What Is Geisha Coffee and (More Importantly) How Does It Taste?

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Picture this: what a limited-edition, single-malt Scotch is to whiskey aficionados, Geisha coffee is to the specialty coffee enthusiasts.

Meine Kueche Kaffeebohnen

Picture this: what a limited-edition, single-malt Scotch is to whiskey aficionados, Geisha coffee is to the specialty coffee enthusiasts.

As soon as a new crop hits the market, roasters, reviewers, Instagram feeds and blog posts go completely berserk. And if you follow the hype, you’ll inevitably have some questions:

  • What makes these coffee beans so special?

  • What sets Geisha apart from other hyped products like Kopi Luwak or Jamaica Blue Mountain?

  • What justifies that expensive price? 

I could come at you with all sorts of information about Geisha’s incredibly high cupping scores. I could also go on and on about why Geisha coffee tastes completely unique. Not to mention how difficult it is to cultivate.

But that’s too bland and one-sided for my espresso or my articles.

I’d rather tell you about where Geisha comes from and why much of the hype centers on a well-worn story. I’ll also prepare Geisha coffee and describe my impressions of how this famous varietal tastes. As always, what you do with this information is completely up to you. 

The Geisha Coffee Story: As Japanese as Apple Pie

Under #geishacoffee, you’ll find a picture on Instagram that perfectly sums up the confusion surrounding this varietal: a Latin American man stands in front of three Asian ladies posing as Geishas. Each holds a Cappuccino to the camera under a sign that reads “Panama Geisha.”

Suzuki Taroho's Instagram post featuring Japanese Geishas holding Cappuccinos

What’s wrong with this picture? Pretty much everything.

Even the name Geisha is off the mark. Actually, the coffee varietal is called Gesha. The name comes from the Ethiopian village or mountain where the plant first appeared. Ethiopian Geisha coffee still grows wild there today.

Because the discoverers of this varietal were ignorant colonialists, they added the “i.” They probably felt that the name reminded them of fair Meikos in the Hanamachis. Whatever the case was, since Geisha sounds a bit nicer than Gesha anyway, the name stuck.

And for a long time, no one crowed about it under whatever name. Especially not in Ethiopia, the motherland of coffee and the flowery-fresh varietal.

Nevertheless, botanically speaking, Geisha is as Ethiopian as it’s possible to be. On the coffee family tree, Geisha sits right after the main branching of Arabica and the classification of Ethiopian varietals. In other words, it was there long before anyone had the idea of crossbreeding varietals.

Preparing pour-over coffee with a copper Hario V60

Like other coffee varietals, Geisha spread all over the world, mainly for research or crossbreeding purposes. Let’s just say Geisha was hardly relevant to global coffee production.

Eventually, it came to Central America — and to a plantation in Panama.

Here’s the real origin of the hype. Panama is wedged between Costa Rica and Colombia, two high-profile coffee superpowers. Panama, on the other hand, barely registered as a coffee-producing nation. Until Geisha coffee came along, that is.

According to the story, the Peterson family of coffee farmers at Hacienda La Esmeralda discovered a forgotten patch of coffee plants in a corner of their plantation.

These plants seemed to be holding up heroically against the raging coffee rust outbreak. Coffee rust is a fungus that not only wipes out entire crops but also livelihoods. As you can imagine, a rust-infested plantation is doomed to die.

The brave Geisha plants thrived, the Petersons had no choice but to take a closer look at this varietal.

Jump to 2004 at the national coffee competition in Panama, Best of Panama, where cupping spoons reportedly fell out of tasters’ mouths when they experienced the taste and aroma of the “newly discovered” Panama Geisha coffee from Hacienda La Esmeralda.

So floral! So sweet! So distinctive! So … exclusive!

The Geisha coffee saved the farm, and Panama became the Geisha epicenter. Even seedlings and seeds suddenly became hot commodities.

But probably the biggest news was that producers could see a profitable future featuring Costa Rica Geisha coffee, Colombia Geisha coffee and Guatemala Geisha coffee.

Still, there’s a good reason for the price: aside from Geisha’s rarity, the sexy origin story — with its healthy dose of pathos — has ensured that Geisha coffee beans cost what they do.

Geisha Coffee Price Per Pound

Geisha isn’t the most expensive coffee in the world, but it’s still very pricey.

In 2019, two 50-pound bags of Panamanian Geisha coffee sold for $1,029 at the Panama Coffee Auction. Per pound. That means $102,900 total. Additional prices paid haven’t yet been released.

Higher coffee prices across the board would be a boon to the entire value chain. But the figure above only applies to a single varietal.

Not only that, but the value is already speculatively inflated because of the demand for green Geisha coffee beans in Asia (true story!). Other, more “modest” varietals have none of this star appeal.

Briefly back to the weird #geishacoffee picture: probably the biggest mistake in the photo is adding in the Cappuccinos. Who would entertain the idea of adding milk foam to such uniquely flavored super beans? If the scene is anything to go by, then no one.

How to Prepare Geisha Coffee

As with any varietal, you could roast Geisha with a darker profile for espresso or dial it back a little for filter coffee.

Still, it doesn’t seem logical to hide Geisha’s sweet and floral profile by over-roasting. It’s better to aim for a lighter roast profile that’ll allow the coffee to shine.

Whole bean Geisha coffee from Berlin-based roaster 19grams

Don’t even think about preparing Geisha in a Melitta coffee maker, though!

If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’d better grab your best pour-over dripper. Break out the finest paper filters and the filtered water. Bring down the coffee scale and everything else arranged attractively on the coffee shelf.

It’s also natural to feel a little pressure when preparing Geisha coffee. After all, you should treat expensive beans carefully and with love. Poor extractions because of an incorrect grind setting or the inaccurate water temperature are a capital offense.

Remember, all this pressure is just an illusion created by hype and price. The flavor will come through even if you don’t do everything exactly right. Still, you should stick to the most important parameters for preparing pour-over coffee:

  • Use a medium-fine grind

  • Brew at a ratio of about 7 grams of coffee per 100 milliliters (3.4 fluid ounces) of water — I like it strong

  • Heat the water temperature to around 205 degrees Fahrenheit

  • Allow it to bloom

  • Infuse in a slow, circular motion

How Does Geisha Coffee Taste?

The idea for this guide came to me when the coffee advent calendar from 19grams arrived.

The Berlin roaster put a little tin of Sonora Geisha from Costa Rica behind the 24th door. The roaster also sent a sample of the latest product idea: a Ready2Go single pack of Don Martin Geisha Enano.

The pre-ground coffee comes in a pre-portioned filter with a cardboard holder. All you have to do is hang it in a cup and add hot water. Then you can even enjoy Geisha around the campfire. Yes, please!

Brewing Geisha coffee from Berlin-based roaster 19grams

I’ve tasted both Geishas. But this isn’t an official coffee bean review. I’m much more concerned with the varietal than the roaster. Though, once again, I have to say that the folks at 19grams really know what they’re doing.

Geisha Coffee’s Scent

From the Sonora Geisha, I identified aromas of mango, passion fruit and honey.

Other Geishas may display different fruit and floral notes, but there’s always an emphasis on outrageous sweetness. And yes, this interplay is simply stunning.

As soon as you open the package, you smell things that are completely new and unexpected. Without a doubt, the scent profile could hardly be further from that of “coffee” in the classic sense.

It’s slightly reminiscent of flavored tea — but in a natural, sophisticated way. And if you think that’s something, the whole situation becomes three times more intense once you’ve run the beans through a coffee grinder.

A close-up of whole bean Geisha coffee

Geisha Coffee’s Taste and Acidity

It’s been said that Geisha, supposedly the world’s finest coffee, tastes absolutely nothing like coffee. I think that came from people who got a little carried away with themselves.

Sure, the most immediate notes are definitely reminiscent of well-rounded, soft black tea. But no individual note dominates here.

Everything plays together in a delicate and tender way, and the slight hint of freshness works beautifully. You’ll still notice coffee flavors, though — especially if you’re accustomed to East African coffee beans.

The coffee plant’s taste reflects its Ethiopian homeland — even if it grows on a farm in Panama, or its accent sounds Peruvian. In this context, I must even admit that the pre-ground filter portion of Don Martin Geisha Enano isn’t in any way inferior to the fresh, whole beans from the calendar tin. 

I’ll say this: Geisha can be special even if you don’t follow all the guidelines for preparing good coffee or freshly grind the beans. You’ll most likely never again hear me say that about another coffee.

Geisha Coffee’s Body and Finish

There’s no trace of oomph or heaviness in Geisha coffee. Elegant sweetness is all that matters here.

I find that you experience the full beauty of this varietal at the end. The finish is long, flavorful and really as special as everyone always claims it is.

Sure, these impressions, so absent of bitters and classic chocolate notes, may leave novices a bit perplexed. But Geisha isn’t a beginner’s coffee.

Conclusion: Geisha Is Special Coffee

The coffee world is more diverse and exciting than ever.

In the past few years alone, my coffee bean reviews have thrilled me again and again. There are always new discoveries and many unexpected tasting notes. The same goes for my espresso reviews.

A close-up of the 19grams' single-portion packaging

When you look at things from that perspective, Geisha is just one of many special coffees. But it’s one that already stands out from the “crowd” because of its price. Blame it on the hype that, once again, I just can’t take seriously.

I’d rather claim that a Geisha coffee finds buyers at the asked-for price no matter what. Folks don’t care that Geisha production doesn’t represent a commitment to improving the value chain. Nor do they pay attention to how it’s roasted. It’s enough that it exists and that it’s labeled the best coffee in the world.

That said, Geisha also represents the “dark side” of the specialty coffee industry: inflated prices meet an unchallenged trend factor. On the other hand, Geisha has decisive advantages over other expensive coffee beans. Unlike Kopi Luwak, Geisha production doesn’t involve cruelty to animals. 

Let’s not forget Geisha is a really high-quality product. The coffee farmers have to put in a lot of effort, cultivating the plants with care and attention. Plus, Geisha is a relatively low-yielding varietal, so mass production seems out of the question.

Still, as soon as this expensive coffee enters the mainstream — which will surely happen — that’ll be the end of it. Once you can buy Geisha coffee at the McCafe around the corner, or if large chains start growing the expensive coffee, this special varietal will go the same way as any good coffee.

All that to say “special” coffee has nothing to do with a name or a varietal. It can just as easily come from Ethiopia or Costa Rica, and the coffee plantation can be large or small. It’s the careful and sustainable production that makes the difference. You can’t define quality by price. Or by the story.

How do you see it? Have you tried Geisha coffee? Did it change your life? I look forward to your comments! Thanks for reading!

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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