I recently received a nice package of sample coffees from my neighbors to the south, Brick & Mortar Coffee, based in Springfield, MO. Springfield is about three hours away from Kansas City and not too far from Onyx Coffee Lab territory, so I’m already hatching a plan that will take me to souther Missouri and northwest Arkansas on a big coffee run!
First things first, you can hardly beat BMC’s presentation, using glass Mason-like jars with hand-stamped and written labels on twine. They’re rustic looking and match what you would think of a midsize town in the Midwest’s aesthetic. In my box of coffee was a small 4.5oz jar labeled “Gesha” and I was super-excited as, being a cheap bastard, had yet to try this mythical elixir! I’ll explain further about how any self-respecting coffee reviewer can go so long without trying what is hyped as the best coffee varietal, ever.
Bury I bury the headline too deeply in what is sure to be a ramble of a review, let me begin by saying that this gesha from Brick and Mortar is very good coffee that met none of my expectations (and I’ll explain that more, too! LOL)! The coffee in question is Gesha/Geisha varietal grown in the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica around 1750masl. It’s washed and processed at the La Candelilla micro mill, one of Costa Rica’s first and most respected micro mills.
BMC looks to have run out of this coffee currently, but they sell it for $20 for 4.5oz (Brick and Mortar sells this in the shop and brewed there, but not online) In my research for this article I stumbled across a trip report by my pals at Bold Bean with lots of photos of La Candelilla and the mountains in the Tarrazu and West Valley areas and it looks breathtaking. 1 In the world of gesha’s, $20 for 4.5 ounces is a good price. Sure, it’s about 3x the price of most of the other coffees that Brick and Mortar sells, and honestly, it’s not 3x as tasty and it won’t wash your car for you, but this is a rare coffee from an award-winning grower and if you’re interesting in getting into gesha’s, this is a good place to start. I use 30g of coffee per pourover and this little jar was good for four of them, so at $5 for a couple cups of coffee that’s a heck of a deal.
Getting to the coffee itself, I found it to be very red wine-like. The fragrance on the dry grounds and the aroma out of the cup are super sweet and heavy. There are flavors of plums and light brown sugar tempered by a grape-like acidity that hits my cheeks and digs in (what I refer to as “juicy” usually). The finish and aftertaste are long and I get a sort of spiciness in the aftertaste. There is a lot of wine-like complexity and development in each sip and this coffee was consistent at a range of temperatures. For being a complex coffee it’s still inviting and drinkable, but this is one that you’d want to sit down and give some time to rather than being in your go-cup while you drive to work and honk at terrible drivers!
So, what did I mean when I wrote that it didn’t meet any of my expectations? Let’s back the story up to what gesha is and why it has a reputation that may be a bit of a double-edged sword. No other coffee commands the sort of pricetag (lots have sold for as high as $170/lb) that gesha, or geisha (both are correct) commands and so whenever you see that varietal, there is a huge expectation that it is going to be super special. Gesha is an Ethiopian heirloom varietal that was first selected from the forests and mountains near the town of Gesha (hence the name) in western Ethiopia. Because of some of its characteristics, it was planted around Ethiopia and also taken into Tanzania and Kenya. Eventually gesha made the trip across the seas to Costa Rica and eventually Panama and a few other places in Central and South America. It is well-liked because it is leaf rust-resistant, and leaf rust, a fungus that kills coffee trees, is a big problem in Central America. 2
To this point in our story, gesha is just some random varietal that is found here and there, nothing special. In the early 2000’s, a small stand of gesha trees was found on the famous Peterson estate, La Esmerelda, in Panama (I had one of their coffees, from Corvus in Denver, last year and it was awesome) and they decided to separate out the gesha harvest from what was around it. Most farms, if they had gesha, just picked what was ripe and tossed everything into the process. So, this experiment led to a big payoff and the Peterson’s won first place in the 2004 Panama Cup of Excellence auction with a coffee that, for people who tasted it, was a literal game-changer.
As you can imagine, the hunt was on for gesha coffee, and as people started to separate theirs out, if they had it, they were finding that separating the lots out and processing them alone was worth the effort, especially when the price on gesha coffee went through the roof.
As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for people to start planting gesha wherever they could to take advantage of the market prices and what was soon discovered is that gesha is a somewhat fickle plant and it is nothing to write home about at low altitudes, for sure. The Peterson’s/Panamanian taste profile was one of super complexity, big body and sweetness, super bright acidity and, more than anything, crazy florals spilling out of the cup. Something totally unique in the world of coffee worth paying $10+ per cup for.
So, here I was expecting angels from heaven to rain flowers on me while they blow their trumpets and string their harps and I didn’t get that in this cup from Costa Rica. I contacted my resident gesha expert, Brian Beyke (I Brew My Own Coffee podcast co-host) since this was my first exposure to this mythical coffee and he confirmed that the mix of earth and altitude and weather in Panama is the proverbial perfect storm that produces that amazing-sounding profile and that it can’t be found anywhere else.
I was, admittedly, disappointed in my first go with Brick and Mortar’s gesha. But, Costa Rica’s West Valley and Tarrazu region is no slouch when it comes to coffee and I know La Candelilla is a respected micromill and that one of their geshas won 2nd place in the 2014 Costa Rica Cup of Excellence. So, I took a step back, removed my expectations for what I was hoping this coffee would taste like and I found a lot to like once I did so. It’s a super cup of coffee. Is it the face-melting mindbender that took the coffee world by storm in 2004? No, but that’s OK.
The last part of this story is why has it taken me this long to try a gesha coffee? I’ve been drinking espresso for 20 years and coffee, generally, for nearly as long, most of it specialty. So, what gives? I ran into the same problem when I was reviewing beer and it’s a great problem to have: there are LOTS and LOTS of REALLY GOOD coffees out there at very reasonable prices. For me, if a coffee (or beer, or whatever) is going to cost 4x what another coffee does, it had better taste 4x better, and I know that’s not going to happen. So, you end up paying for the name, the brand, the special packaging, the media blitz and “the rare” and you’re left with a good cup of coffee in the end.
Maybe this is a bad attitude to have, but it is what it is. Why sleep outside in a line for three days to get a bottle of Dark Lord (or buy it on the secondary market for 10x the price) when there is a lifetime of awesome stouts to buy for $10/6-pack on the shelf of my local bottle shop? Why spend $50 for a few ounces of Panamanian geisha when I can spend $20 on 12-ounces of really awesome coffee from any of hundreds of roasters? Sigh. One of these days I’ll spring for some La Esmerelda gesha just so I can say I’ve had it, and I’m sure it’ll be awesome! LOL