Intro by Charlie Habegger
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.
Green Analysis by Chris Kornman
Recognizably oblong, these slightly larger than average beans run a wide spectrum of sizes but generally play out in the 16 and up range. Free settled density is a little on the low side, perhaps a combined function of elevation and bean shape/size. Moisture and water activity here are well dialed, and this coffee should last well. You’ll probably find a gentler roasting approach works best, but the coffee will also surely retain its distinctive character regardless of roasting style.
Gesha, with or without the i, begins its origin story somewhere close to the town of Gesha in remote western Ethiopia’s Bench Maji Zone. British agents picked and transported coffee from the forests around Kaffa to Kenya in 1931, and seeds from these trees were then sent to Uganda and Tanzania in 1936. A second expedition and collection was made that year, as well. The British botanist T.W.D. Blore, based in Kenya, notes the tree’s “long drooping primaries, prolific secondary growth, small narrow leaves and bronze tips.”
The seeds then made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica in 1953. Researchers there targeted the selection for its resistance to coffee leaf rust. CATIE’s elevation is quite low, around 600 meters above sea level, and planting there, and shortly thereafter in Panama, brought by an agent of that country’s ministry of agriculture, was largely abandoned due to low productivity and poor quality. It’s generally accepted today that the cultivar is fickle, and that its best attributes are highlighted by a combination of elevation, rainfall, soil and nutrient composition, and myriad other environmental and horticultural factors.
Recent genetic testing by World Coffee Research (WCR) provides evidence that there are many Geshas growing that are not a genetic match to the CATIE sample. That sample, labelled T2722, is commonly referred to now as Panama(nian) Ge(i)sha due to its meteoric rise in prominence on the fields of the Jaramillo plot of Hacienda la Esmeralda in Boquete, first recapturing international attention at the Best of Panama auction in 2004.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising to hear that there are genetic discrepancies in Gesha seedlings, looking back on the cultivar’s history. Note that multiple collections were made in the field, and many different research stations, beyond those mentioned, have had their own collections since the 1950s. Gesha was gathered very near the heart of wild arabica’s naturally diverse origin, so it should come as little surprise that not all Gesha trees are a perfect match to each other. Even on the Peterson’s estate, recent work by Stephanie Alcala showed three distinct phenotypes in Gesha trees on Hacienda Esmeralda, including a dwarf.
Ikawa Analysis by Chris Kornman
We’ve updated our V2 Ikawa Pro machines with the latest Firmware version (24) and run on “closed loop” setting. Our roasters underwent full service in October of 2018 which included replacement heating elements and an updated PT 1000 temperature sensor, and were recalibrated in September 2019.
My first Esmeralda Gesha experience was in 2007. Intelligentsia joined an alliance of US roasters and bid on the Best of Panama auctions, smashing the previous year’s record at $130 per pound. I was a barista educator at the time and was asked to brew the coffee for an exclusive, invitation-only event. I had spent the summer crafting recipes on our Clover (a single-cup auto-brewer) for various coffees and needed to dial in the super-expensive coffee with just a few tries. With the help of the QC manager at the time, we tasted a few brews and chose the one that hit the intended profile notes: mandarin orange, jasmine, and vanilla.
I’d been curious about roasting for years, and near the end of 2008 got the opportunity to join the roasting crew on the production floor. Our small batch roaster was a 23k Gothot, a German cast iron drum machine, vintage 1953 if memory serves. By 2009, Esmeralda had begun their own private auction, and Intelligentsia won a lot called “Carnival” that went for a spendy $35/lb (a far cry from the Best of Panama winner that year, a Gesha from Hellen Russell and Willem Boot’s Sophia Estate that captured over $200/lb).
I was too junior to get the opportunity to roast the coffee that year, but I recall the lead roaster’s gentle approach, explaining to me that the oblong shape of the beans and delicate florals expressed best when drawn out early in the roast and ending with a relatively low end temperature.
More than a decade later and the advice still rings true, at least on my Ikawa roasts. The shorter, high airflow profiles (red and blue) both produced delicious notes of apple candy, nectarine, jasmine, and lilac. But it was the longer, slower approach with lower airflow that impressed me most at the cupping table. Mandarin orange anchored the flavor profile, with delicate raspberry flavors and apricot flavors and a peppermint leaf floral character.
Listen: any way you roast it will taste great, but for extraordinary results on this extraordinary coffee, try and take it just a little slower, I think.
You can download the profile to your Ikawa Pro app here:
Roast 1: Crown Standard SR 1.0
Roast 2: Crown Maillard +30 SR 1.0
Roast 3: Crown 7m SR Low AF
Roast Analysis by Candice Madison
It is always a little scary – in a good way – to roast a coffee that is new to you. It is even more scary – still in a good way? – to do so with a coffee from a storied farm, exceptionally well-known provenance and a cup profile that is revered in a way that makes most who first encounter it sound like newly-minted cult members. The thing is, cults are terrible – hollow, inauthentic and disappointing – or so I’ve heard. The Gesha from the Peterson’s famous farm, Hacienda La Esmeralda is none of these things. The reason the variety, and particularly the trees grown in this terroir, is so loved, is the bounteous and surprising flavors the cup presents.
I tried two roasts of this coffee, the first was around 40 shorter than the second. My usual wont would be to do a shorter faster roast to take advantage of the enzymatic reactions taking place in stage 1 to carry those fruit and floral notes to the fore and sacrifice a little of the sweetness to do so. However, I started that roast 10F higher than usual (370F), and with a 300g charge weight, this proved to be too much for the small batch. Back to the drawing board, because even though I hadn’t cupped the roast, I knew I wanted something more from the coffee.
I started the second roast with 400g of coffee at 360F, and, following a little advice from Chris’ many years of experience with this coffee, I only turned the gas up to 80% after the turning point (2.75-ish on the dial). About a minute later, I turned the gas all the way up (3.5 on our dial) to carry the roast forward to through to stage 2. I then turned the gas back down to 80% once I’d marked stage 2’s arrival.
Multiple gas changes aren’t my preferred method of roasting, but I really wanted to do the most I could, right out of the gate. I took the mantra that slower was going to do me, and the coffee, better, so I turned the gas down twice more before first crack. The coffee cracked at 390F, and rolled almost immediately. Although I had the gas at minimum, the coffee still raced, and should I be able to get my hands on more, I would turn the flame down 50%, or rearrange my previous gas changes to ensure I had enough time to finish at a lower temperature, although, probably only 2 or so degrees lower. What can I say, I’m a perfectionist and this coffee is perfection.
I say that, not because it’s a Gesha from Esmeralda, I say this because this coffee is easy to roast, and has such a broad spectrum of favourable cup qualities that it will taste great no matter how you choose to roast it and for whichever brew method you prefer.
My first (fast) roast was actually really tasty! Lots of fruit notes, super sweet cup, a pronounced, but mellow lemon acidity, but not enough clarity for me. Now, I realise that I’m being fussy, a perfectionist if you will. But come on! Imagine someone had given you one of the best coffees in the world to play with – I wanted more!! The second roast was it, right smack bang on target. I was so happy, I think I called Chris on the phone, as I was cupping in isolation, to squeal about it! There are a lot of exclamation points in this paragraph, but, believe me, they’re warranted. Tropical fruits, especially papaya, rose hips, starfruit and mandarin acidity, black tea and, I swear, a sweetness that reminded me Cadbury’s Creme Egg – chocolate custard – that transported me back to the playground in North London 30-something years ago.
I know some people will roast this for espresso and I think it would actually be really lovely, a balanced roast would give you a sweet, floral and fruity drink, be it espresso only or with milk. But for me the nuances of this coffee, the complexity of the flavors and the articulation of the same are what make the beverage. So, personally, I would drink this as a late morning pourover or a mid afternoon flashbrew – which I am, currently!
Behmor Analysis by Evan Gilman
Unless otherwise noted, I follow a set standard of operations for all my Behmor roasts. Generally, I’ll use the 1lb setting, manual mode (P5), full power, and high drum speed until crack. Read my original post and stats here.
Despite its reputation as a touchy coffee variety, this coffee was very friendly in the roaster. While it’s not possible to achieve the shorter roast times and intense airflow one can get with a production drum roaster, the Behmor did a fine job of expressing the sweetness and complexity that this coffee holds.
Using my usual settings of full power with high drum speed from the outset, I did want to eventually take this coffee more gently into first crack. At 10:40, I engaged P4 to slowly ramp down the heat into first crack, which happened just 10 seconds later! This was a little sooner than I was hoping for, so I really tried to mellow out the post crack development by opening the door of the roaster all the way until the roast finished at 11:50.
As everyone has noted, it is going to be really difficult to make this coffee taste bad. While my roast progressed faster than anticipated, the cup was still full of canned mandarin orange sweetness, and ephemeral floral and herbal notes that made me keep coming back for slurps. This coffee lives up to its reputation.
There are many tales about cuppers taking the cup off the table to drink from, and this is just such a coffee. Luckily my experiences with kopi tubruk prepare me for the grounds at the bottom of the cup, but this coffee is just so delicious, I might end up chewing on it as well. Check below for some brew notes from Nate in case you’re not as into coffee chaw as I am!
Brew Analysis by Nate Lumpkin
This is the first gesha from Panama I’ve had the good fortune to taste this year, and I was excited to give it a whirl. The good news is that no matter what I did with it, it had the same sweetness, florality, and delicate juiciness, like plum nectar and honeysuckle. You’re going to have an easy time with a coffee this good.
I brewed the Esmerelda with a couple standard pour-over devices. I chose the V60 first, since it’s a standard device and many of you will probably have access to it. I used a one to fifteen ratio, with 20g of coffee and 300g of water. It brewed through at a steady 2:53 with no issues. The result was really clean and sweet. I experienced flavors of lemon and cucumber, and others reported lime, kiwi, blood orange, grapefruit, apricot, and some mild but pleasant herbality, like rosemary and peppermint. Simply an easy, delicious cup of coffee.
For my second brew I used the Fellow Stagg. This is a smaller pour-over device with some attributes that give its brews a fuller extraction. Sure enough, it brewed a little bit faster at 2:42 but with a high extraction, and it showed in the flavors. I tasted a delicious mix of lemonade, blue raspberry, and white sugar, just a really sweet and citric drink, like summer candy. Others tasted sweet pear, honey, dried cherry, grapefruit, clove, and sage, with a touch of milk chocolate. This brew was a little heavier and more syrupy than the v60.
In short, this coffee’s going to be great no matter what you do with it. It tasted great on filter coffee, and I’m sure it would taste great on espresso too.