Starbucks’ Geisha Gamble

The pixie on the table yells, “So, who all here is a partner?” The crowd erupts, politely, indicating “We, we are partners!” I think for a second I’ve stumbled into a Marriage Preservers Anonymous meeting. But no, she means “employee.”

Ah, Starbucks. I’m at one of the company’s high end, LEED-certified, boozy sip shops in Portland for a special event—the unveiling of their much-ballyhooed new reserve coffee: Costa Rica Finca Palmilera; quantity, 3800 pounds; price, $7/cup; roast, light as air. Media outposts from Houston to Atlanta have covered the release and the steep price tag, despite the fact that it’s only available in the Pacific Northwest. As far as I can tell, almost no one who has written about the coffee has actually tasted it.

It’s hands-down the best cup of coffee I’ve ever been served under the banner of a mermaid. I’m not sure that’s saying a lot, but it’s saying something.

Is it a gimmick? Maybe. Cynical? Probably. Likely to get very good, well-roasted, fairly priced coffee into the hands of folks who otherwise wouldn’t try it? Ya bro.

Leslie Wolford, the sprite on the table, is a “coffee specialist” with Starbucks. She talks for a few minutes about the estate, La Candililla, in Costa Rica. (They buy other coffees from the farm and have for some time; she couldn’t give me an exact year). Seventy hectares are managed by a family, split into sectors. The Geisha comes from a sector managed by brothers Marvin and Didier Sanchez, who devote 3 hectares to the variety.

Wolford gives a light disquisition on the history of the variety, which hails from Ethiopia and was brought to Costa Rica in the 50s. Farmers had hopes the seed stock would be resistant to disease, but quickly realized that low yields made it unsuitable for production. It is, though, more resistant to fungal rot than other varieties typical in Latin America. It migrated across the border to the Boquete region of Panama in the 1960s (sources credit producer Don Pachi Francisco Serracin). But it gained notoriety only recently, when the variety began winning competitions and earning top auction bids. According to a brief history of the variety by Geoff Watts,

With rare exception, this Geisha coffee has won every competition it has enttered for almost a decade [starting with the Best of Panama in 2003]. It has set and then broken 5 records for most expensive auction coffee in the world, topping out at a whopping $170/lb at a recent auction. It has become the most talked-about coffee in the industry and caused producers from Mexico to Bolivia to scramble to try to get their hands on seeds to … reap some of the windfall profits before Geisha gets too widespread.

Starbucks’ move is almost certainly a fullfillment of Watts’ prophesy about the reach of Geisha. Like other roasters seeking a signifier of prestige, Starbucks went looking for it. They found it being grown by a farm they already bought coffee from, right under their noses.

Alisa Martinez, global brand manager for the company, tells me frankly, “This is the best coffee we’ve ever served.”

Someone asks about roast. Wollingford’s answers are a bit hedgy. She calls it a light roast, but you can tell she feels a little uncomfortable saying this. Later she plants it in the middle of the SBUX dark-o-meter. This is false. It’s a light roast by any accounting of Starbucks’ standards. Wolford spends a lot of time talking about how the flavor and complexity would be lost if there was too much roast. At this, I develop a mouth gape—a Starbucks senior “partner” stating publicly that overroasting can inhibit complexity.

The Geisha is roasted in a batch roaster, 80 lbs. at a time. It’s one of the few Reserve line coffees to have this distinction—mostly because there’s so little of it.

For those who worry about the coffee being old or stale, that’s also not a concern here. There’s so little of the coffee—only 3,000 pounds—Martinez estimates it will be gone by January, a total run of about four weeks.

Meanwhile, the floor is open for conversation and the questions and commentary from Starbucks baristas in the audience are blowing my mind. Someone checks the Geisha’s brightness against remembered Kenyans. Someone thinks to ask about optimal brewing temperature. Someone expresses surprise at its sweetness even though it’s a washed coffee. Everyone loves it. I realize I have been seriously underestimating Starbucks baristas.

Wolford, meanwhile, is on her perch itching to get to the nitty gritty stuff—“Pineapple, yes!” “Anyone getting peach? White peach, not yellow?” “It’s got acidity, but it’s also so soft—isn’t that lovely?” She asks everyone to savor the coffee as it cools, pointing out that the flavor Just. Keeps. Going. She uses the word “singular” nine times after I start counting.

But the whole experience is singular. Starbucks served me black coffee I kind of love. It is complex. It makes me think. It lingers.

It is notably better than similarly priced coffees that have long had overinflated reputations—Jamaica Blue Mountain, Kopi Luwak, Kona.

That’s not to say that future shipments of Geisha will get the same treatment (there will be more—in three years Geisha will be so common, we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about way back when). But this particular coffee seems to hit the mark on most fronts: It’s fresh, it’s carefully (and not too darkly) roasted, and it’s being thoughtfully presented, brewed to order on a Clover, with gentle encouragements to at least sip it once without cream and sugar.

Is it better than the other infamous Geisha in my repetoire, Stumptown’s Panama Esmerelda Especial? My predictably psychological brain wants to remember Stumptown’s coffee as better—more delicate, more ephemeral. It was certainly the latter. To be honest, I don’t remember it that well.

Starbucks’ Reserve Costa Rica Finca Palmilera is available only in 48 stores in Portland and Seattle. ½ lb bags are $40. Get it while it lasts—another CR Geisha was available briefly online, but sold out in one day.

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