For those of you not yet familiar with La Esmeralda Gesha/Geisha coffee, you probably have some catch-up reading to do. I’d highly recommend Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup, which is a great read about the specialty coffee industry – third-wavers in particular – but also includes several sections on geisha coffee. Hacienda La Esmeralda’s website isn’t a bad place to start either. Suffice it to say, the geisha (the name of the varietal) from La Esmeralda (the name of the farm) is probably one of the most sought after, expensive, and yet highly regarded coffees out there today. Some batches have recently sold at auction for well over $100/pound, and that’s for green coffee, not roasted!
I picked up mine from Flying Goat Coffee for $15/half-pound – a veritable bargain as this coffee goes. Geisha from Stumptown, for instance, will set you back $45 to $90 per half-pound, while Batdorf and Bronson’s geisha sells for a more “reasonable” $37.75 per 12 oz. The reason for the difference in price is that La Esmeralda divides their geisha crop into “lots,” with each lot going for different prices at auction, depending upon what tasters think they are worth. Stumptown paid record-breaking prices for their lots 1-3 while Batdorf and Bronson paid less for lot 8. Flying Goat paid slightly less for lot 7.
Of course, keep in mind that Flying Goat’s geisha is still nearly double the price you’ll pay for most specialty coffees, and it certainly shows. These beans produced one amazing cup of coffee. Both cupping it and as a french press (I wouldn’t recommend a pour over drip), I got notes of sharlyn melon, mint, herbal (not sweet and creamy) root beer, spring grasses and wild flowers. Up front is a bright limey acidity that is perfectly calibrated with the intense flavors and aromas, the lightly, syrupy mouthfeel and medium to light body. The real beauty in this coffee, however, is the way these various qualities dance about on the tongue; I found it difficult to get a good read on any one sip because there’s so much going on.
Interestingly, I found very little of the tea-like body with bright lemon, jasmine and bergamant so often attributed by others (and myself) to this coffee. I don’t know whether this has to do with the particular lot from which it originates or the level of Flying Goat’s roast (please chime in if you know), but I have to admit that I was a little dissapointed to NOT experience this stereotypical profile. I will say, however, that after a week of drinking it, I found this coffee far more palatable and enduring than I suspect the lighter version would be.
I whole-heartedly recommend Flying Goat’s geisha, especially at this price, but if you’d like to spend more, consult this list of roasters and importers who purchased La Esmeralda’s geisha this year at auction. But you’ll need to act quickly; this is a highly seasonal coffee that’s in very short supply. Counter Culture, for example, has already sold out.
Now my experience with the geisha is admittedly limited. I haven’t tasted multiple lots of La Esmeralda’s geisha and I haven’t compared the geisha blindly to other coffees. I’m clearly not the foremost authority on whether the top geshas, or even the bottom ones for that matter, are worth the prices being paid. Of course, some people clearly think the price is worth it; these coffees keep getting sold. But I would question exactly what it is these people are purchasing. It seems to me that geisha coffee sales at times more closely resemble the market for art than the one for commodities. People are paying as much for a concept or a story as they are for the quality of the product.
Finally, as a consumer, you should know that not all the geshas you’ll find out there originate from Hacienda La Esmeralda. While most of the current non-Esmeralda geisha’s are still, by all accounts, very highly-regarded coffees, you may not find the same to be true in the next few years. New geisha trees will be starting to mature as supply starts to catch up with demand. It’s practically a given that we are going to see a glut of geshas hitting the shelves that are either simply inferiority in quality or are subject to heavy blending (watch for the 10% Gesha blend like you currently see with Kona and Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffees). The geisha market is likely to soon become a more complex place to navigate.