A Geisha I Can Get Behind

Michael Nagrant / 11.08.07

I generally don’t like to eat anything that came out the ass of a Civet. Or from the digestive system of any other living thing for that matter. Which is odd, because I have no problem eating the digestive system itself: I’m a connoisseur of natural casing sausage, kidneys, and liver. Still I’ve made this distinction and I’m sticking to it for now. As such, I haven’t had a chance to tasteKopi Luwak, one of the most expensive coffees in the world.

Kopi Luwak, as you can probably guess from my opener, comes from coffee berries which have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet. The animal’s digestive system works as sort of a defacto depulping mechanism, yielding partially-digested beans coated with various internal essences and enzymes. The beans are harvested, cleaned, lightly roasted and sold.

Still, perceived luxury is a deadly siren. As a child of the MTV generation, I’ve grown up with rappers and rock stars rocking Coach and Cartier, inundating me with Cristal and caviar. As a generally label unconscious straight white boy, you’d think I’d see through the crap (in the case of the coffee, literally). But, a few years ago I found myself totally obsessed with Louis Vuitton’s Takashi Murakami line of cherry blossom handbags. Of course, sense prevailed, as I have no use for a purse. A man purse maybe, but I didn’t have $90,000 or whatever a custom Vuitton messenger bag would have cost. Point is, sometimes, you eventually find yourself reasoning: maybe I should be drinking butt coffee?

But just in time, a couple of weeks ago, Intelligentsia, a Chicago micro-roaster offered up Geisha, one of the world’s most expensive coffees that doesn’t come from the gut of a furry creature.

Geisha is grown in Boquete, Panama at the plantation Hacienda La Esmeralda. Its origin is Ethiopian, but the variatel moved via missionaries and foreign consuls through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Costa Rica prior to landing in Panama.

The Geisha varietal is low yielding and tend to mirror typica plants in height (along with the bourbon, typica represents most of the widely available coffees we drink). They thrive at altitudes of 1,400-1,500 km, and the leaf cover on Geisha is sparse. The branches of the plant grow at an extreme vertical angle to facilitate nutrient flow.

Since the plant needs more coddling than a diva like J-Lo, it was unattractive to commercial growers seeking to sell Aluminum can sealed pap by the ton. And as Geoff Watts, Vice President of Chicago’s Intelligentsia coffee puts it, “The reason there’s so much bad coffee in the world is that the world has never been willing to pay for great coffee.”

The owners of Hacienda Esmeralda thought differently. Instead of automating everything, preying on poor workers by paying less than a living wage, and muddling all of their harvest in bad equipment, the Peterson family took a cue from Apple and decided to “Think Different”.

At Esmeralda, the berries are hand picked and then picked over to remove any unripe beans. The beans are then run through state of the art depulping machines. In the case of the Geisha, there’s a papaya perfume that wafts during depulping which carries over into the finished cup. Once depulped, the beans are dried on patios and occasionally in mechanical dryers. This “wet” drying process is where most of the flavor of a bean is lost, and the beans at Esmeralda are carefully monitored to ensure that the temperature of the bean never exceeds a point where volatile and essential oils can escape.

The Geisha discovery was a case of serendipity. Even though the family owned the farm since 1964, they didn’t start growing coffee seriously until 1987. By 1996, they bought a couple of nearby farms, including Esmeralda Jaramillo aka Pequenia Suecia (“Little Sweden” to commemorate the family’s ethnic heritage) where Daniel Peterson, the grandson of the plantation’s founder, found the geisha trees growing.

After the first harvest, Peterson separated out each of the different Geisha harvests into different lots (last years harvest included 27 different lots) and cupped the individual beans, and identified a distinct citrus infused lot that was unlike anything previously tasted in Panama. The beans were so different, he worried about entering them in competition for fear that people would perceive the difference as a production failure. He entered the beans anyway, and since 2004, they’ve won every head to head competition in which they’ve been entered. Peterson says, now that the secrets out, he’s heard of people roaming African jungles searching for indigenous Geisha plants. Watts, says that a number of farms in Panama are now attempting to grow Geisha to capitalize on the economic boon, not unlike the explosion of Blue Agave farming in the last decade.

Peterson’s craft and attention to detail melded with the values of Chicago’s Intelligentsia coffee who led a consortium of micro-roasters to buy last year’s top harvest of Geisha for $130 a pound at auction.

My own personal taste of the coffee at the Intelligentsia roasting works was pretty profound. Smooth with lemon and honey notes, the coffee channeled the perfect cup of tea. With no stomach churning acidity or even hints of bitterness or chocolate you might typically associate with coffee, it’s a paradigm shifting cup.

Since it’s not the very definition of coffee, you may not feel it’s the best cup you’ve ever had. But to use a wine analogy, if you’re one of those folks who likes oaky chardonnays or big dusty Bordeauxs, but also get blown away when you come across an outlying Sauvignon Blanc which bursts with grapefruit or tropical notes, then this is most definitely a coffee for you. Purists on the other hand, need not apply. Though I suppose the folks at Intelligentsia are purists and they loved it so much, they paid a ransom for it.

The coffee is available online at intelligentsiacoffee.com, and the beans retail for $55 a quarter pound and $99 a half pound. It’s a small price to pay for greatness, and best of all you don’t need to sort through dung to drink a cup.