Like many in the coffee industry I became fascinated by the Geisha variety when it first rose to fame more than 15 years ago. Since then it has led me to do a lot of research into its history and that of many other varieties. It is now famous to the point of being a brand in its own right, with consumers and baristas knowing of its reputation for quality (and high prices) but knowing little else about how and when it gained this reputation.
As we are about to release the 1st place coffee from the Tanzania Ngorogoro Auction; a Geisha Peaberry, lets talk a little a bit about how the Geisha variety earned its fame and also Tanzania's Importance in the history of this variety.
Rise to Stardom
In 2004 the Geisha variety first became famous after it was entered by Hacienda La Esmeralda to the Best of Panama cupping competition and took first place. Later at auction becoming the most expensive green coffee ever auctioned at the time at $21/lb. A record it would continue to break over and over again each year. (In 2020 the #1 geisha coffee in Panama sold for more than $1000/lb!) At the time Geisha was a largely unknown variety in the specialty coffee industry.
Esmeralda’s Geisha would dominate cupping competitions in Panama for several years and also 3 years in a row in the Specialty Coffee Association’s Coffee of the Year cupping competition. Another farm, Granja La Esperanza in Colombia would also win the latter competition with their Geisha.
Prior to the Specialty coffee industry’s introduction of the Geisha variety (and around the same time the Pacamara variety from El Salvador) variety in coffee wasn’t talked about as much in coffee as being important to flavor. Rarely did it make as dramatic an effect on the cup as what was seen from Geisha compared to the traditional Typica and Bourbon derived varieties in the Americas. To most coffee professionals it tasted more like a coffee from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia than anything they had tasted from Panama or Central America before. I remember tasting this coffee for the first time in 2004. It was much more tea-like than any coffee I had tried previously and very sweet.
We began purchasing this coffee at Paradise direct from Hacienda La Esmeralda in 2007 and have featured it countless times since. Those original Geisha coffees always displayed a distinctive mix of Bergamot/Earl Grey, Jasmine like floral aromas and tropical fruits like Papaya and Mango. Since those early days of Panama Geishas, the variety has been planted at farms around the world which and it quite often still wins cupping competitions in many of the countries that more recently have begun to grow it.
Origins of Geisha
While Geisha was a variety new to coffee roasters it was well known by coffee plant breeders and has had a continuous history of trials in coffee variety improvement since its original collection.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee. Its native range is in southwest Ethiopia and the forests of the neighboring Boma Plateau in South Sudan. By the turn of the 20th century It was generally known that Ethiopia was likely the original home of coffee and that there may be plants growing there that would have useful characteristics for coffee planters.
By 1930 At least 2 varieties collected from Ethiopia Already showed some value to planters and were being experimented with in Belgian Congo(1,2) and in Indonesia(3). Both called at that time only Abyssinia as Ethiopia was called then. The Indonesian introduction is still being cultivated today widely under the name ‘Java variety’ .
1. Kinds, R. Introduction d’esp‘ces et de variétés de caféiers au Congo Belge. Bull. Agric. du Congo Belge 1930
Post World War 1 most of East Africa was a colony of Great Britain, with the exception of Ethiopia which was still an independent nation. But most of the regions surrounding Ethiopia were under British occupation: Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda. The forests that coffee is native to were a short distance from these colonies.
In 1931 a British ambassador to Ethiopia was sent to collect coffee seeds that might be useful for improvement of coffee in British East African colonies . In 1932 the seeds collected were sent to Kitale, Kenya
(Geisha coffee tree in Kenya. Coffee Board of Kenya Monthly Bulletin 1963)
5 years later when these trees grew and produced seeds, Geisha seeds were sent to Agricultural stations in neighboring Tanzania and Uganda.
In Kenya there were at least 12 different lines of geisha that had been selected from the original seeds, In Kenya Geisha lines 9-12 showed some tolerance to the Coffee leaf rust disease. (4)
(Coffee Leaf Rust on Typica in Taiwu, Taiwan)
Leaf rust is one of the most devastating diseases of coffee. It causes defoliation, crop losses and if severe, can even kill the plants. The disease was first noticed in Sri Lanka in the 19th century. At the time they were the number 1 exporter of coffee in the world. The industry there never recovered and they switched to tea cultivation instead. The disease would rapidly spread across Asia over the coming decades decimating coffee plantations and also became a concern in East Africa on coffee plantations from 1912 onward.
At Lyumungu In Tanzania a selection of geisha was given the designation VC-496. This selection would go on to become the geisha variety made famous in Panama. In 1953 Geisha VC-496 along with many other varieties from Tanzania were sent to USDA Plant quarantine in Florida, to then be distributed to several coffee producing countries around the world.
(Mark Stell of Acacia estates with Geisha mother tree VC496 in 2015)
This wasn't the end of the story for Geisha in Tanzania though. Coffee breeding research was some what limited during world war 2, but in the post war years work began anew on developing improved varieties. While the Geisha variety offered some disease resistance, yields were poor compared to the varieties then grown in East Africa: SL34, SL28, Kents, K7. And it produced a lot of off type beans. Peaberry, and triangle shaped beans. So plant breeders have always sought to combine it with other varieties.
In 1952 and 1953 a hybridization program with Geisha and other elite varieties was started in Tanzania. Crossing Geisha VC496 with the Bourbon selections N39, KP423, and H-66.
The N39 Bourbon /Geisha hybrids proved very successful and lines OP1650, OP1729, OP1996 all showed promise (5). As Tanzania was also trialing methods of clonal propagation from cuttings at the same time, it was suggested to do the initial release of these hybrids by that method to preserve hybrid vigour. These would have been very early F1 hybrids if released similar to the most recently released coffee hybrids and many current breeding efforts.
5. Research report of Tanganyika Coffee Board 1964
Later there were crosses of the N39/Geisha hybrids with the Rume Sudan variety and also the Timor Hybrid (Arabica x Robusta) (6)
These advanced hybrids were ready to be released when a new threat became a bigger problem in Tanzania: Coffee Berry Disease. This had arrived in 1966. To which Geisha VC-496 and the hybrids developed from it did not have resistance to. The hybrid was never released as coffee breeding then became focused on this new threat.
While Geisha does not offer resistance to this disease, other wild collected arabica coffee varieties such as Rume Sudan and the Abysinnia/Java variety do and have been used in breeding programs for this purpose in the decades since. Several selections for resistance to Coffee berry disease have been selected from wild populations in Ethiopia and and distributed to growers in that country including the Wush Wush variety and selections now common in Guji: 74110, 74112, 74158. Many of these varieties have also become known themselves for excellent cup quality and are sought after by green coffee buyers for this reason. But it was the Geisha variety that first caught our imaginations and opened our eyes to explore the unique cup qualities offered by the varieties of Arabica's homeland: Ethiopia.
There are other lines of Geisha that showed some resistance to other diseases such as. In Malawi a selection called Geisha 56 was made that shows resistance to Fusarium wilt bark disease (6) which was that countries dominant problem in the early 1960's. This plant also showed some tolerance towards coffee berry disease, but unlike the geisha line in Tanzania was very susceptible to coffee leaf rust. (7) This variety can still be found growing in Malawi today and is genetically distinct from the Tanzania VC-496 derived geisha line, showing more similarity with yemen derived populations. (8)
6. Siddiqi and Corbett. 1965