Geisha coffee: why it's not necessarily worth the hype

Geisha coffee: why it's not necessarily worth the hype

Posted on 17-01-2019
By Lydia

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1. Different doesn’t always mean good

Describing someone’s style as “unique” could be considered a backhanded compliment. So saying the same of a flavour profile could also carry that implication of negativity – the tasting notes equivalent of rolling your eyes at a jaunty feathered hat or thigh-high Doc Martens.

Geisha is renowned for its unique taste, but also its diverse flavour profile – something which can mean a delightfully varied experience with each geisha you sample, or, as Head of Coffee Will has noted, a lower quality coffee.

Much like the infamous kopi luwak (or ‘cat sh*t coffee’), where beans are eaten and… partially digested by the cat-like civet, before being retrieved and brewed, the novelty of geisha’s flavour can erroneously affect coffee scores.

This is all complicated further by the temperamental nature of this variety during the growing process… which leads us on to our next point:

2. Its name is problematic

Despite the name, there is no link between geisha coffee and Japan. It actually comes from the variety’s origins in Ethiopia, namely the Gesha region, where it was recorded by British colonialists in the 1950s.

How coffee from Gesha became geisha coffee has been much discussed. It could have been a simple misspelling, the Romanisation of a word from an oral language… or something more uncomfortable – the exoticisation of a rare, delicate coffee, influenced by Western misunderstandings about a Japanese tradition.

But whether that’s true or not, it’s undeniable that that name geisha has led to confusion and controversy around the coffee – from the misuse of images associated with the art of geisha on packaging and in marketing, to a general perpetuation of damaging misconceptions about said tradition and Japan itself.

And while this exoticism is problematic for all sorts of social reasons, the air of mystique it lends to this variety is (arguably) undeserving.

3. It’s a big risk for coffee farmers

With such ludicrously high prices per pound, it might seem like an obvious choice for coffee farmers to try their hand at growing geisha. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Combine an extremely small number of certified seeds, a four year wait from planting to first harvest, and a significant sensitivity to growing conditions and you can start to see the problems.

Low yields, short root systems, strong altitude preferences (where too low means fungus, too high means sun damage) – these all make geisha an incredibly difficult variety to successfully grow. Which means for most farming families, often on the breadline as it is, it’s not a sensible choice.

That’s why, at Pact Coffee, we’d never encourage a farmer to delve into the world of geisha coffee. The risks are too high, and the rewards won’t necessarily match up. With one exception being our final Gold Dust coffee (which is a real one-off novelty for us!), we’d argue that geisha isn’t that great – for multiple reasons.