By April 2, 2010 Read Article

Understanding the Geisha Cultivar

Like many people in coffee, the Geisha cultivar in Panama fascinates me. I’ve done as much research into its history, as well as other Ethiopian cultivars, as anyone. While I have a lot to say on it here I want to focus on some aspects of its history that were unknown to me until a few days ago and relate a period of its history I haven’t heard before.

Most people who know of the Geisha know of it because of Hacienda La Esmeralda. And the re-discovery of this cultivar by the Peterson family. In 2004 they entered into the best of Panama cupping competition a small lot of coffee selected from this varietal and the rest as they say is history. The Esmeralda Geisha dominated that competition and virtually every cupping competition it has been entered into since. At its best the Geisha cultivar is a truly astounding coffee.  It’s also widely known that this cultivar has its origins in Ethiopia. And was brought to Central America decades ago.

I know a fair amount of why it was collected and likely why it was distributed to research stations around the world. What I didn’t know was WHY it was brought to Panama to be planted. A few days ago in Boquete Panama I was with Fransisco Serracin, cupping coffees from his Family’s Don Pachi estate and visiting his farm to see their Geisha cultivar up close. (It is a very strange varietal with inconsistent characteristics and behaves much more like a hybrid than an established cultivar.) He asked me if I would like to go meet his father Don Pachi. And I happily accepted that opportunity. Don Pachi is the man who brought the Geisha to Panama, and all the mature Geisha trees at Esmeralda and other farms can trace their lineage back to trees he brought from Costa Rica in the 1960’s

We arrived at another of the family’s farms and Don Pachi was out in his fields pruning his trees. This lively 70 year old man with machete at his side has an obviously love of his land, his farm and coffee and it was a great honor to meet with him and ask him some questions.

Around 1960 many farms in Panama and much of Central America began planting the shorter, higher yielding cultivars Caturra and Catuai. But Don Pachi preferred the taller trees like Typica and Bourbon. In addition to his contribution for bringing the Geisha to Panama Don Pachi has also spent his life selectively breeding the Bourbon varietal.

Why did Don Pachi bring the Geisha to Panama? The major motivation was its resistance to rust, an aggressive fungal disease that has ravaged coffee regions around the world. But at the time Don Pachi brought the Geisha to Panama rust hadn’t arrived there yet, and to this day although it has been found in Panama it hasn’t become a large problem. He brought the Geisha from CATIE in neighboring Costa Rica, an agricultural research station which maintains one of the largest coffee species and varietal collections in the world. At CATIE at the time they would have had at least a dozen and likely many more Ethiopian cultivars to choose from, many exhibiting some resistance to rust. So I asked him why did he select the Geisha cultivar in particular? The answer was simple enough. The Geisha had resistance to two strains of rust, which happened to be the two that were currently in other parts of Central America at the time. So when rust reached Panama inevitably, this cultivar would provide some insurance in case of an outbreak. A lot of forethought there. He raised thousands of trees from the Geisha at CATIE and planted at his farm as well as provided to other farms including the Jaramillo plot at Hacienda La Esmeralda. It’s also interesting to note he was a very young man at the time when he brought the Geisha to Panama 22 or 23, either recently graduated or still in college at the time. I didn’t ask. To anyone who has tasted some of the outstanding coffees this varietal can produce its Don Pachi you can thank for this varietal being around today and not just one of many curiosities at a research station. Geisha wasn’t the only Ethiopian varietal he brought from CATIE. He brought half a dozen others as well but none of them he planted widely like he did the Geisha. The names and accession numbers of these plants are forgotten and the trees are now long gone. Why he brought those as well I didn’t ask. Could any have proved the taste sensation that Geisha has become? I can only wonder.

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2 Comments on "Understanding the Geisha Cultivar"

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  1. R. Miguel Meza says:

    it really wasnt something planted by anyone one on any scale outside of Boquete. the geisha cultivar(s?) has been experimented with in many hybridization programs around the world because of it’s rust resistance but to my knowledge no cultivars with it as a parent were ever widely distributed. it was planted on at least one farm in guatemala, which i have tried and it shows of the distinct characterisitcs of the varietal well. i know there is a farm in Costa Rica that has it as well. havent tasted so can’t comment on that one. it seems to be a very tempermental plant. at just slightly lower elevations even in the small area of boquete panama it is a considerably less distinctive coffee. very good still but lacking the explosive aromatics and flavors that brought the Esmeralda geisha fame. it wasn’t anything ever considered much by other farmers until Hacienda La Esmeralda made it famous. it is a very low yeilding plant and a weak plant that is easily adversely affected by inclement weather. but it is now being planted all over central america as well i have heard in Colombia, Sulawesi and likely a couple other places as well. within a couple years these coffees should be coming to the market as well as many more geisha varietal coffees from Panama that have been recently planted. i suspect only a small handful of these will really shine though. we’ll see soon enough though.

  2. R. Miguel Meza says:

    i should mention their are 4 farms in Panama that have geisha from plantings in the 1960’s -Hacienda La Esmeralda, Mama Cata, Don Pachi Estate, and La Esperanza. all of these farms within a certain elevation range have excellent examples of this cultivar.

    the coffee was originally sent to CATIE in Costa Rica in 1953 as Geisha. there were a couple different accessions i believe. forget the #’s at the moment. the coffee came to CATIE from either Tanzania or Kenya, can’t remember which. it was originally collected in an area of southwestern Ethiopia called Geisha forest in 1931. there were several plants presumably of different phenotypes noticed in the area collected. all called geisha or Abbysinian (Ethiopia was called Abbysinnia back then and many early varietals collected from Ethiopia were simply called Abbysinian. there exists one in Indonesia today brought there by P.J.S. Cramer early in the 20th century called abbysinian which was one of the first arabica cultivars that was noticed to provide rust resistance (that particular plant also seems to have some resistance to coffee berry disease and was re-discovered in the research station in Cameroon and widely distributed in that country under the name Java) and it is perhaps because of this varietal why expeditions like the one that yeilded the geisha in 1931 were commissioned.