The incredible story of how a few coffee seeds from Southwestern Ethiopia found their way to Panama and subsequently changed the entire coffee industry is well known, but worth repeating.
The Slurp Heard Round the World
In the early 2000s, Hacienda La Esmeralda, like practically every other coffee farm in the world, blended most of their coffee together at harvest. Daniel Peterson, third generation coffee farmer in Boquete ,Panama, had a suspicion that their award-winning coffee was being flavored by some better lots and systematically went about cupping each of their lots separately until he discovered the culprit: some straggly-looking, under-producing coffee trees at the higher reaches of a farm separate from the rest of Hacienda La Esmeralda, a later purchase called Jaramillo. The coffee was oddly thin in body, but had striking floral aromatics and a vibrant acidity.
Uncertain as to how the coffee would be received, the Peterson family decided to submit the lot in the Best of Panama. The coffee shocked the panel of judges, some of whom wondered if an Ethiopian coffee had been slipped into the competition.
It was only after the record-setting auction that the details began to emerge. The farm, having been devastated by a fungus, was replanted with seedlings from Costa Rica’s CATIE, the largest coffee seed bank in the Americas. These particular seedlings were labeled VC-496, a disease-resistant heirloom Ethiopian variety that had been collected by an English military officer, Captain Richard Whalley, on a expedition in the 1930s. Whalley collected the seeds from around “Geisha Mountain,” and the seeds were sent to Kenya. Seedlings were passed on to another seed bank in Tanzania before finally arriving at CATIE. This “Geisha coffee” was noted for its disease resistant properties, but was low yielding and performed poorly at low elevations. It was only in the highlands of Panama the coffee’s potential began to shine, some 70 years after the varieties initial collection. (It’s worth noting that the Ethiopian government has barred removing live coffee seeds from the country since the 1970s, making the few wild Ethiopian varietals in global seed banks extremely valuable.)
With the Peterson’s “Jaramillo Special” fetching a record price at auction, Geisha coffee quickly became a phenomenon. Seedlings soon spread around Panama, all over the Americas, even back to Africa. (Debatably, no terroir has produced results that rivals Panama.)
At some point, someone familiar with Ethiopian geography realized there was no “Geisha Mountain,” the closest thing was a woreda called Gesha, in the region of Ethiopia that was once the independent kingdom of Kafa. It was assumed that Captain Whalley made a mistake. Embarrassingly, the coffee that changed the entire industry had a typo in the name.
Out of respect for the original Ethiopian source, many coffee companies in the know began writing the coffee variety as “Gesha” on their bags and websites. The large majority of coffee farmers who grew the variety continued to use the spelling they received, splitting the specialty coffee community into two orthographic camps.
People have been writing articles on the correct way to spell this variety since at least 2013, culminating most recently with a brilliant article by Meister for Daily Coffee News. Amongst those interviewed in the article, “Gesha” was the strong preference of North Americans, as it corrected Whalley’s mistake and avoided troublesome associations with the traditional Japanese entertainer. Some companies, such as Cafe Imports, take a compromise position, defaulting to “Gesha,” but using whichever spelling the farmer does.
But the advocates of the “Gesha” spelling overlook one critical issue: Captain Whalley didn’t make a mistake.
Orality and Orthography
Part of the confusion surrounding the proper spelling of the coffee variety VC-496 is that Ethiopia is home to over 70 different languages. In fact, even though Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, up to 80 percent of Ethiopia’s 102 million people don’t speak it. The region of modern Gesha was once part of the independent kingdom of Kafa, and is inhabited predominately by the Kafa people, who speak the Kafa language (accepted alternative spellings include Kaffa, Kaficho, Kefa, Keffa, and Kefficho– perhaps that alone shines light on the issue).
While reading Jeff Koehler’s magnificent book Where the Wild Coffee Grows, I was fascinated to learn that Kafa was an oral language. Koehler laments there weren’t any written records from the hundreds of years were the isolationist kingdom didn’t allow visitors. Only a small handful of Europeans were allowed to visit and leave, such as the Scottish explorer James Bruce who was ridiculed back in Europe for suggesting Kafa might be the original source of Coffee arabica. (It would be almost two centuries before genetic research would support Bruce’s theory.)
Having previously done a short piece on the Geisha/Gesha debate for Fresh Cup Magazine, I realized the fact that Kafa was an oral language reframed the entire discussion, and began to do some research.
The first standardized orthography for Kafa was attempted by Bible translators in the 1970s. The project was led by a New Zealander named Ruth Cremer and used the Amharic (Saba) alphabet. The translation team developed a system to show short and long vowels, which is essential in the Kafa language. Under Emperor Haile Selassie the publishing of literature in minority languages had been banned, but by the early 2000s, local public schools were allowed to teach in Kafa, using a new official orthography utilizing the Latin alphabet— some 80 years after Whalley’s exbidition. By incredible coincidence (and perhaps some historical irony), around the time Kafa school children began learning their language with the Latin alphabet the Peterson family was discovering the potential of a low-yielding, disease resistant variety with unusually long seeds.
In light of the history of the Kafa language, it’s clear that Whalley didn’t make a spelling error. He simply was phonetically spelling a word with no established spelling. Quite possibly, Whalley’s 1936 correspondence describing “Geisha coffee” is the first time the Kafa word had been written with the Latin alphabet.
Certainly, Captain Whalley was no linguist. As one expert in Ethiopian languages I consulted explained, “The “ei” implies to a linguist that it is a diphthong, which it is not.” (Not that specialty coffee professionals are much better. Routinely I hear the long “e” of “Gesha” shortened to a schwa).
An Unfortunate Homonym
Sadly, it’s impossible to resolve the Geisha/Gesha debate without discussing the coffee variety’s unfortunate homonym.
Baristas and roasters, let along consumers, barely discuss variety. (Here’s a simple test: walk into your local coffee shop and order a cup of autodrip and ask the barista what varieties are in the coffee.) There’s no denying that the coffee variety’s name made it more memorable to native English speakers, especially compared to more common varieties like Caturra or Typica.
Regrettably, the coffee variety’s Japanese homonym has been overtly exploited by a few coffee companies eager to market their expensive coffee. Certainly, coffee professional who use the “geisha” spelling can and should strongly condemn any use of cultural appropriation or exoticism in the coffee industry. Coffee marketing is replete with such examples, but the exploitation of geisha/geiko by occupying forces in post-war Japan make this example particularly painful.
But it’s worth noting, simply dropping the “i” does little to prevent exoticism or exploitation, as proven by coffee importer Ninety Plus’s shockingly offensive flavor description for an Panamanian auction lot last year, listed as “Gesha.”
What’s in a Name?
To those without a stake in the Geisha/Gesha debate, the whole conversation likely seems esoteric, if not vacuous. But there are good reasons for the coffee community to come to a consensus.
For one, the shift from “Geisha” to “Gesha” prevalent in North America reflects a coffee industry where producers have little voice, and are rarely listened to. Is there a more ironic example of the paternalistic attitude of North Americans than a barista informing a coffee farmer they mispelled the name of their coffee?
Practically, the inclusion of the “I” to reference VC-496 is helpful in distinguishing Panamanian seeds that have been distributed around the world, and the recent effort to cultivate wild coffee in around Gesha, Ethiopia (such as Gesha Village Coffee Estate.) The culinary world is full of such subtle spelling distinctions, such as “whisky/whiskey” with the American version denoted by the “e.”
I have close friends who where unsure what to name their child. They had it narrowed down to two names, and finally chose one, but they couldn’t shake the feeling they picked the wrong one. So a few months later they went through the process of legally changing their child’s name.
But, overwhelmingly, the people who would like to change the name of the Geisha variety are not the farmers who grow it, but North American coffee professionals trying to correct an alleged 90 year-old typo. As it turns out, these professionals are not correcting a mistake, but asking farmers to change the name of a coffee variety based on recent developments in the Kafa language.