Every few months, I get a press release advertising the “rarest coffee on Earth.” More often than not, the coffee is a Gesha, a legendary varietal known for its unmistakable floral accents. Unfortunately, Gesha coffee—often styled as “Geisha” coffee—marks a sticking point in the coffee industry. The coveted cherries speak for themselves, but industry leaders continue to conflate the coffee with the Japanese geisha performing arts tradition—even after years of outcry from historians and coffee consumers alike. My question: Why are companies still labeling Gesha as “Geisha” when it’s both linguistically incorrect and culturally offensive?
The history of Gesha coffee is long and hotly contested among coffee historians, but here’s what we do know: Gesha coffee is a specific coffee variety that was “discovered” by British colonial explorers (boo!) in southwest Ethiopia, likely sometime in the mid-1930s. (For more information on that, check out this great 2014 talk from Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers representative Hanna Neuschwander.)
The explorers then hauled the beans with them to Kenya, Tanzania, Costa Rica, and, finally, Panama. Coffee professional and journalist Ever Meister digs into this in an excellent 2017 piece for Daily Coffee News. In the piece, Meister writes that the coffee was named for a mysterious “Geisha Mountain,” which the British explorers referenced in notes in 1936. Meister explains that, while there is no known “Geisha Mountain” in Ethiopia, there is a Gesha region.
Why’d the explorers add the “i” to the name? We’re not sure. They could’ve been bad spellers, though it’s more likely that the explorers wrote down the word using romanized phonetics after hearing it spoken in Kafa, the local language. (Coffee writer Michael Butterworth explains that discrepancy in a 2018 article for The Coffee Compass.) Either way, the explorers labeled the product as “geisha” coffee—a practice many coffee vendors continue today.
A few members of Takeout staff have tasted Gesha, including Marnie Shure, who wrote about her tasting back in 2020. The coffee professionals in my life approach the stuff with the kind of reverence I usually apply to MTN DEW innovations. In other words, Gesha gets people excited.
The most famous Gesha comes from Panama—specifically, the famed Hacienda La Esmeralda coffee farm in the Boquete region of Panama. In 2004, Hacienda La Esmeralda processed a Gesha coffee that had been carefully grown at a higher altitude than the rest of the farm’s coffee crop. As we explained in 2020, it swept the 2004 Best of Panama coffee competition and cemented itself as a showstopper on the coffee scene, delighting coffee experts with its unmistakable floral notes.
With that, Panamanian Gesha developed a reputation as the world’s most elite coffee—although it wasn’t actually native to Panama, but Ethiopia, as we’ve discussed above. Now, the name of Gesha means two things: unmistakable flavor and a very high price tag.
So, what’s the problem? It comes down to the coffee industry’s role in the repeated hyper-sexualization of Japanese women via the caricature of the geisha—a caricature frequently used in the packaging and marketing of today’s Gesha coffee. Coffee marketer and writer Jenn Chen penned a 2018 article summing up the issue beautifully. In Sprudge, Chen writes:
“[Gesha] gets confused and punned with geisha, the Japanese entertainer, which leads to many problematic interpretations. What some might consider a delightful homophone has become a kind of carte blanche for inappropriate appropriation—taking images and motifs associated with the Japanese tradition of art, song, and dance, and using it to sell high-priced coffee.”
Indeed, Meister’s 2017 Daily Coffee News article cites writer Hanna Neuschwander, who suggested that “the initial group [of roasters involved in popularizing Geisha in the early 2000s] really did position Geisha as this like sexy, sexualized, exotic thing.”
Gesha really is a remarkable product. I’m not disputing that. But I am asking coffee marketers to consider the cultural implications of continuing to slap an inaccurate, culturally insensitive label on their beans. I’ll echo what writers like Chen have been saying for years: To conflate a delicate, rare, exotic coffee varietal with a group of women historically caricatured in Western media is a bad look. It’s Gesha, not “geisha.”