I remember roasting those record-breaking giant long Geisha seeds for the Best of Panama Competition earlier this year. I had received an emergency phone call from Jorge, an aspiring roaster trainee at 3 AM. The roaster had gone out of calibration and I had to go dial it back in. When I got back to the temporary lab in a small shed at Carmen Estate, I glanced at the sample prep table to see a coffee that, in spite of its anonymous sample coding, stood out boldly from the rest. The long bean shape was distinctly heirloom Ethiopian, but the size of the seeds was enormous. These were the Panama Geisha seeds whose roasted flavor would wow jurors the following morning.
Before I go into the results of our search in the wilds of Ethiopia for the closest relative of Panama Geisha, I share with you excerpts from letters to the Novo team from the Panama competition.
Thursday, April 27, 2006 1:09 AM
I ran all the way up here on the 6 AM flight from Panama City to find that neither roaster nor staff was ready for me. I took a long nap, then trained Jorge from Hartmann on the process of reining in the variables and calibrating an unknown roaster – this one was really unknown to me, a 3-barrel Jabez Burns from deep back in last century that doesn’t have even one temperature gauge. These exercises build an amazing confidence in roaster problem solving. In this case: how do you make 28 of the world’s best coffee tasters happy with the profile and consistency with the sample roasting of nearly 200 samples on an old rickety machine? The answer: trust your senses, eliminate unnecessary variables, and key in on and repeat manipulations of the variables you can control. Within two hours, Jorge and I had the Burns kicking out ground samples of indecipherable difference.
Too bad I discovered hours later as it neared dinner time that we would have to roast an impossible 32 hours tomorrow to complete the samples for the event Thursday and Friday. That called for drastic measures, and after dinner I found myself at Carmen Estate working with a solid drum strange 2-kilo Guatemalan roaster charged with 1.2 kilos of coffee hoping that calibration could be achieved. After that effort, I think I could calibrate a frying pan.
So I’m just back to the hotel room now. Fortunately in the middle of this beautiful rainforest, there is high-speed internet. Apparently, this is the most charged competition in the world right now. Some farmer estate owners have been seen popping pills to decrease anxiety about where their coffees place. Especially this year with 2 geishas in the mix, rumors of natural process Panamanian coffees, and growers surging with enthusiasm to grow the next “Esmeralda Especial”.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006 11:56 AM
As you know, I arrived late to Panama City Monday night, left for Volcan on the 6 AM flight, and began to train Jorge from Hartmann late that afternoon on the Burns roaster. Calibrated and moving forward, ready to turn the roaster over to Jorge, we realize the machine won’t deliver the quantity or consistency required for the team of 28 international cuppers. That night we calibrated a second roaster at Carmen Estate, and in the morning moved on to a third machine Jorge had dragged down, rusty and squeaky, from the Hartmann farm.
I ran the roasting course for Jorge and Jose. We laid out a sample roast color board and established tolerances on light and dark side (nearing zero) and for roast profile timing. I handed the roaster over to them after completing the first 10 samples. They were attentive students, and we learned together how to master the rare Guatemalan machine with nearly zero airflow. They completed the roasting, and the first day of cupping went fantastically well.
Peets and Intelligentsia were there. Green Mountain (I can see Lindsey Bolger and Don Holly getting on boards on this secluded beach now), Stumptown, Batdorf and Bronson, Royal Coffee, Wataru, Volcafe, and many others.
“Sample Roasting for Consistency” – a mini-course by Novo Coffee - was the training provided to the roasters. In the end, Lindsey Bolger from Green Mountain got up in front of the group to comment on the quality and consistency of the roasting. Daniel Peterson, President of the SCAP, said at the awards ceremony that “this was the first time the competition had been run in ten years without a single complaint about the roasting.” Literally everybody present from producers to judges stopped to comment on the quality of the roasting.
The job well done didn’t come without wrinkles. The night before the final rounds, there were 32 batches to roast and the trained roasters couldn’t get started until the finalists were determined at around 12:00 AM. What was more, both roasters (the one we used to roast and the one we used to cool) had to be moved to a different building due to noise complaints. At 3 AM, I got a call from Jorge. “Oye Joseph, estamos en problemas. La tostadora se ha perdido la calibracion, y no lo podemos ajustar.” The roaster had come un-calibrated, and they couldn’t get it back going right. From 3 until 5 AM I helped them work the machine back in line. The samples got roasted perfectly, just in time for the opening bell at 8 AM on Friday.
Geisha and other Incredible Coffees! – Panama is now firmly in second place after Ethiopia.
The Esmeralda geisha which won first should have been in its own category. I gave it 95 points all three times I tasted it. You could smell the orange citrus and jasmine from feet away. I told the Bambito Estate family the night before the award ceremony that I thought I had tasted their coffee and given it my second highest score, a 93. I remembered it from January because it smelled like raisins. The next night, it came in second, and it turned out to be the one I had predicted.
The winning coffees were all very special. I gave six out of the top 8 scores of 90 or higher.
Geisha coffee is like an super-aromatized echo of its heirloom origins back in Kaffa Forest, Ethiopia.