Tonight (November 26, 2012) I went to a very special coffee seminar event at the Olive Way Starbucks. Coffee masters from the Starbucks headquarters hosted a tasting for the newest Reserve offering, Costa Rica Finca Palmilera, a Geisha coffee. Leslie Wolford (who is a “green coffee specialist” and sources coffee for the stores), and together with Chris Smith (who is on the Coffee Education Team), put on this great event. Both work at the Starbucks headquarters. I can’t even begin to say enough good things about the wealth of knowledge those two partners have about coffee, and if you ever get the chance to meet them, you should. I hope someday to write a feature article about Leslie and Chris. I should say that I learned an enormous amount of new information tonight. I didn’t know about Geisha coffees before the launch of this Reserve offering.
Before I go any further, I must explain what a “Geisha” coffee is. Any coffee which is labeled as a Geisha coffee is considered an “heirloom varietal.” This means that their seed stock is very pure, and has not been hybridized or altered. In fact, the original source of this coffee varietal traces back to the city of Gesha, in southwestern Ethiopia. “Geisha” with an “i” is an alternate spelling for this coffee, and the one that has been adopted by Latin American farms growing Geisha varietal coffee trees. As I understand it, farmers in Costa Rica imported the seeds in the 1950s. Farmers in Panama bought the seed stock in the 1960s, having heard that the Geisha coffee trees were more resistant to fungal infestation than other varietals of coffee. However, this varietal only grows at high elevations (about 3,000 feet or higher), and is very low-yielding. This means that a Geisha varietal produces far fewer coffee cherries than a typical coffee tree. Each cherry has a lot more flavor than the usual coffee cherry. The trees’ low yield allows for more of the soil’s nutrients to reach each cherry, intensifying the coffee’s vibrant flavors.
Many farmers found sourcing this coffee too difficult, and it didn’t spread wildly as a popular coffee variety. In fact, most farmers who attempted to grow this quickly gave up and abandoned it in favor of traditional coffee cherry varietals producing many more cherries on a tree.
As I understand it from the Starbucks coffee masters tonight, in 2011, a record was set when farmers in the western part of Panama sold (at auction) one-pound bags of green Geisha coffee beans for around $170.00. A few farmers elsewhere became interested in this unique Geisha seed stock.
Starbucks has long had a close relationship with the family-owned La Candililla estate in Costa Rica. In 2005, Starbucks chose a coffee from the La Candililla estate as a Black Apron offering. (“Black Apron” coffees were the predecessors to the current Reserve coffee platform). At some point in the 2000s, two of the brothers (family owners) of this La Candililla estate began to grow Geisha varietal coffee trees. Marvin and Didier Sanchez set aside just three hectares of their estate to grow Geisha coffee. Starbucks worked collaboratively with these farmers to source a Geisha coffee. Starbucks had been looking to source this rare coffee, and found a great source of it on the La Candililla estate.
This year, Starbucks discovered a perfect crop produced by the La Candililla estate. Sourced from just three hectares out of the 90 hectare estate, Starbucks purchased all of the Geisha coffee offered by the Sanchez family. This amounted to only about 700 large burlap bags of coffee, which was roughly 3,800 pounds of green coffee. I should point out that this is indeed an extremely small coffee acquisition, and not enough to provide very many stores with it. The acquisition of coffee was so tiny that it was roasted not at the very large roasting plant in Kent, Washington, rather it was actually roasted in small batches at the Starbucks headquarters at 2401 Utah Avenue South.
The Reserve Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha varietal coffee is being sold at just 46 Clover Starbucks stores (all in the Pacific Northwest), and offered at $40.00 for a half pound. A customer can order a “tall” size Clover-brewed cup of this coffee for $6.00. It is $7.00 for a Grande size cup of coffee.
At tonight’s coffee seminar we tried this coffee by two brew methods 1) Clover brew method and the 2) Pour Over brew method. About 30 people came to tonight’s coffee tasting. There wasn’t enough room, and some people stood in the aisles to listen to and participate in tonight’s event.
By the way, there was no food pairing for this evening. Starbucks corporate coffee masters do not recommend pairing this coffee with food. You are expected to “enjoy the coffee.”
Olive Way Starbucks Coffee Master Jess gave a helping hand and passed out the sample cups of coffee:
By the way, one thing I love about coffee tastings is all the spontaneous conversations that can be heard around you. As the tasting was just getting started with the Clover brewed Costa Rica Finca Palmilera, and people were beginning to smell, slurp, and experience the coffee, I heard a person behind me blurt out, “I totally tasted pineapple in that.” I thought it was a great quote. You may get some pineapple notes in this coffee.
It’s a soft juicy coffee. The Clover brew method of making coffee produces a a little more heavy and textured coffee due to the full immersion technique of the Clover brewer. The coffee had a little sparkle to it, and had soft, sweeter tropical notes as the primary flavor, and then a complex, lush herbal flavor as the coffee cooled. This is also a good coffee to compare at a few different temperatures to see the difference in its flavor.
Starbucks corporate coffee masters Leslie and Chris continued to teach us a wealth of information about the sourcing of this coffee:
Chris got the pour overs ready:
The pour over brew method brought the softer fruit notes of this coffee to life. If one were to think about food pairings, natural complementary flavors would be mango, papaya, and white peach. It’s very hard to describe the soft texture of this coffee. I felt like I was drinking a powdered coffee peach. Again, as it cools, the herbal and darker notes of the coffee come to life.
This, by the way, wasn’t my first cup of this coffee. It officially launched on Tuesday, November 20, 2012, and I had my first cup at Olive Way on Thanksgiving.
The treatment of the coffee bean is definitely a lighter roast than what many Starbucks enthusiasts might be used to seeing. The roast profile is designed to feature lots of origin flavors and with almost no roasty-ness as a flavor.
The bottom line is that if you get the chance to try this coffee, don’t pass it up. It won me over. And I will say, that these are the kind of Starbucks experiences that keep me hooked. It was an incredible night of coffee education.
Here are just a few more photos:
My apologies for typos. I really did return home from the coffee seminar, and in an attempt to quickly produce this article, it was written in one fell swoop.
Now it’s your chance to weigh in. I’d be curious if you are already drinking Geisha varietal coffee at home. In the group of 30 people who attended this seminar, not a single person raised their hands when asked about previous experience with this rare coffee.
If you enjoy reading about coffee seminars and tastings, please browse the coffee tastings category on this site for more articles.
Correction on November 28, 2012: 46 Starbucks-branded stores in the Seattle and Portland areas are offering this coffee. One licensed location in Idaho offers this coffee, as well as one non-branded store (Roy Street Coffee and Tea, operated by Starbucks).