If you’re a coffee hound you’ve no doubt heard the Geisha story by now… A coffee grower in Panama finds a little-known and slightly mysterious coffee cultivar growing on his farm, takes it to auction and scores the highest price ever paid for green coffee. A one-in-a-lifetime Cinderella story, right? Maybe not.

The spectacular success of the Geisha at auction is a celebrated event to be sure… but it’s discovery wasn’t entirely accidental. It was the result of a new farm owner’s systematic approach to learn just what his crop was made of. Selective sampling throughout the farm revealed that one far-flung corner was planted with a peculiar (for Panama, anyway) long-bean varietal with astonishing taste characteristics and aroma; sweet, intensely fragrant, and superbly balanced. It was overlooked — forgotten, really — because it was a low-yield variety in one of many growing regions that had been replanted with higher-yield coffee trees.

The Geisha story underlines one of the essential issues of specialty coffee today: whether to grow high-yielding cultivars for greater volume, or low-yield plants that produce higher — sometimes substantially higher — quality. We can only hope that growers are finally learning that quality rules.

Last year’s fairy tale coffee tree is now being cultivated by the thousands on farms all over Panama, but it will be perhaps another three years before we learn just how this variety produces outside of that tiny little corner of the Boquete valley. Meanwhile, farmers in neighboring countries — Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Guatemala — are clamoring for some of those golden beans. For now, Panama isn’t parting with them.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could be that the Geisha is especially intolerant of disease or pests. It could be that, planted elsewhere, the cultivar is no more remarkable than any other Bourbon coffee. (Mind you, simply removing those latter-day high-yield hybrids and replanting with Bourbon would be a wonderful thing!)

Me, I’d like to think there could be other Cinderella beans sunning themselves on some remote mountain slope — in Panama or elsewhere — just waiting for someone to come along and whisk them to the ball.

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