La Esmeralda: Worth the Price?

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 2, 2007 3:27PM

2007_10_peterson.jpgLast night, over a hundred people filled the Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea roasting facilities on West Fulton for a tasting of La Esmeralda Especial, the Panamanian Geisha coffee that made headlines in May when Intelligentsia paid $130 a pound for the beans at the "Best of Panama" auction. For the event, both Intelligentsia coffee buyer Geoff Watts and La Esmeralda estate owner Daniel Peterson were on hand to discuss the coffee and why it's become, in Watts' words, a "full-blown phenomenon."

After a lengthy introduction from Watts, where he reiterated Intelligentsia's approach to coffee and recounted his first exposure to La Esmeralda Especial, the floor was ceded to Peterson (pictured, left). Tall and soft-spoken, Peterson had an attentive audience as he explained how he finally discovered that he had something special growing right under his nose.

Peterson gave a brief lecture charting the migration of the Geisha coffee plant from its Ethiopian origins in the late 1930's, to its Central American introduction in Costa Rica in the 1950's, and eventually to Panama. He then switched gears and discussed the physical aspects of the Geisha tree, noting that it has fewer leaves spaced farther apart on the branches. It reduces the photosynthetic effects on the beans and results in a lower yield, but that yield is well-ventilated and very resistant to fungus. The La Esmeralda Geisha plants grow at an altitude of 1600 meters above sea level. These relatively milder climates (for an equatorial region) increase the acidity of the coffee cherries. During the harvest season, which in Panama runs from December to April, the ripe Geisha cherries are de-pulped, spread out to dry in the sun for about four days, then processed. It's a painstaking process, but it does result in a great-tasting coffee. The prominent notes of jasmine perfume and warm citrus that Watts said attracted him to the coffee are there, once the coffee cools. Fresh brewed, those notes are muted. Using a clover brewing machine that combines the soaking techniques of a French press with the extraction capabilities of a vacuum pump, cup after cup of La Esmeralda Especial made its way to the hands of eager guests, under the watchful eye of Intelligentsia director of quality control Sarah Kluth.

But is the coffee worth $99 for a half-pound? That depends on one's definition of disposable income and how much of it one has lying around. We know that Intelligentsia is looking for some return on its winning bid for the coffee, which is one reason why they're selling La Esmeralda at that price (and for $55 for a quarter-pound bag). We also wondered if the coffee's growing reputation might have had something to do with that, as well. It has won every competition in which it's been entered since its 2003 debut in Panama. We asked Peterson if he thought his coffee's reputation was such that it might sway judges based on pedigree, or the peculiar whims of the judges. Peterson replied, "If you ever met these judges, you'd have no worries about that. They are some of the most serious coffee drinkers I've ever met."