Heirloom coffee beans: grande prices, with room for hype

In 2007, a coffee bean grown in Panama that earned "best in the world" status from the Specialty Coffee Association of American Roasters set a record, selling for $130 a pound in an online auction.

Named Esmeralda Special, heirloom Geisha beans from Hacienda La Esmeralda plantation earned the title for three years in a row.

Geisha coffee was imported to Central America from Ethiopia during the mid-20th century and is appreciated for its complexity, offering notes of jasmine, cinnamon and citrus.

These heirloom beans elevated coffee to a commodity akin to wine, something rare and coveted for those in the know.

This fall, Starbucks got in on the fray, selling a mere 450 half-pound bags of Geisha beans -- Tarrazu and Palmilera Reserve grown in Costa Rica -- for $40. Tall servings fetched $6 and Grande sizes were $7. Locally, the Starbucks in Franklin Park was the only location to sell it.

Across the country, Starbucks' Geisha beans sold out in record time.

But the selling frenzy was not because consumers are particularly well-versed in heirloom coffee varietals. It's the marketing of a giant.

It turns out that Geisha beans aren't as rare as consumers may think.

Within the past five years, coffee farmers have capitalized on the reputation of Geisha coffee by growing it in similar climates, albeit away from the terroir of guava trees on the home plantation responsible for driving the price hike.

As a result, the price has come down, but lore and status fan demand. Hacienda La Esmeralda still holds yearly online auctions with prices reaching $45 to $65 a pound during the past couple of years, according to stats on its website. Buyers hail from Shanghai, Tokyo, Taiwan and the U.S.

From peak to present, boutique coffee companies patronized by coffee nerds and foodists for fair-trade, single-origin, micro-lot or seasonal beans, have sold Geisha coffee during the holiday season.

Portland's Stumptown, Chicago's Intelligentsia, Oakland's Blue Bottle and North Carolina's Counter Culture are among them. This year, Counter Culture will ship its Hacienda La Esmeralda Gesha beans (it drops the "i" in its spelling) on Monday. Customers can pre-order 8-ounce bags for nearly $40 on the company's website.

Local coffee houses that can get Geisha beans haven't seen parallel sales in past years or during this fall's push from Starbucks.

"I never carry it anymore because I can't sell it," said Matt Gebis, owner of Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville. "It's too expensive." Mr. Gebis sells Counter Culture coffee at the shop.

"Geisha has really spectacular and unique flavors you usually don't get from one coffee," said Luke Shaffer, owner of 21st Street Coffee and Tea, with locations Downtown and in the Strip District.

Only recently have Geisha beans been trumped. This year, El Injerto grown in Guatemala fetched more than $500 a pound. The Mocca heritage bean was imported from Yemen.

Citing personal preference, Mr. Gebis said, "It's not something I'd drink every day. But for a place like Starbucks, it is a way to sell a $7 cup of coffee."

A spokesperson from Starbucks corporate office did not return phone calls or emails.

Mr. Gebis expressed concern as to whether a Starbucks barista would yield a perfect cup, anyway.

"You'd have to work with it to determine the perfect grind, the perfect water temperature," he said. "It's trial and error experimentation as to how to get full flavor from the beans."

He cited seasonal beans such as Counter Culture's Barodia from Papua New Guinea -- his favorite -- as a more harmonious winter coffee that offers better value.

Released last week, the beans yield a full-bodied brew with notes of ginger, chocolate and molasses. A 12-ounce bag is $15.50.

Mr. Shaffer of 21st Street Coffee and Tea points to Intelligentsia beans from Kenya at his shop.

"They are fantastic," he said. "They taste like no other. They're sweet. They're savory. They're full-bodied. One tastes like green tea. Another has notes of pineapple. They are ridiculously good."

A cup of Kenyan brew here sells for $5. While not as expensive as Starbucks' Geisha Reserve, it's still pricey, Mr. Shaffer acknowledged.

"We get fixated on a price of something we're told is rare and delicious," he said.

In the past, 21st Street Coffee sold Geisha beans at its peak price for $20 a cup. It was expensive for both the shop and for consumers.

"We made a buck on it."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart.


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