Jan. 13, 2016
I used to have this vain notion I was "there" for the discovery of Gesha coffee. Where? Panama, 2002. Or was it 2003? It was the first time the Gesha variety had been put before a panel of tasters, as a separate lot. But I hadn't been to many coffee-growing places yet. I was just trying to take it all in. It probably could have been a fruity over-fermented coffee and I wouldn't know the difference. And I didn't discover anything. I just tasted it, with a lot of other people. Many said things like, "Gee, that's different." We all agreed it was floral. It won.
Gesha as a taste phenomena seems, in my current view, unimportant. But what happened 50 years ago in Ethiopia that, in an ironic chain of events, lead to this moment of "discovery" of Gesha coffee, is something I find much more fascinating. I'll get to that in a bit.
Gesha came to the attention of specialty coffee buyers because Peets was buying coffee from the Peterson's Esmeralda farm in Panama, and general Esmeralda coffee, a mix of Caturra and other types I assume, had a subtle floral character. For the Best of Panama competition, the Petersons had decided to separate their varieties. So this was the first time Gesha was put before judges, its 'coming out' party.
We held this cupping in the very spacious living room of the Peterson's house, except it wasn't really their house. I think they were selling it actually. This area was called Jaramillo. The house was oversized, built to impress (who?) and had come with the property when the Petersons bought it. This kind of Boquete McMansion predicted where things would head in the area, where coffee farms have been subdivded into retirement homes for Americans, and investment properties for Colombians and others seeking to escape their own deflating currencies. But at the time this super-sized and oddly empty residence surprised me.
I remember Bob Fulmer of Royal being some kind of head judge, and Mr. Hayashi and Kentaro Maruyama and Chad Trewick and Francisco Mena and John DiRuocco and a guy named Stu, plus more. And the Gesha coffee had everyone talking because it was indeed super floral, with jasmine notes, and all the other coffees paled in its presence.
It's noteworthy that Gesha was "discovered" by people in the coffee trade in the comparative cupping format, slurping from a spoon. Cupping competitions are where a coffee like Esmeralda Gesha, that consists of all top-notes, does really well. It's where florals and clean fruits and acidity are the measures of distinction, the bringer of 90+ scores. Cupping competition is also a venue where delicious 'drinking coffees,' ones that have balanced and restrained characteristics, not flashy exotic flavors, are relegated to being classified as 'wallflowers' with scores like 85 or 86.
But cupping is often about context, and this discovery of the Gesha cup was against a backdrop of Central American washed coffees, not in the context of its genetic family from Ethiopia. Placing a Gesha grown in Central America on a table with Ethiopias has a completely different impact.
But Gesha isn't really about all that. It's not about the coffee in itself. The floral character is important in so much as it supports the more significant narrative (and by narrative I mean marketing material). This narritive is rooted in the pre-existing desire that coffee can be elevated to a level of connoisseurship most often reserved for fine wine. The boost coffee needs to level-up to wine is the notion that arabica varieties matter a lot, that they can be deciphered in the cup taste. Gesha is specialty coffee's golden arrow in this sense, but it is also the great exception.
Generally, the distinct characteristics of the coffee variety can barely be heard in the final cup flavors. Most often, it's just a whisper: Coffee is not like wine at all.
Coffee varieties are most important to those who cultivate coffee in terms of yield and disease resistance. Among experienced coffee buyers, the characteristics we prize in a Bourbon or Typica variety (the old types) are subtle and rather difficult to share with a consuming public. They are, in fact, those same aspects that relegate coffees to the wallflower category, because they are not about extraneous, showy "top notes." They are not about tasting fresh fruits and flowers in coffee. Bourbon and Typica varieties have attractive "core coffee flavors" that make them nice to drink; they have bitterness and sweetness in good balance, with a moderate and clean mouth-cleansing acidity. But in 2003 (or was it 2002?) I really didn't have the framework for understanding the "good" in coffee in this way.
I just wanted to taste the range of flavors, and to let myself gravitate toward what I would want to drink. Roasters didn't travel to "origin" that much. I think it was only the second or third year I had done so.
I remember walking to the Gesha part of the farm with Daniel and Merrill Peterson on that trip, and I remember him saying that the area had been damaged (I thought by wind, but that can't be right). They had some seed obtained from Costa Rica and had planted this damaged area with it, which turned out to be Gesha. I am pretty sure that, in this picture, they are showing me the Gesha trees for the first time. I could be wrong.
In 2002/3. We stayed at the Panamonte hotel. It was $65 for a cottage room in back. I thought it was outrageous. In 1964 the scientists and plant breeders of the FAO coffee mission put up like this each night:
I would much rather have been going to that party, to be honest. It's not that the regions they traversed are super developed now, but you don't need to travel by mule in Illubabor any more!
The importance of their trip was actually quite apparent to them at the time, but gained more significance looking backwards. It was the last opportunity for a methodical survey and collection of arabica coffee from Ethiopia. In particular, it was the last study in which seeds, collections of plant material, and coffee pathogens were allowed to leave the country to be studied at international facilities. Since then, Ethiopia has been famously guarded about their plant material, and justifiably so. Coffee genetics is a national treasure. You can be arrested for trying to take coffee seeds out of the country. (A few years back, I heard of a case where someone from the coffee trade was detained for trying to do just that, their passport taken away, detention, and some form of penalty or restriction against future travel. He was a coffee farmer from Panama).
Recently I came across a copy of the report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that describes in detail the Ethiopia Coffee Mission of 1964 and 1965 that, among 621 samples, collected Gesha coffee. It was the first time coffee varieties were collected in Ethiopia with the specific goal of breeding for rust- and pest-resistance, an extensive trip to the most important native forests with coffee as an understory plant, as well as the cultivated areas of the country. Those seeds were distributed, rather randomly, from the Kew Gardens in the UK to various coffee research institutions around the world. 490 samples were divided between Peru and Turrialba, Costa Rica, to the institute that is now called CATIE. And that is where the Petersons of La Esmeralda had connections to obtain Gesha seeds.
(Note: This is contested: In a FB note I am told the seed came from an earlier 1936 collection, was cultivated in Tanzania and sent on to Panama. But the FAO document, when citing earlier scientific collections, makes no reference to any documented trips to collect seed in Ethiopia. So if this occurred it must have been a private venture of some sort. See the Coffee Mission Objectives and PPPPPPPS's at the bottom).
So I myself nor nobody I know were there for the "discovery" of Gesha. But interestingly, neither were the botanists, geneticists or entomologists who went on the mission. For this sample, they had sent "runners" from the area of Bench Maji into the hills to collect samples. Maybe they were just run down after so much travel and making/breaking so many campsites. While specific longitudinal coordinates were provided with this sample, E-126 of 10 December 1964, it's unclear if that was actually where the coffee was collected. How would a "runner" mark exact coordinates. Did they really run to the "northeast edge of Geisha Mountain"? Or just run to a friend's house and pick some coffee from their back yard? And note that is is called a "Random Sample" as well.
Here, in the boxed entry you can read how E-126 was collected:
The trip was lead by Frederick G. Meyer and had participants from Ethiopia, Tanzania, and India as well. But it was primarily a properly British-flavored expedition. It might illuminate the odd fact that Gesha, as the mountain was named on local signage, became Geisha, even in the original trip notations. Even more odd is that the typically British tendency toward specificity gave in to their fancies here. Why was it not named after the village Gorei, a concrete landmark where it was purported to be collected? What about Bardo, or Borde, also noted as Barda? Not so sexy I guess. The current spelling used on local road signs (and on Google Earth) is Gecha. (Hence the title of this post with 3 alternates to "Geisha.")
The trip to Mizan Teferi and Bench Maji was taken by one member of the team, L.M. Fernie and an American from Oklahoma State University who was stationed at Jimma Agricultural School at that period, Floyd Bolton, not a coffee guy, but part of an interesting side-story. OK State was assisting to re-open the old Italian-built school compound in Jimma not long before this, finding the entire facility abandoned, run-down and overgrown with weeds. They cleared the weeds and put faculty up in sheds and barns. Floyd Bolton was one of them.
To get the school started, they admitted, almost randomly, 80 students to 4 class levels, assigning them as Juniors or Seniors etc. with just an educated guess about how advanced they might be, but managed to graduate over 50 of them from the 500 applicants that pressed in at the doors. 16 later attained post-doctoral levels.
Despite the fact that there was a small air strip in Bench Maji, to cover a wider area of terrain might take weeks. Their itinerary indicates that foot and mule travel was the norm, with no developed roads or automobiles in the area. Hence the idea to send out "runners" to collect coffee seed. But by the date they claim the Gorei (or Bardo or Barda or Borde) sample from Gesha Mountain was collected, December 10, they were comfortably back in the capital of Addis Ababa. It seems that 3 days on foot and mule did them in.
In any regard, the importance of this particular sample, originally labeled E-126, seems not particularly special among the other 620 types collected, and only consequential in hindsight. While some samples seemed to be blended among various trees, or picked "along the way," others were sought out and noted with great intention, an eye toward rust fungus resistance, plant health and productivity. Gesha doesn't seem to be one of them, and even the slippery relationship of this coffee and its namesake (if it is from Gesha Mountain at all) seems a bit arbitrary. (Among other things, the Gesha plot at CATIE is reported to be mixed between plants with different morphologies, observed by plants that have dark bronze-colored new leaves, and others with bright green new leaves).
Now that Gesha is Geisha in the coffee market and commands high prices, our influence has been profound enough to be heard all over the coffee-producing world, even in rural Ethiopia. Farms in the far West areas near Mizan Teferi have adopted "Geisha" in their names, as is the case with one Ethiopian farmer who lives part-time in California, who offered Geisha coffee, but not Geisha Variety coffee. (It's small detail that has a big effect on the price paid by buyers. Early on I was offered a Java coffee called Kopi Luwak, but actually looked like a nice wet-process coffee. I found out the exporter was calling their top grade coffee Kopi Luwak, and though it was likely infinitely better in the cup and not disgusting in the processing, it still was a pretty blantant attempt to confuse buyers).
And then there's the new "Geisha Village farm" (in the area of Gesha Mountain), emerging out of barren land as the brainchild of an ex-California photographer. I am sure their coffee will be great, but I am not so sure about the message sent when Americans start coffee farms in areas where Ethiopians can do the job. We westerners can't farm coffee better there; only shellac on a better marketing gloss, hence the exploitation of the Gesha or Geisha name.
(Note: To be clear, we are not talking about the Geisha Village in Gion, with it's 1000+ reviews on Trip Advisor. While the farm has eco-tourism on its agenda, to my knowledge you should not expect to be greeted by actual Geishas).
In a way, the Geisha Village example embodies and highlights the stark differences among classes of coffee producers. The rare figure of the particular Geisha Village coffee farmer as "Ethiopian Coffee Farmer" (ie, an American farming coffee in Ethiopia) is an odd sight in rural Ethiopia, something one might see in colonial Kenya more likely. But it is not so unusual in places like Panama. The Gesha coffee phenomenon has made for a great price for those who have access to the coffee seed (no longer hard to get in C. America or Colombia), and, more importantly, access to the high-end market, and can get $15,000 for one bag of coffee in an auction.
In contrast, many farmers in Ethiopia have diddly-squat by these standards, have no access to the latest sensational coffee variety, or access to buyers who would compete ferociously for such coffee. They do indeed have outstanding coffee on small plots of land, or in nearby forest, and perhaps they sell to a local co-op at a modest price, and receive a modest second payment, which hopefully is enough for school fees for their children. It seems that to consumer, a coffee farmer in one place must be roughly equivalent to a farmer elsewhere, aside from culture. But most farmers in Ethiopia are far too small in output to buy from directly, as one might do in parts of C. America.
But from the POV of a person who travels across all these regions and sees huge differences in standards, it is jarring. I would not dare to impune a coffee farmer who lives in relative luxury, and lives by the ideals of conspicuous consumption as a measure of well-being. Likewise I would not show patronizing pity for an Ethiopian farmer who maintains themselves on an infinitely more humble basis. I do know which group I would like to align myself with more.
It is an educated and well-connected class of producer who could capitalize a coffee product like Gesha. But it seems ironic when you consider that this Gesha variety of coffee resulted from of a Coffee mission with much different aims. The idea was offered at an FAO coffee summit at Ivory Coast in 1960, to address the collective problems of coffee diseases and pests by going to the source of the original germ plasm material, Ethiopia.
There had been poor efforts to collect seeds of the many morphologically heterogenous coffea arabica types in Ethiopia, and some previous efforts had gross mis-information on where coffee was even located in the country, let alone where the most diverse coffee forests would be found. The Coffee Mission was aware that a window of opportunity was passing. “Already seven-eighths of the forest cover in Ethiopia has vanished, leaving only a fragment in the southern and southwestern provinces in semi-pristine condition.”
Here is the FAO Objective statement:
The objective of the mission wasn’t to increase the value of coffee, but to preserve its future given the fact that native coffee habitats were diminishing, and with them an understanding of how the original species was distributed. The mission also observed and collected examples of leaf rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, hoping to find native arabica varieties that offered resistance. Although the direct beneficiaries would be research scientists and breeding programs, these goals were for a greater communal good. It wasn’t to serve the interests of a particular class of farmer, who could readily afford chemical treatments and fertilizers in a battle to keep their farms in high production. Rather, a program to develop resistant varieties would result in broadly distributed varieties of seed stock that would reduce or eliminate the need for expensive (and endless) treatments on the farm. It would benefit all farmers from smallest to largest.
It doesn’t seem to have ended up that way. At least not in the case of Geisha. Given all we don't know, I am seriously considering selling "Gorei" coffee from now on.
As an addendum to this article, this is the location listed as the collection point for "Geisha" from the coordinates and assistance from Google. It's not too helpful:
And this is a portion of the map referenced in the Coffee Mission report, which was issued in 1968. In all instances it was spelled Geisha. But this spelling is clearly anglicized from the local Gesha. This is why we have always used Gesha. To me the Geisha spelling is specious, and after all, it reminds me of videos I found on youtube of the glam metal band. Maybe that's okay, if you're into that.
Here (drum roll please) is your FAO Coffee Mission staff of 1964:
Objectives of the Coffee Mission and previous scientific trips to collect coffee plant material in Ethiopia:
PS: I received a copy of that 1936 letter referenced above as documentation of a collection of seed from "Geisha Mountain". The collection was at the request of a particular Kenyan party, made to the British Consul in Bench Maji (!). He writes of a reputation in the Ethiopian market (Jimma and Addis) for "Geisha Mountain" coffee, and that traders would send mule trains the distance to get the coffee. The seed was green and ripe fruit, wet-processed and dried only in shade. It was sent to Kenya packed in charcoal. There's much attention in the letter to the heavy forest environment of the coffee, and the altitude, and makes many suggestions of where it might be planted (and where it might fail) in colonial British East Africa. It's not a scientific mission, but purely a commercial request for Ethiopia seed from the area. It's said this seed was cultivated at Lyamungu, where Tacri now has a station. It's a little low for this type of seed according to the letter (1280 meters) but a definite possibility it was propagated there. With the FAO mission, the seed was definitely collected and definitely sent to ICO supported gardens like Catie, as well as Tacri and Ruiru in Kenya. In Panama I hear that the time frame for FAO distribution in 1965-68 doesn't suit the presence of this coffee. But I don't know who specifically had it before '65. Outside of Panama, the FAO scenario does fit, as farms with Gesha in Costa Rica and Guatemala all received seed (in haphazard distributions it seems, not scientific trials) in the 1980s. There's another "Gesha" in Malawi that I am told from an ex-Tacri staffer, actually came via Hawaii!
PPS: On Gesha vs Gesha: polling Ethiopian persons, they can't think of any names in local languages that use "ei" as in Geisha, whereas the "esha" of Gesha is omnipresent. Like Habesha! But perhaps they are wrong. The road signs in town read Gecha. The "echa" is also common across local dialects except Oromifa.
PPPS: This is one of many future articles that, in my dotage, will be premised with a patently false recollection that ultimately serves to underscore my importance, or alternately how great things used to be but are no longer, i.e. Sumatra coffees of 20 years ago were nothing like those of today. Who can argue otherwise?
PPPPS: The previous PPPS is a joke. In case it's not clear, this is an op-ed. That's why it is bookended in personal references feigning importance. This article evolved from the original, "published" before I had finished writing it, which included bad references to the fancy types of cars people drive. And that was lame, giving good reason to disregard everything else about the post. -t.o.