Are coffee competitions moving away from Gesha?
Over the past 15 years or so, many World Coffee Championships (WCC) competitors have used the highly-prized Gesha (or Geisha) variety in their routine.
When this exclusive coffee was rediscovered in 2004 at the Best of Panama (BoP) auction, it kickstarted a craze for the variety. It boasted complex floral notes and a tea-like body. In the years that followed, Gesha production proliferated in terms of both volume and geographical location, alongside soaring auction prices.
But is this “Gesha craze” coming to an end?
In the recent 2021 WCC, held at HostMilano, several winning or top-scoring competitors selected not a rare arabica variety, but instead another species altogether: C. eugenioides. In the months since, it has been tipped as another up-and-coming “darling” of specialty coffee.
So, are competitors moving away from Gesha? And do other varieties and species have the same kind of potential as it once did? I spoke to four WCC competitors and a Colombian coffee producer to learn more.
You may also like our article on how five barista champions chose their competition coffees.
A brief history of Gesha
The Gesha variety is commonly associated with Panama, but its origins actually trace back to Ethiopia. Gesha was first discovered in the southern Gesha region (or “woreda”) during the 1930s, hence its namesake. Its uniquely elongated and pointed leaves were of considerable interest to both producers and researchers.
Gesha seeds were eventually transported to research centres in Kenya and Tanzania, where the variety name was first recorded as “Geisha” (hence the difference in spelling). Seeds were then acquired by CATIE (The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre) in Costa Rica some time in the 1950s.
Gesha actually only arrived in Panama in the 1960s, when Don Francisco Serracín planted seeds in the western parts of the Boquete region in the 1960s. The Don Pachi Estate is still in operation today; a coffee from there even won the annual BoP auction in 2011.
However, while Gesha has been grown in Panama for more than 50 years, it took a few decades to establish its position in the market. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama was established in recognition of the quality of Panamanian coffee.
The real breakthrough came in 2004, when Hacienda La Esmeralda entered one of its Geshas at a BOP auction and won. This set a then-world record for the highest amount paid for a pound of coffee: US $21.
The 2004 BOP auction set a new precedent for the Panamanian coffee sector. Previously, coffee farmers in the country relied on growing a variety of crops for stable income, but rising prices for Gesha helped to secure Panama’s place on the international stage.
Why is Gesha so popular at competitions?
It wasn’t long before Gesha started to perform exceptionally well at national and international auctions around the world. In 2019, a Gesha from Lamastus Family Estates received the highest score ever recorded at a BoP auction: 95.25 points.
Prices for Gesha were also soaring. At the virtual 2021 BoP auction, a fermented Gesha from Finca Nuguo received a record bid of US $2,560/lb. This bid significantly beat the record from 2020: US $1,300.50/lb in 2020 for a washed Gesha Levado from Finca Sophia.
As Geshas become more and more highly-prized, it was a natural progression for WCC competitors to also showcase these exclusive coffees on arguably the most prominent stage in the coffee industry.
Over time, it came to be the norm. Of the nine World Brewers Cup (WBrC) champions from 2011 to 2019, seven used Gesha.
Agnieszka Rojewska is the Head of Coffee Quality for Carimali. She is also a three-time Polish Barista Champion, four-time Polish Latte Art Champion, and the 2018 World Barista Champion. She tells me that sourcing Gesha for competitions took considerable time.
“Producers and importers weren’t keen to share one of their best and most expensive coffees with competitors that had what they saw as a small chance of winning,” she says. “When I competed for the 2018 WBC, I contacted producers and they either said no or they didn’t respond at all.”
Agnieszka then ended up using an Ethiopian heirloom coffee for her winning routine.
Chad Wang is the founder of VWI by Chad Wang and a WCC-certified judge. He won the 2017 WBrC using a natural processed Gesha.
“Geshas are undeniably tasty – we can all agree on that when we think back to tasting it for the first time,” Chad says.
“Panamanian farmers are known for experimenting with processing micro lots, so it gives competitors the freedom to have input on the processing technique,” he adds. “Competitors can even buy the whole lot, which can be advantageous for competitions.”
When did competitors start to move away from Gesha?
As Gesha became more popular, production began to grow in other countries – most notably Colombia and Ethiopia. However, this also meant that there was a risk that lower-quality Geshas would start to appear, and dilute the market.
“When you aren’t as experienced and doing your research before competitions, you read that Gesha is the best coffee, so naturally you want to use it for your routine,” Agnieszka says. “The more that people competed with Gesha, the more people wanted it, so more farmers produced it.”
In response, however, some competitors have started to opt for other lesser-known varieties to prove that they could be as equally high in quality as Gesha.
Perhaps the most notable example came in 2015, when Saša Šestić won the World Barista Championship (WBC) with an Ethiopian Sudan Rume.
At the time, this variety was typically sold as part of blends, so Saša’s winning performance catapulted the coffee into the spotlight.
“Varieties other than Gesha have outstanding flavour potential, but for years producers were growing what they knew would sell well,” Agnieszka tells me. “Now that the awareness of the new varieties is growing, producers can see the marketing potential for competitions.”
Chad adds that experimentation with processing has also helped to diversify coffees used in competitions. Saša also drove the popularity of the carbonic maceration process with his 2015 WBC win: a fermentation technique influenced by the wine industry.
“Fermentation is an effective way to influence the aroma and taste of coffee. It changes the acidity levels and body of coffee,” Chad explains. “Fermentation can significantly help coffee farms to offer different tastes without having to change too much.”
The “forgotten” coffee species: Coffea eugenioides
While Sasa’s victory in 2015 (and others in the years since) showed the beginning of a move away from Gesha, perhaps the biggest change in recent memory came at the 2021 World Coffee Championships
While some Geshas were presented on the stage at the 2021 WCC, there was a notable trend of competitors opting for lesser-known, more exclusive coffees.
The most prominent example was Coffea eugenioides, used by both WBC winner Diego Campos and WBrC winner Matt Winton.
Fernando Oka is the owner of Okafe Roasters, and the Head of Quality Control and Sales Director for Finca Inmaculada – the Colombian farm Matt Winton sourced his eugenioides from.
Andrea Allen and Hugh Kelly – who respectively placed second and third in the 2021 WBC – also sourced eugenioides from Finca Inmaculada.
“Eugenioides is a small plant and it doesn’t especially look like coffee, it’s more like a Christmas tree,” Fernando explains. “The cherries are also much smaller.”
Eugenioides is considered to be a “rediscovered” coffee. It is a parent species of arabica, alongside robusta, and is believed to have originated in East Africa.
Although eugenioides is not consumed on any commercial scale, it has been described as having a unique flavour profile, with strong notes of tropical fruit and a silky mouthfeel.
Three-time Australian Barista Champion and Head of Training at ONA Coffee Hugh Kelly tells me why he chose eugenioides for his 2021 WBC routine.
“I’ve tasted a lot of coffee with tropical flavours, but never with the sweetness and tactile sensations so close to actual fruit,” Hugh says. “Eugenioides is different. Its flavours are clearer, because it contains fewer chlorogenic acids and less caffeine.”
While eugenioides’ diminished caffeine content (around 40% less than arabica) does mean it is less bitter, it is also probably one of the reasons why it isn’t as prominent; caffeine acts as a natural deterrent to pests and diseases, meaning lower levels leave plants more susceptible to damage.
Hugh also used another relatively unknown coffee species in his WBC routine, which hails from Southeast Asia: liberica. He used a 50-50 blend of eugenioides and liberica for his milk-based beverage.
“In the milk-based category, eugenioides added caramel qualities and its tropical flavours,” he says. “The liberica added some intensity, as well as some banana notes,” he says.
However, Hugh also notes that much like eugenioides, liberica has little-to-no presence on the global market, despite its potential.
“Liberica has unique qualities that make it exciting to drink, but its potential has not yet been realised in more high-end markets and competitions, and its quality isn’t valued.”
What does the future hold for competition coffees?
Gesha still holds a firm presence in coffee competitions, but there is growing potential for other varieties, processing techniques, and even species to be showcased more frequently. This diversification is healthy not just for competitions, but for the coffee industry overall.
“It is hard not to like Gesha and to not appreciate its elegant character,” Agnieszka says. “It is like the champagne of coffee, but drinking champagne every day can destroy its magic.”
Andrea Allen is the co-owner and co-founder of Onyx Coffee Lab. She used a blend of eugenioides and Gesha in the espresso category of her 2021 WBC routine to balance the sweetness and acidity of each coffee.
“The highest stage of coffee should work to elevate producers and baristas alike, showcasing what can happen when the world’s greatest coffees get into the hands of the world’s best baristas,” she says.
She adds that platforms like the WCC are better equipped to showcase rare coffees and encourage diversity than roasters or coffee shops.
“For instance, growing eugenioides is a huge risk,” she says. “It takes years to grow the plants and cultivate harvests from them.
“The work that went into this coffee is extraordinary and the WBC should absolutely highlight the success of these risks.”
Andrea chose eugenioides as she felt it would highlight some more traditional flavour notes in the milk-based category – including “lightly salted caramel” and “cake batter”.
For the most part, acidic and floral tasting notes have historically been more desirable in competitions. However, if the focus at coffee competitions switched to accept more “traditional” flavour profiles, there could be additional benefits on a global scale.
“This would allow producers who are growing more traditional varieties to potentially have more success,” Andrea explains. “Instead of super acidic coffees dominating the market, perhaps more traditional brown sugar flavour notes would regain some popularity.”
Fernando also agrees that the WCC presents a viable great place for lesser-known coffees to gain global recognition.
“Baristas are always looking for unique coffees for competitions,” he says. “I think we will start to see more species, like liberica and stenophylla, that we can recover and resurrect.”
Although Gesha will most likely remain popular at coffee competitions, it’s clear from the 2021 World Coffee Championships that things are starting to change. Whether it’s new varieties, new processing methods, or new species, stages like these are built to breed innovation.
“Exploring arabica varieties is making a small adjustment, a small step when experiencing coffee,” Hugh concludes. “Exploring different species of coffee is like taking many leaps in many different directions.”
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on why not all Geshas taste the same.
Photo credits: Jordan Montgomery, Chad Wang
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