes from a misinterpretation of the coffee’s birth place in Gesha, Ethiopia, and you may hear the names used interchangeably. And, no, it has nothing to do with Japanese hostesses.

It rose to fame when Hans Elliot from Hacienda La Esmeralda entered it into the Best of Panama competition in 2004, where it won and continued to win for a further five consecutive years. The judges were wowed by its fragrant notes of bergamot, bringing a citrusy floral sweetness. It is unmatched in terms of aroma and complexity, with some calling it “God in a cup”. Geishas continue to place highly and win Cup of Excellence competitions; these coffees are then sold via internet auctions to the highest bidders. 

The plant itself is fittingly elegant, with distinctive elongated leaves and cherries. Farmers initially started growing it for its resistance to leaf rust – the potential of the coffee wasn’t fully realised until it found its home in the 1960s on the high mountains of Panama. The perfect altitude, climate and soil conditions here give Geisha an outstanding flavour profile that is hard to replicate. However, Geisha isn’t exclusive to Panama – it’s also grown in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru.

Not all Geishas hit the same lofty heights, though. You may find that some sporting the name don’t have the same wild fragrance and depth of flavour worthy of the varietal’s superstar status. Without the right growing conditions, the unique characteristics of Geisha can be absent, resulting in coffee that is sold at a high price but struggles to stand out on the cupping table. 

Geisha is best brewed as a filter, as its subtlety is less suited to the harsh pressure of an espresso machine, and it really doesn’t shine with a blanket of steamed milk poured over it. 

What really sets Geisha apart is the complexity of flavours and the way these dance on your taste buds. The signature of a good Geisha is the floral aroma, which smoothly transitions into the sweetness of a manuka honey and closes with a delicate acidity. The taste doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves you wanting more. 

You are unlike to find Geisha served in your local coffee shop. Not only is it difficult to cultivate, which makes it rare, there is also a limited platform for Geisha while the industry continues to be dominated by espresso-based milk drinks. You’re much more likely to see it at barista and brewing competitions, however, where it has a well-deserved reputation for making award-winning coffee. In fact, Geisha is the preferred bean of champions. Most recently, Berg Wu of Taiwan took first place at the World Barista Championships with a stunning washed Geisha from Finca Deborah in Panama. 

Geisha is also significantly more expensive other coffees. On average you’ll pay three to four times more than for another speciality varietal. A kilo of Geisha can cost around £100, £60 more than a good Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Kenyan peaberry. For this reason, Geisha is often sold in smaller packs to make it more affordable.

Many in the industry believe Geisha – and most speciality coffees – are still relatively cheap. However, the uncertainties of climate change and growing economies buying premium goods could see the price inflate substantially in the coming years. 

If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, we highly recommend Colonna’s Berlina Estate Geisha (£15, colonnacoffee.com). Caravan also has a washed and natural version from Finca Deborah (£30 for 225g, caravancoffeeroasters.co.uk).