The history of Panama’s game-changing “geisha” or “gesha” variety, which again and again breaks price records and dominates coffee competition championships worldwide, begins with surprisingly humble intentions.
It was in the 1990s when the Peterson family, founders of Hacienda La Esmeralda and originally Swedish-American, observed a peculiar rust-resistant variety on a new parcel of farmland they had acquired that had otherwise been decimated by rust. Leaf rust, or “la roya”, as it is more commonly known in Spanish, is a blotchy fungus that coats the leaves of the coffee plant, preventing photosynthesis and dramatically reducing output, often suffocating the plant to death. The fragile bourbon- and typica-lineage varieties that had come to dominate South and Central America during wave after wave of colonialization and cash-cropping are some of the world’s most susceptible, and rust outbreaks such as the one the Petersons experienced in the 1990s have forced collective action across the coffee industry to help vulnerable farms survive.
In this particular case, the Petersons were looking to re-plant the damaged parcel of land. The surviving plants were known among agronomists as “geisha” trees, after their likely extraction from the Gesha region in Ethiopia during an agricultural expedition and eventual importation to Costa Rica. The Petersons would decide to re-plant the devastated parcels with more of this variety, including the highest elevations on the farm. It was around this time the Petersons also established a wet mill on the farm’s property, giving them control over processing and lot separation. The newly propagated gesha trees were eventually separated by elevation and the emergent profile would astound the coffee world: Esmeralda’s gesha won the Best of Panama competition in 2004 and vaulted the unique combination of the gesha genetics, the terroir of Boquete’s volcanic soils, and the specific techniques of the Petersons, into permanent legend. Esmeralda’s gesha coffee is lush and floral, with distinct citrus blossom and jasmine fragrances, and custard-like sugars.
Recognizing that sustainability for Hacienda La Esmeralda needs to include worker support as much as coffee quality and resource management, the Petersons have invested heavily in their farmworker program over the years. The labor class in northern Chiriqui Province is most often migrant, often indigenous, and excluded from national healthcare or education systems, meaning cash payments for seasonal work are ineffective at providing a social safety net. Hacienda La Esmeralda operates day care and nutritional programs for workers’ children, as well as financing weekly visits from a private physician and maintains a pharmacy on the farm. Weekly family-sized food subsidies are available to all working individuals, and Esmeralda supplies the lunch program and all didactic materials for two local elementary schools. Furthermore, to encourage education among the farmworker families, every child of farmworkers is entitled to elementary and secondary school fees paid for by the Petersons, as well as a full scholarship to the University of Panama.
In addition to education, nutrition and childcare, Esmeralda distributes harvest bonuses to all farmworkers each June, a few months after the coffees are sold, when workers tend to deplete their cash reserves and are still waiting for their subsistence crops to mature. The pickers responsible for the gesha plots tend to receive triple the standard picking price, due to the precise work required.