Published: Mar 26, 2022

The Mexican Geisha Intrigue

The Geisha variety is one of the big success stories in coffee over the past decade. Ever since the variety’s quality potential was discovered by the Peterson family on Finca Esmerelda, prices of Geisha coffees have broken record after record at auctions. Last year’s Best of Panama winner, from Finca Nuguo, almost doubled the previous auction record with a price of US$2,568 per pound (US$5,661 per kg).

With these results, it’s no surprise that the variety is being planted all over the world, from Hawaii in the west to Papua New Guinea in the east. While Geisha has not yet been as widely planted in Mexico as many other countries, it is becoming more common there too.

Thanks to the high prices it can command, Geisha is normally used for prestigious single origin, single variety lots. As the variety becomes more common, it can also occasionally be found blended with other high quality varieties. Even when blended, Geisha-based lots are often highly prized: Two lots in Mexico’s 2021 Cup of Excellence were Geisha blends. This is by no means unique to Mexico, either — the winning lot in Costa Rica in the same year featured Geisha blended with SL-28.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Geisha is also turning up in lower-end coffees in Mexico, mixed in with varieties such as Castillo. In these lots, Geisha is planted alongside rust-resistant varieties, and the different varieties are all harvested and processed together.


Geisha at Finca El Estribo

A prime example of the high quality Geisha blends coming out of Mexico is the lot that took eighth place in Mexico’s 2021 Cup of Excellence, produced by Samuel Altamirano. The Altamirano family bought Finca El Estribo in 1850, and have been growing coffee there since 1879. As a tribute to the six generations of farmers before him, Samuel calls his company Dinastio Altamirano (The Altamirano Dynasty). He started focusing on specialty coffee in 2012, and just two years later took first place in the Cup of Excellence.

Samuel Altamirano at Finca El Estribo.

Samuel started planting Geisha in 2017, after hearing about the success of the variety in Panama. “I started to investigate the climate there a bit, and I said to myself, well, I think it looks like my farm,” he says. “A friend told me that he could get me Geisha seeds… so in 2017 we planted our first Geisha, and in 2019 we already got results — taking 3rd place in the Cup of Excellence!”

The lot was made up of Geisha and Bourbon blended together because they weren’t able to produce enough Geisha that year to make up a single lot, Samuel says. Whether they do the same in future will depend on how the harvest goes. “I don’t make harvest plans, because each year gives different results.… I prefer to aim for good processes, and wait for the results in the cup.”

While Geisha has a reputation for being difficult to grow and low-yielding, planting it has been worth the effort, Samuel says. “The performance is compensated for by the price for a good quality lot, so I’m not complaining!”


Mixing Geisha Seedlings

Samuel made a deliberate choice to plant Geisha, in order to produce high quality coffees. He obtained his seeds via a contact at the Chapingo Autonomous University, who was doing some research on the variety.

On many other farms in Mexico, Geisha can be found planted together with less prestigious varieties, with no differentiation made between them. According to Thomas Pingen, founder of the coffee sourcing company Red Beetle Coffee Lab, Geisha seedlings are sometimes being given to farmers in Mexico free of charge. The catch? They are mixed in with rust-resistant hybrids like Catimor, with no way to tell which is which.

“I don’t know how common it is, but for us it was very shocking to see,” he says. The seedlings were completely mixed up and it was impossible to separate them.”

Castillo trees planted in deep shade on a farm in Sierra Mazateca.

Shaun Mace, Thomas’s business partner at Red Beetle, explains that government-funded agencies in Mexico distribute mixtures of seedlings to growers’ groups and coyotes, who in turn give the seedlings to farmers. “I’m not entirely sure why they mix it in,” he says. “Potentially they think it’s rust resistant… or they see it winning competitions.”

When the Geisha variety was first taken from Ethiopia in the 1930s, it was chosen for its resistance to coffee leaf rust, and intended for use in breeding programs. Geisha is resistant to certain strains of rust, including Race II, which was the dominant race in Latin America for many years (Schleber and Zentmyer 1984). By the time of the leaf rust epidemic in 2012, new strains had taken over (Avelino et al 2015), and Geisha lost much of its resistance, although it is still classified as ‘tolerant’ to rust by World Coffee Research.

“It’s distributed as a rust-resistant variety, but at least in Mexico it isn’t any longer,” Thomas says. Nonetheless, grower’s organisations in Mexico still promote Geisha as a rust-tolerant but high quality variety (Hernandez 2020). These organisations may be relying on outdated knowledge, Thomas says. “It used to be planted because [Mexican coffee organisations] thought it was a resistant variety, not because of the cup score — and that of course is a mistake, because it’s not a resistant variety,”

“‘It’s an example of how bad the technical support for Mexican coffee producers is,” Thomas adds. “Unfortunately, coffee is of low importance for Mexico compared to Colombia or Guatemala — it makes up a small proportion of the economy, so the government shows very little interest in quality.”

While Geisha’s reputation for low yields is unfounded, according to Thomas, adding Geisha into a mixture of seedlings does nothing to improve quality. “Yields can be similar to Typica or Bourbon… [but] If the soil is poor, you get underwhelming results.”

“I’m generally against mixing varieties — especially if they have different sized seeds”, Shaun says. “Geisha is a very elongated seed… [while] resistant varieties are round and fat. They depulp differently, so you’re either going to be left with a lot more pulp, or you’ll get broken beans.”


Choosing The Right Varieties

Unfortunately for farmers in Mexico, it’s very hard to find reliable sources of seeds to plant the rare and expensive varieties such as Geisha or Wush Wush that fetch the best prices in other countries. “Very often producers buy seeds at high prices and don’t really know what varieties they are,” Thomas says.

While rust-resistant hybrids have high yield potential and can undoubtedly produce good quality coffee under the right conditions, they are best suited to more intensive agriculture, and may need irrigation or fertiliser to produce good results (IAC 2017). On a typical farm in Mexico, where plants are grown under heavy shade and fertiliser use is rare, they often do not produce good quality coffee, according to Shaun. “There’s one family we have been buying from for four years, and rarely received a coffee below 86 points,” Shaun says. “This year we got their first samples from a new field planted with Colombia, and unfortunately had to reject them — they were horrible, herbal, and astringent.”

According to Thomas, instead of planting exotic varieties, the best solution for Mexican farmers with high-elevation farms — where rust is not yet an issue — is to work with the varieties they already have. Traditional varieties like Typica, Bourbon, and Mundo Novo are becoming less common, while Geisha is being planted more and more. “It’s losing its magic,” he says. “With traditional varieties, you can have both yield and quality. It often goes hand in hand, if by improving productivity, your plants are in better shape, you also get better cherries.”

Without pruning, Typica trees grow tall and leggy, and become unproductive.

Shaun agrees, saying: “In a region like Sierra Mazateca [in northern Oaxaca], the coffee is exceptional mostly because they produce the old varieties, and they’re adapted to the area.” The difficulty is that older trees become less productive unless they’re well pruned, a practice that is not common in much of Mexico. “Most of the trees are very old, bent over, not very productive to say the least,” says Shaun. “Everybody says ‘they’re not productive any more’ and wants to replant the entire field, when all you need to do is go and stump [the old trees].” Stumping, or cutting old trees back to the ground, means losing the following year’s crop from those trees, but can make older or overgrown trees become more productive again (FAO 1977). 

A Geisha tree at Finca La Union regrowing after being stumped. Stumping allows old plants to produce new, vigorous growth and become productive again.

As leaf rust becomes more common, resistant hybrids are vitally important to allow coffee growing at lower elevations, especially as the climate warms. However, in the higher-elevation farms that are typical in much of Mexico, all that’s needed is good agricultural practices, Shaun says. “We visited a field near Pluma Hidalgo, in an area where nearly all the old varieties have been taken out because of rust. The field was planted 35 years ago, but there were big distances between coffee plants, and they had been pruned to no taller than a metre or two… It was pure Typica and Pluma Hidalgo [a local Typica variant], and anywhere else at that altitude you don’t find Typica.

For farmers threatened by rust and the effects of climate change, hybrid varieties with rust resistance are undoubtedly an important tool. Furthermore, with the right treatment, the newest hybrid varieties are capable of producing excellent quality coffee. In this year’s Cup of Excellence, the winning lots included lots made entirely from the resistant hybrids Marsellesa and Oro Azteca.

On the other hand, for farms in Mexico at higher altitudes where rust is not a concern, planting rare varieties like Geisha is not the only route to producing high quality coffee. With the right attention to pruning, soil health, and shade management, farmers in Mexico can produce exceptional coffee from the trees already in their fields, without needing to spend money on planting exotic varieties.


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