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Geisha (Central America) Coffee Variety
Geisha (Central America) Coffee Variety

Geisha is a tall variety known for exceptional cup quality and low yields.

James Fairbrass avatar
Written by James Fairbrass
Updated over a week ago

If you’ve been into one of our cafes recently, you may well have heard the cries of, “Geisha, Geisha, Geisha” accompanied by the ringing of a cowbell. That’s how special we think this variety is.

So, what is Geisha:

Geisha trees are tall and spindly, very low yielding and notoriously difficult to grow. The coffee cherries, and the beans inside are also oddly elongated - but damn – the quality of the coffee can be truly otherworldly. First brought to prominence by the Peterson Family of Hacienda La Esmeralda, Geisha is thought to have originated in an area of Ethiopia, now known as Gesha. It was introduced to Panama because of its ability to resist many common diseases, but with very low yields and branches prone to breaking, it was never thought to be commercially viable. That is, until the Peterson’s entered a Geisha lot into the 2004 Best of Panama competition.

During the competition, judges thought there had been some kind of mistake – some suggested that an Ethiopia coffee had been submitted, either accidentally or for more nefarious reasons. The coffee was like nothing they’d have tasted before – floral and elegant, with notes of bergamot and black tea. It tasted more like an Ethiopian coffee, than anything they’d ever seen from Panama.

Needless to say, the Geisha from Hacienda La Esmeralda went on to win the competition that year, and earned (at the time) a record-breaking price of $20USD/lb.

How much?

After the success that the Peterson Family had with that first Geisha lot, they continued entering Geisha into the competition – and kept on winning. The myth and reputation of the variety grew, and the amount of money roasting companies around the world were willing to pay continued to increase. Just like anything – fine wines, whiskey’s, vintage cars – if it’s rare and lots of people want it, it’s likely to get expensive. But we believe the price tag is worth it.

What’s up with the Name:

There’s been a long running debate within the specialty coffee industry, related to the correct (or appropriate) spelling of Geisha / Gesha.

Some Brief Talking Point:

  • Geisha is presumed to originally come from an area in Ethiopia, that is now known as Gesha Village, and the inclusion of the ‘I’ was a misspelling. However -

  • When the variety was first discovered, there was no universally agreed upon translation of Kafa (the oral language spoken in the Gesha region), using the Latin alphabet. During this time, to ensure English speakers pronounced words correctly, the most phonetic spelling (Geisha) was used.

  • Using the word Geisha, can be potentially problematic and offensive, especially if used in conjunction with traditional Japanese art/imagery.

  • Does a company have the right to change the name of a product that somebody else worked long and hard to produce? The producers that we source from use the Geisha spelling. Do we have the right to change their work?

Where does PMC stand?

  • Coffees sourced from Gesha Village, in Ethiopia, will be spelling GESHA

  • All other coffees, sourced from all over South and Central America, will be spelled GEISHA

TL;DR – More Details: (beware, there’s a lot)

Some History:

The first real record of Geisha was made in 1936, logged by a British consul who collected a sample of a variety located near what was described as “Geisha Mountain”, in Ethiopia.

The samples bounced around a bit, with a selection ending up at CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza) in Costa Rica, from which various coffee farmers appear to have acquired their seeds to start planting the variety on their farms, the main interest being the coffee’s tolerance to several common diseases.

From Rachel Peterson (Hacienda La Esmeralda, Panama):
“We started the use of the word ‘Geisha’ because the person who brought the seed to Panama from CATIE in the early 60’s, Don Pachi Serracin, remembered it as Geisha 2722.”

Well, guess what? It turns out, there isn’t a “Geisha Mountain” in Ethiopia – the closest thing is a woreda (county) called Gesha, in the region of Ethiopia that was once the independent kingdom of Kafa. It was assumed by many, that Captain Whalley (the British Consul mentioned above) made a mistake, and embarrassingly, the coffee that changed the entire industry had a typo in the name.

How is Geisha Problematic:

Many voices online have called for a change in spelling (to Gesha), out of respect for the (presumed) original Ethiopian source. It’s also impossible to ignore the obvious subtext of Orientalism.

Briefly, Orientalism is a concept introduced by Edward Said in a book by the same name, about how the West is centered, and the East is perceived as “other” and exotic. In the West, we create fantasy interpretations and representations of what the East is like. It’s essentially a fascination with Eastern culture, and it shows up regularly, as turmeric suddenly being “discovered” as a superfood or Katy Perry dressed as a geisha.

“The concept of the geisha as perceived in Western society is fraught with exoticism and hyper-sexualization of Japanese women,” says David Inoue, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), and regrettably, the coffee variety’s Japanese homonym has, from time to time been exploited by a few coffee companies eager to market their expensive offerings.

Language is complicated:

Ethiopia is home to over 70 different languages. In fact, even though Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, up to 80 percent of Ethiopia’s 102 million people don’t speak it. The region of modern Gesha was once part of the independent kingdom of Kafa, and is inhabited predominately by the Kafa people, who speak the Kafa language (accepted alternative spellings include Kaffa, Kaficho, Kefa, Keffa, and Kefficho – perhaps that alone shines some light on the issue).

The first standardized orthography for Kafa was attempted by Bible translators in the 1970s. The process was long, given the complex nature of the Kafa language. Under Emperor Haile Selassie the publishing of literature in minority languages had been banned, but by the early 2000s, local public schools were allowed to teach in Kafa, using a new official orthography utilizing the Latin alphabet— some 80 years after Whalley’s expedition. By incredible coincidence (and perhaps some historical irony), around the time Kafa school children began learning their language with the Latin alphabet the Peterson family was discovering the potential of a low-yielding, disease resistant variety with unusually long seeds.

It could be reasonable to assume that, considering the history of the Kafa language, Captain Whalley didn’t make a spelling error. He was simply phonetically spelling a word with no established spelling. It’s also possible that Whalley’s 1936 correspondence describing “Geisha coffee” is the first time the Kafa word had been written with the Latin alphabet.

The Producers Perspective:

The sentiment of shifting from “Geisha” to “Gesha”, that’s prevalent in North America reflects a coffee industry where producers have little voice and are rarely listened to. Is there a more ironic example of the paternalistic attitude of North Americans than a barista informing a coffee farmer they misspelled the name of their coffee?

Practically, the inclusion of the “I” can be helpful in distinguishing Panamanian seeds that have been distributed around the world, and the recent effort to cultivate wild coffee in and around Gesha, Ethiopia (such as Gesha Village Coffee Estate).

The culinary world is full of such subtle spelling distinctions, such as “whisky/whiskey” with the American version denoted by the “e.”

From Wilford Lamastus Jr (Lamastus Family Estates, Panama):
“In the 60s we received the varietal as Geisha T.2722, it was always named Geisha in producing countries … 2004 was the first time the Peterson family introduced the variety to the market and broke all the barriers for the specialty coffee industry.
We, the Lamastus Family, SCAP (Specialty Coffee Association of Panama), and the Petersons, feel disrespected when our coffee’s name are changed by importers, baristas, or roasters. If Best of Panama calls it Geisha and someone writes about Best of Panama calling it Gesha, it’s disrespectful to all the people involved in Best of Panama and SCAP.


Also, the Peterson family made it easy for producers all over the world to get seeds, there was never a selfish attitude by them with access to Geisha seeds. If a producer got a Hacienda La Esmeralda or descendant seed in their plantation it is very disrespectful to change the name of the variety.

Let me remind everyone reading this of something, Willem Boot (owner of Gesha Village Coffee Estates) never found the outstanding Geisha in Gesha. Gesha Village seeds come from La Mula (Boot’s farm in Panama) and La Mula seeds are Esmeralda descendants.

To finish my comments, we the Lamastus Family, the Peterson family, and SCAP have never used the homonym (references to traditional Japanese art/images) to market our product, the product is good enough.”

Sources:

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