Geisha, or Gesha, is a highly prized variety, with a distinctive jasmine aroma, and bright fruity acidity. These distinctive characteristics mean it has dominated coffee competitions, and become infamously expensive as a result. Geisha beans are often quite large and have a slightly pointed, elongated shape, similar to some other wild Ethiopian varieties such as the Longberry.
Geisha seedlings were originally collected in the 1930s from the wild Kaffa forest in southwest Ethiopia, in an attempt to find new disease-resistant varieties. The variety takes its name from the nearby Gesha mountain. The plants were brought to Tanzania, and from there to Costa Rica where it was added to the collection of the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) and given the designation T2722. From there it was planted in a number of farms in the 1950s and 60s as a fungus-resistant variety, but poor yields and fragile trees meant that it wasn’t widely adopted at the time.
The high quality potential for this variety was discovered by the Peterson family on their farm Hacienda La Esmeralda only in 2003, when they realised a few specific trees yielded coffee with a distinctive floral aroma. They started separating out lots of this variety, which went on to win a series of the ‘Best of Panama’ coffee competitions, and to earn record-breaking prices at auction year after year.
Ever since, farmers across Central America and elsewhere have been rushing to plant Geisha, and take advantage of the high prices it can command. However, it seems that the high quality potential of Geisha is only fully realised under certain conditions, meaning that not all Geishas share the extraordinary characteristics that made the variety so famous.
What is a stable variety?
A plant variety is called ‘stable’ if it reproduces true to type from one generation to the next – in other words, if you self pollinate or only breed with plants of the same type, the offspring should all have the same characteristics that distinguish the parent variety. This doesn’t mean that the offspring are genetically identical — only that they reliably share specific characteristics. When testing a variety for catalogues or patents, stability is typically tested over 2 years, so it’s possible that even a ‘stable’ variety, interbred over a longer period of time, could eventually acquire differences from the original parents.
Geisha is a wild variety that has not been domesticated for commercial use, so seedlings bred from it may well not breed true, but could have subtly different characteristics.
Is Geisha even a single unique variety?
Genetic testing of the T2722 accession have proved that it is a distinct and unique variety, and most of the Geisha grown in South and Central America probably does trace its lineage back to the T2722 accession in the CATIE collection. However, it’s possible that seedlings or seeds passed from farm to farm, rather than acquired direct from CATIE, have acquired traits from other varieties due to accidental cross-pollination.
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To further complicate matters, other indigenous varieties collected from the same region of Ethiopia can also properly be called Geisha or Gesha. For example, the unrelated accessions T2917 and T3214 were also named ‘Geisha’ in the CATIE database (IICA, 1963). Thousands of varieties have been logged in the Kaffa forest, so there is huge genetic diversity in this region, which means the varieties are genetically very different.
It’s also even possible that the variety grown in La Esmeralda is distinct from T2722 itself: indeed the Peterson family themselves think this may be the case (Weissman, 2011). “An early botanical description referred to the cultivar from Gesha as having bronze-coloured new leaves, a poor liquor, and considerable fungal resistance”, explains Price Peterson. “The Panama Geisha has green-coloured new leaves, a very good taste in the cup, and is resistant to leaf rust, but not Ojo de Gallo, the killer Costa Rican and Panamanian farmers most dread.”
If you find that your Geisha coffee looks or tastes different to others you’ve come across, be assured that you’re not the only one. Geisha’s complex and long history means that only expensive DNA testing can determine how close your Geisha is to the T2722 variety, and what other traits it might have picked up along the way.
Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), 1963. Information on the work of research institutions. In: Coffee and Cacao Technical Services, October-December 1963. Vol 5, No. 19
Michaele Weissman, 2011. Panama. In: God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. ISBN 978-0-470-17358-9