This morning I have a very special coffee, a Geisha from the grower that started the craze, roasted by one of my favorite roasters and cafe’s in Kansas City, Monarch Coffee. This was an unexpected gift from Monarch and it’s actually my first taste of La Esmeralda Geisha, so I’m super excited to share this one with you! Slurp!
MONARCH COFFEE HACIENDA LA ESMERALDA WASHED GEISHA
It’s serendipity that Monarch Coffee opened right across the street from KC CARE Clinic, where I volunteer on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Usually we’re slammed, but we had a rare slow day recently and I took my intern across the street to Monarch for a cup. Tyler Rovenstine, who owns Monarch with his wife, Jaime, spotted me and left a bag of this Geisha… THE Geisha, on my table for me. It was such an unexpected gesture and on a day where things weren’t going totally right and so it had extra meaning there, too. Roasters already treat me with way more respect that I deserve and so to have a $30 bag of special coffee just given to me was just… awesome. Anyway, Monarch has been creating a great reputation since opening, and in a market that has WAY more than our fair share of specialty coffee places. From the beautiful interior to the iconic (already!) white and black tiled floor, Monarch’s real crown jewel is excellent service and locals have been appreciating it!
Now, Geisha… what the heck is it? My understanding of the Geisha story is that Geisha is one of the many thousands of varieties that grows readily in Ethiopia, named because of its proximity to the Gesha (another way of spelling it) village there. Somewhere along the way, Geisha plants were taken to Central America, probably to see how they cope against leaf rust, and promptly forgotten about, more or less. As legend has it, the Petersons, who own Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, discovered a section of their property that was mainly Geisha and separated this coffee out from the rest rather than mixing it in with their other lots. They entered this coffee into the Cup of Excellence auction in the mid-2000’s if I recall correctly and they melted peoples’ faces with it! After that, Geisha became the thing to seek out, grow and, truthfully, make money from. There is definitely something to the fact that La Esmeralda’s top-scoring Geishas are different from those grown in other places. The growing conditions there seem perfect to bring out the most unique characteristics of this coffee. I’ve had a few non-Peterson Geishas over the years and they’re good coffees, but not really a unique experience in any way and that was totally different for this coffee. Monarch gives us tasting notes of, “honeysuckle, jasmine, peach, lime, and a milky sweetness.” This lot was grown at Jaramillo, El Velo and Cañas Verdes at altitudes of 1600-1800masl.
I used my standard pourover setup for the preparation of my cups: 1:16 ratio of 28g of coffee to 450g of Third Wave Water in a notNeutral Gino dripper with Kalita 185 filters. I used a Handground grinder set to 3. It’s always a little funny to taste and review coffees like this because how much of my impression is “real” and how much of it is informed by the context of this being a special, relatively rare, and expensive coffee? It’s like in the beer business when people jokingly ask if you can “taste the rare” on a bottle of expensive beer that you waited in line to buy. LOL
That being said, I’ll try to give as unbiased of an impression as possible. First of all, the aroma coming off the brew bed was wholly unique and totally wonderful. Ironically, the aroma right off the brewer as coffee is being extracted is about 75% of the time not that great, for me, and 25% of the time actually something I lean in and want to breathe more of. This was definitely one of the latter. Tons of floral aromas were pouring from the brew bed, as well as a lime note that was both limey and floral at the same time. The same aromas come through in the cup aroma and as it cools my mind leans a little toward the aroma of lime Jell-O, too, of all things.
Prepared this way, my cup had a medium body and a presence on my palate that was heavier that expected. When people rave about Geisha coffees, I’ve always gotten the impression that they are super delicate and light, light, light. This version from Monarch has a relatively heavy presence on my palate and the flavors really seem to penetrate my tongue and cheeks. So, about those flavors… as its reputation suggests, this Geisha is just redolent with florals. I am not a flower expert by any stretch, so I can’t really parse these out, but this is definitely the most floral tasting coffee I’ve ever had. And those florals are very fresh and clean. The floral notes in some coffees read as very perfume-like, having more of a concentrated and maybe even synthetic vibe, but not in this coffee. These florals are fresh and clean like fresh cut stems at the farmer’s market in the height of growing season. Along with those floral notes is a healthy lime acidity, which, for me, is the real star of the show in this coffee.
For me, the use of lime as a descriptor usually implies a citrus note that also has bitterness, as lime does. In this case, it’s a more unique, sweeter lime essence without much, if any, bitterness along for the ride. In the early sip the lime is sweet and fresh. Mid-sip, it’s a little tangy and offers that acidity it’s known for, and in the finish I get a definite 7-Up/Sprite and even lime Jell-O ride into the aftertaste. And each of these transitions seems really obvious to my palate, like a switch that is engaged at each part of the sip. It’s really unusual and that’s really the hallmark of the Geisha variety, that they’re just different from anything else out there.
Florals and lots of lime implies a bright coffee, and that is definitely true in this case, but it’s not harsh at all and the acidity/high notes are well-balanced by the heavier-than-expected body and sweetness. This is a bright, yet deliciously sweet cup, and comparisons to unusual foreign candy flavors would certainly work. I think I’ve had rose candy before, so why not honeysuckle and jasmine with a hint of lime candy? If it exists, it should taste a lot like this Monarch Geisha!
I dropped in at Monarch last Friday, too, and got a shot of this same coffee on the espresso machine (Monarch’s mint green La Marzocco is another jewel in the crown at the cafe, which is dominated by a black and white color scheme) from Tyler. It was sublime in it’s lime. LOL In retrospect, these flavors are really consistent between the brewed cup and the espresso Tyler served me, which is not always the case. The espresso was more delicate and subtle than I expected (I actually had the espresso before I brewed any of this, so that was my first intro to this coffee… I’ve always heard letting Geishas rest for a while after roasting is a good thing), and it had lots of florals and lime just like the brewed cup. The presence of lime Jell-O flavor was unmistakeable for me in the espresso and it was well worth the cost of a $4 shot.
I know Panamanian Geisha always comes with sticker shock. They’re relatively rare and La Esmeralda can charge whatever they want for it and someone will buy it out, so there is some brand name price hiking going on, too. A coffee geek will appreciate a $30 bag of this coffee from Monarch every bit as much as a wine drinker would appreciate a $30 bottle, so think of it that way. If you’re local to KC and you want to try this coffee but you’re not sure about the price, drop in and have it as espresso or have it brewed there. It’s a bit more than regular coffee by the cup, but it’s still cheaper than a latte from a macrocafe!
So, what’s my take on Geisha? First off, I’ve had a few non-Panamanian Geishas and they were… fine. Good coffees, roasted well, but nothing terribly unique or outstanding about them. So, from that regard, I see a BIG difference between the conditions that are creating award-winning coffees at Hacienda La Esmeralda and Geishas being grown in other parts of the world. Based on my somewhat limited experiences to date, I would not pay extra for any ol’ Geisha. For me, I would be looking for that La Esmeralda origin if I’m paying a premium for this variety. Focusing on La Esmeralda, this is a totally unique coffee and I personally enjoy unique, strange, unusual, etc when it comes to coffee experiences. I’ve never had a coffee quite like this one and, for me, whether I’m paying a couple extra dollars for a shot of espresso or a few extra dollars for a pourover or $10-20 extra for a bag, it’s worth the experience if you can indulge and splurge.
I think you should look at the Geisha experience as an experience and not get it twisted in your head that this is necessarily “the best” coffee ever. This is an excellent coffee, don’t get me wrong, but Monarch’s other offerings that are in the $15-$20 range are every bit as good, if not better, than this Geisha. It’s like splurging on a nice meal at the Rieger or Justus Drugstore. The ingredients are one thing, but it’s the overall experience that also adds to the bottom line on the bill. This is a fantastic coffee to have the La Esmeralda Geisha experience with, which is totally unique, in my opinion. And because La Esmeralda coffees cost roasters a lot more money, there is a transferance of that cost to the consumer. It’s like buying a Rolex. If you want a Rolex on your wrist, you have to buy a Rolex. Sure, my Seiko SKX007 keeps just as good of time and, hell, in my opinion, looks better than a Rolex, but if I ever want the Rolex experience, I need to buy a Rolex, period (PS, I’d take an Omega over a Rolex any day of the week, just in case you were wondering). LOL The great news is that Monarch’s (and other roasters’) “regular” coffees are every bit as good as this Geisha, so once you’ve had the experience you are not going to be let down by their other coffees in the least. What a fantastic problem to have!
My deepest thanks to Tyler for the hookup on this coffee and making my first La Esmeralda experience one that I will remember forever! Much love to the Monarch crew!