By Danny Pinnell, SCAA
Our coffee talk from this week’s staff meeting was a sort of team effort between Peter Giuliano and Ric Rhinehart. While working as a coffee buyer at Counter Culture coffee in 2004, Giuliano received a phone call from Rhinehart, co-owner of Groundwork Coffee in Los Angeles at the time. He called to inform Giuliano of his recent trip to lead a tasting jury deciding the best coffee of Panama and, though it sounded crazy, one tasted fairly Ethiopian.
Most coffee tasters regard Ethiopian coffees with some sort of special reverence due to their compelling aromatics, which this coffee had, along with the prowess and finesse of a Panamanian. It seemed too good to be true.
Rhinehart wanted to get a group together to bid on this coffee at the Best of Panama Auction because he was sure it’d be a real barnburner. His words turned out to be prescient when it broke any imaginable record for coffee sold at an auction up to that point.
This coffee spawned a movement due to its mysterious cultivar, a variety produced by horticultural or agricultural techniques and not normally found in natural populations. This particular cultivar is known as gesha—or geisha, there is some controversy in spelling—perhaps named after a town in Southwestern Ethiopia, but the origin is obscure. It is a cultivated indigenous variety of the species coffea arabica.
The gesha cultivar became a compelling story in coffee, being the only variety that had inspired a book (“God in a Cup,” by Michaele Weissman).
The particular coffee we sampled during our weekly staff meeting was Allegro from the Peterson family’s Hacienda La Esmeralda farm in Boquete, Panama, which has a bright, sweet acidity that is explosively floral on the palate. In the words of a former colleague of Giuliano’s, “drinking gesha coffee is like drinking flowers.”
Giuliano credits this coffee at the one that turned him on to the importance of cultivar and how much of coffee’s character comes from biology and its genetic make-up.
Gesha can be an incredibly hard cultivar to grow because it is very susceptible to winds, very labor-intensive, and not everyone has the resources to produce it. The resulting product, when achieved, is exceptional.
Upon getting better acquainted with this particular cultivar over time, Rhinehart noted that the unique flavor expressed itself over and over again, leading him to realize that the unique flavor was not a result of a processing or environmental issue, but an inherent and genetic makeup of the coffee. This realization, he said, was a big deal–bigger than could be imagined at first blush.
He took the story of the gesha cultivar to segue into acknowledging the bifurcation in the coffee industry: seeking to produce better coffee versus seeking to produce more coffee for a cheaper price. The SCAA recognizes that coffee is moving to a better place in terms of quality—there is a connoisseurship that is taking place—and the gesha cultivar is a great representation of that.
The gesha cultivar is of wonderful quality, but is typically low yield, hard to produce, and cost intensive.
The issue for coffee farmers in this case is whether they want to grow these high-quality, low-yield coffees for a higher price, or to produce a cheaper, larger crop that can be sold cheaply in large quantities. This dynamic plays out not only at the farm level, but on the regional level, national level, and throughout the whole world.
Indonesian coffee farmers can have the choice to grow arabica or robusta, as much as cheaply as possible or smaller, more high-quality yields. Brazil can crank out as many millions of bags as possible and sell them at commodity prices or try to produce smaller, highly specialized coffee and get a better price per pound, and thus a better price per acre. It all depends on the market demand.
The coffee farmer is caught in between these branches and must grow what the market wants. Many farmers are better rewarded for producing a lot of cheap coffee rather than a smaller amount of a product of the best possible quality.
This tension is fundamental to the coffee industry, and eventually one side will prevail. The hope is that our side of the market will prevail and people will continue to see coffee as a better experience. The ongoing debate is how to convince people that better coffee is the better answer.