From Ethiopia To Hacienda La Esmeralda

The story of Geisha coffee reaches back to 1936, the time of a British colony in «Abyssinia,» and Captain Richard Whalley, a Consul for the Bench Maji region, who was tasked with collecting 10 pounds of coffee seeds from the area around Geisha Mountain in what is now Ethiopia. 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, or sometimes Gecha, became noted down as Geisha is unclear, but reports from the time listed this 10 pound sample 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 a resistance to «Ojo de Gallo».

It was Geisha coffee’s resistance to «ojo de gallo» that wound up bringing the seeds to Hacienda La Esmeralda. Coffee had been grown in places on and around Peterson family farms since the 1960s, but it had been variably harvested and maintained, with a large mix of varieties and accessions planted across the farms. In the 1990s, as coffee production became more of the focus, the Petersons acquired a new, high-altitude farm which they dubbed Jaramillo. The farm 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.

Rediscovering Geisha

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 leadup 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 coffee, 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.

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Transforming Coffee Production

Since then, Hacienda La Esmeralda has done much to improve their cultivation of high-altitude Geisha coffee, including substantial experiments in Washed and Natural processing methods. A particular focus has also been paid to meticulous lot separation, allowing us to develop a more nuanced understanding of the different microclimates in which Geisha thrives best. This spirit of experimentation has also led us to embark upon a decade long exploration of other coffee accessions, planting 400 different examples in the mountains of our newest farm, El Velo. While Geisha coffee has captured our hearts here at Hacienda La Esmeralda and the world over, who knows what coffee might be the next great bean?