The Rise of Gesha: Getting to Know the Famed Coffee Variety
In the first installment of a new series, we explore some basic questions about the famed coffee variety, Gesha.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Gesha Village Coffee Estate
The story of Gesha is famous by now: In 2004, a coffee competing in the Best of Panama competition astounded the international jury charged with evaluating it. In a videoproduced for the 2014 Let’s Talk Coffee conference, a range of veteran coffee professionals—including Boot Coffee’s Willem Boot, Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee, and Ric Rhinehart of the Specialty Coffee Association—describe the unforgettable experience of tasting Gesha for the first time. Ric puts it this way: “… Cupping through these coffees, and I hit one and I went, ‘Who put the Ethiopian on the table? This is not a Panamanian coffee, clearly.’”
This jasmine-scented, unprecedentedly fruity coffee was the Gesha variety, and the 2004 competition was the world’s introduction to it. This coffee was, in fact, grown in Panama—at the now-infamous Hacienda La Esmeralda in the high elevations of Boquete. Gesha’s high-profile debut spurred an industry-wide obsession with the variety. “Within a handful of years, Gesha was planted all over Panama, and then eventually at farms in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras,” says Geoff in the video. “So this one little Gesha tree that ignited people’s imaginations and got people excited in this competition went on to become a global phenomenon.”
The Gesha variety looms large in our current specialty coffee landscape—high-priced, synonymous with the best quality, and a guaranteed conversation starter. In this new series, we’ll explore the variety’s rise over the last (almost) 15 years and delve into its use in the coffee competition world, where Geshas have become a familiar sight in the final rounds of the World Barista Championship, the World Brewers Cup, and other global contests.
But before we jump into the deep end with Gesha, let’s spend our first installment getting to know the Gesha variety a little better by answering a few questions on its background.
Where did Gesha come from?
Those cuppers at the Best of Panama competition in 2004 detected an Ethiopian coffee on the table, and that’s no accident: The Gesha variety originally hails from Ethiopia’s Gori Gesha forest, as Gesha seedlings were originally collected from Ethiopia in the 1930s by the British Consul Richard Whalley.
The variety eventually landed at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica in the 1950s, and in the 1960s a government official from Panama came to CATIE in search of new coffee varieties to try growing in the country. He returned with a handful of varieties and distributed them to farms in Boquete—one of which was Hacienda La Esmeralda. Though the Peterson family who owns Hacienda La Esmeralda wouldn’t discover Gesha’s fantastic quality until much later, this variety migration paved the way for the variety to later be discovered.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest in jumpstarting the production of Gesha in its native Ethiopia, led by a 475-hectare coffee farm called Gesha Village Coffee Estatelocated about 12 miles from the Gori Gesha forest. Gesha Village’s owners, Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel, took part in an expedition to gather seedlings from the forest; they now grow several versions of Gesha from that expedition with the goal of attaining the highest possible quality. “Gesha is well-known in the industry now for its great quality, but Ethiopia hasn’t been a big part of its story, even though Gesha comes from here originally,” says Rachel. “We’re excited to be helping to develop a specialty market for coffee in the Gesha region so that this amazing coffee is finally available in its birthplace.”