You can’t talk about Hacienda La Esmeralda or the Peterson family, without talking about Geisha – and we’ll get there, but first, a little about the family.
Coffee has been grown on the land that is now Hacienda La Esmeralda, since 1890, but was first brought together as a single estate in 1940. In 1967, a Swedish- American banker by the name of Rudolph A. Peterson bought Hacienda La Esmeralda as a retirement venture, from his role as president of Bank of America. At the time, the land was predominantly pasture for beef cattle, with some small smatterings of coffee mixed in.
In the early-70s, Rudolph took a job with the United Nations, and his son, Price Peterson, took over the management of the farm.
By 1975 the Petersons had switched the farms over to dairy cattle which still makes up half of Esmeralda’s farm land today. In the mid-80s, the family was looking to further diversify and coffee, with its rich production history in the Boquete region, was a perfect opportunity. It’s important to remember that, at the time in Panama, coffee was almost exclusively an untraceable, mass-market operation. Separation of single estates, let alone single varieties, had not yet become common practice.
In 1997 the Petersons purchased the land that became the Jaramillo Farm. This plot on the sides of Volcan Baru was selected specially for its high altitude, in hopes of developing higher scoring, livelier and more nuanced coffees. It's also where the famed Geisha variety was rediscovered.
The rediscovery of Geisha happened, somewhat by accident, but the Petersons took note, and in 2007 began working on a decade long research project into coffee varieties. Over 400 different varieties and sub-varieties have been planted at their newest farm, El Velo (just up the road from the famed Elida Estate). The goal of the project is to find other exciting combinations of variety and microclimate – to recreate the magic they found with the Geisha variety, in a more controlled (and repeatable) way.
Today, the daily operations of the farm have been handed down to Price and Susan’s children, Rachel and Daniel Peterson.
The story of Geisha coffee reaches back to 1936, the time of a British colony in Abyssinia (now part of Ethiopia), and Captain Richard Whalley, a British Consul, who was tasked with collecting 10 pounds of coffee seeds from the area around Geisha Mountain. How descendants of these Geisha coffee seeds arrived at Hacienda La Esmeralda, and how their unique flavor expressions were discovered, reflects the complex and at times murky history of the global coffee trade.
Captain Whalley had been tasked with collecting these seeds as part of a census of Ethiopian wild coffee varieties ordered by the Director of Agriculture in Kenya. The wild forests of Ethiopia are the birthplace of coffee, and this survey was done to assess commercial viability of hundreds of accessions (small, regional mutations in a main coffee variety) for planting in other British colonies. Even in the 1930s, word had reached the coffee traders at markets in the area of the delicious coffees from the Gesha region.
How the area of Gesha became noted down as Geisha is unclear, but reports from the time listed these samples collected and hand-processed by Captain Whalley as coming from around Geisha Mountain. This moniker stuck as the seeds subsequently traveled to Tanzania and Costa Rica on their way to Hacienda La Esmeralda. The Geisha coffee seeds were exchanged amongst a network of gene-banks and coffee research stations before arriving at CATIE in Costa Rica, where Hacienda La Esmeralda acquired them. At the time no great mention was made of the samples beyond resistance to leaf rust.
It was the Geisha varieties resistance to leaf rust that wound up bringing the seeds to Hacienda La Esmeralda. The Petersons new farm, Jaramillo, had recently been devastated by coffee leaf rust, but Daniel Peterson noticed that the Geisha trees had not been hurt as badly, so they decided to plant Geisha on more parts of the farm, including in sections above 1650 meters above sea level, higher than Geisha had been planted before.
It was this high-altitude planting of Geisha coffee that helped set in motion the events of 2004, when Geisha’s amazing aromatics first became clear. This was in the lead-up to the Best of Panama competition, an annual coffee cupping competition and auction that had been gaining significant interest amongst a group of next generation coffee producers in Panama. For that year’s competition, the Petersons did something they had never done before: during processing they separated production from different areas of the farm out into individual lots. One of the lots they separated out came from high up in Jaramillo, and when it landed on the cupping table, it blew everyone away.
This was the first-time cuppers had gotten to taste a sample that was 100% Geisha, and when they did, it was clear Hacienda La Esmeralda had something new on their hands—the explosion of juicy brightness and multi-layered aromatics in a high-altitude Geisha coffee were more reminiscent of a coffee from Ethiopia then Latin America. Once the initial shock was processed, the cuppers couldn’t get enough of it. Hacienda La Esmeralda went on to win the 2004 Best of Panama competition with their Geisha coffee, and that year set a record for the highest price ever paid for a coffee at auction.