Coffee can seem pretty straightforward as we sip it from our mugs; it’s a hot beverage that tastes good and wakes us up (and maybe has us hooked), but its legacy is actually shrouded in a fair share of mystery, intrigue, and good old tall tales.
Historians and coffee aficionados (like Mark Pendergrast in his super comprehensive Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed the World) have delved deep into coffee’s background to uncover its best stories and separate fact from myth. I’m not particularly concerned with what is truth and what is fable; myths usually outlive and outshine facts because they are the stories that are the most rewarding to both hear and tell.
Two of the unshakable pillars of my constitution are that I’m a storyteller and a teacher, and over the past week I had the opportunity to be both as I gave a few coffee tours on Don Tito’s Finca La Milagrosa in Alto Jaramillo de Boquete, Panama.
I told tourees more than I’m sure they ever wanted to know about coffee varietals, farm management, processing, and the international coffee trade. Tours are supposed to bathe people in the cool waters of excessive information, but they’re also supposed to be interesting. In between explaining the difference between Typica and Catuai, I told stories, some about Don Tito and his coffee journey, and two that are the crux of coffee lore and guaranteed crowd pleasers.
The first is the story of Kaldi, the curious Ethiopian goatherd who–legend has it–discovered coffee. The myth of coffee’s transition from tree in the forest to beverage in the cup says that one afternoon Kaldi’s goats didn’t come home when they were supposed to, so he headed up into the forest to look for them. He finds them frolicking and dancing in a clearing (this image never failed to glean smiles and chuckles from tourees. Maybe more from my frolicking gestures than from the story’s plot?) and munching the leaves and cherries of a particular tree. Wanting to frolic dance as jovially as his goats, and just being a curious lad, Kaldi also munches of a few leaves and tries to eat a few berries. He finds them very disappointing. The leaves aren’t edible and the cherries don’t have any flesh to eat. But being the curious goatherd he is, he lops of a few branches and brings them home, thinking perhaps he’ll try making a tea. He puts the branches–leaves, cherries, and all–into a pot of boiling water, but sadly finds that the resulting tea tastes bitter and underwhelmingly woody and leafy. In frustration, the tosses the branches in the fire (or takes them to a monk for consultation, who cries “sacrilege!” and throws them into the fire). One way or another, the branches–leaves, cherries, and all–end up in the fire. A few minutes later, Kaldi (and maybe the monk) smell something that smells surprisingly delightful: the first roasting coffee beans. From here, coffee as beverage was born.
Whether or not this is how Ethiopians first discovered that you can make a tasty (and frolic inducing) drink from the dried and roasted seeds of coffee trees, we’ll probably never know. That coffee’s origins are murky and fantastical is actually pretty fitting; for centuries after its discovery governments and religions weren’t quite sure what to do with coffee. It was a mind altering substance, but it seemed to enhance the mind in positive ways. Eventually coffee gained universal blessing and we’ve never looked back. Coffee has fueled rebellions and revolutions (both industrial and political) and become the official bearer of the banner productivity. Today, coffee seems practical more than mystical. Contemporary coffee phenomenon like Starbucks and the K-Cup are surely more marketing than mystery, but the past decade has shown us that coffee still has a few tricks up its frolicking, mind-altering sleeves.
I wanted to refrain from writing a Geisha post until I’d read the Geisha book, God in a Cup by Michaele Weissman, but I’ve just spent the last week gazing at Geisha trees and imparting their story to tourists, and I can’t hold off any longer. (And I really will get my hands on a copy of God in a Cup asap!)
The story of Geisha is not quite as fanciful as that of Kaldi, but it is perhaps more poignant in that it’s only a decade old. The Geisha story I told last week’s tourees is one compiled from what coffeepeople in Boquete have told me directly. Surely it’s not as detailed as Weisserman’s but it’s all firsthand.
Because Panama had such little coffee producing land and so few caficultores, it doesn’t have a national coffee office, as do all its coffee producing neighbors to the north and south. This means that the Panamanian government has invested in coffee in fits and starts, one of those influxes of funding and interest came in the 60s and included sending agronomists to CATIE (Center for Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Ed) to gather different varieties of coffee tree seeds. Don Pachi (p. 254) says the Geisha was brought for its resistance to roya leaf rust and ojo de gallo, other people say it was just part of one of an assortment of coffee trees that were planted to test performance in Panama’s growing regions. Whatever the reason for brining it, it didn’t make the cut as a varietal for commercial production, with Caturra offering higher yields and then Catimor offering superior leaf rust resistance.
Scattered Geisha trees were left to grow on many farms, one of which was purchased by the Petersons, a family of dairy farmers hailing, several generations back, from Sweden. Tired of a lack of government support, a group of Panamanian caficultores from the towns of Boquete and Volcán (representing the east and west sides of Volcán Barú) founded the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama in 1996 in an effort to learn more about Panama’s coffee growing landscapes, which (the caficultores correctly suspected) are perfectly suited to growing Specialty coffee, coffee that by definition has a cupping score of 85 or above and less than 5% defects. They SCAP was also interested in promoting awareness of Panama as a coffee growing origin, since it’s international reputation was just of being home to the Canal.
In order to verify that they coffee they were producing was in fact Specialty, the members of the SCAP eventually hired coppers (Q graders) and themselves learned to cup. They then set out to cup the existing coffees growing on their lands, methodically cupping coffees from different lots, elevations, and varietals separately in order to have concrete data about they coffee they were producing. The Petersons were among the sample submitters, and one of the coffees they submitted came from these lanky Geisha trees; when it hit the cupping table it knocked everyone’s socks off.
Geisha was a coffee that didn’t taste like coffee. It was clean and crisp and tasted more like tea, with light fruit and floral flavors. The Petersons stumbled upon their Geisha in 2004, and that year submitted it to the SCAP’s Best of Panama cupping competition/auction. Japanese buyers, with their love of teas and fervent appreciation of (obsession with?) all things rare, luxurious, and niche were chomping at the bit. They instantly became the world’s most eager Geisha market, and were willing to pay hundreds of dollars a pound for this intriguing elixir.
Geisha is one of many original African varieties of coffee, meaning it hasn’t naturally mutated or been crossed with any other varietals. Apparently this particular varietal comes from the Gesha mountain in Ethiopia, and because the Japanese fell so instantly in love with its ethereal qualities and mysterious aura–not unlike those a dancing Geisha possesses–the tree and resulting beverage were forever dubbed Geisha.
The reception among tourees to the story of Geisha was consistently more enthusiastic than to the tale of Kaldi, even though that makes a better story on the page. This probably had less to do with the story itself than with the use I made of setting the scene and staging the narrative. Before telling the story of Geisha I pointed out a few particularly cherry-laden Catuai trees near the drying beds. I indicated their plump stature (evidenced by the trunk thickness to height ratio), the deep green color of the leaves, the abundance of branches, and most importantly the “kissing nodes,” the way clusters of ripe cherries cover the entire branch, leaving none of the rough branch itself exposed between the reddening fruit.
From the trees by the processing bed I led my charges through a plot of more leafy Catuai (noting a few Yellow Catuai plants), across a metal bridge over a ditch, past some honking geese, and onto the edge of a steeper plot, where I paused for suspense before saying, “picture that Catuai tree full of ripe cherries and kissing nodes. Compare that, to this,” and I stepped back and pulled aside a curtain of branches to reveal a stately Geisha tree full of deep red cherries. On every tour at least one person gasped and there was always a collective “ooooo” and “ahhhh.” (As any barista will tell you, if coffee’s not at least a little bit theatrical, you’re not doing it right.)
The tourees all reached out to touch the ripe cherries and caress the smooth branches and thin leaves, commenting “it really looks like a dancing Geisha,” or (twice), “the cherries look like Christmas ornaments–they’re so perfectly placed!” A well tended Geisha tree full of harvest is indeed a dramatic site. The long, thin, steeply angled branches have widely spaced nodes with ripe cherries clinging a full 360 degrees around the branch. The lack of secondary branches and sparse leaves give the tree the honed minimalist aesthetic of sleek furniture you’d see at the MOMA and contrast it quite sharply with the stocky, crazed look of the Catuai trees exploding with leaves and wild skews of secondary branches. I point out the thin size of the trunk compared to the eight feet of the tree’s stature. As the tourees gaze up at the Geisha’s crown, a breeze passes through the cafetal and the branches, adorned with their rings of crimson fruit, bounce lazily. Before you get anywhere near tasting it, Geisha just looks expensive.
On my last tour I was about to dramatically pull back the curtain of branches to reveal the elegant tree, but the branches were bare save a few green cherries. The pickers must have just come through this lot. I quickly found another Geisha tree to show, but this time there was no “ahhh” inducing drama. I was reminded of the Geisha’s fleeting temperament; she doesn’t flirt forever. Coffee is still full of the same mystery its carried since its “discovery” so long ago, but, like all mystery, it ebbs and flows and leaves us humble drinkers to forever chase its shadow.