The best cup of coffee in San Diego requires the patience of a saint and the purse of a king. It will cost you $11 for a cup or $50 for an 8-ounce bag, and the latest batch won’t be available until April. Which gives you plenty of time to figure out just how badly you want a cup of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters’ Geisha varietal, and what you’re willing to do to get it.
“When you hear about the price, you don’t know what to expect,” said Chuck Patton, owner of Bird Rock Coffee Roasters and the man who introduced the Geisha to San Diego in 2007. “But when people taste it, they say, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”
For proof, Patton offered a taste of his most recent, and recently celebrated, vintage. Last month in San Francisco, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters’ naturally processed Geisha varietal from the Lino Lot on the Esmeralda Estate in Panama won a 2016 Good Food Award in the highly competitive coffee category. It was one of only three winners from California and the only selection from San Diego.
So what does the best, and apparently most expensive, cup of coffee in San Diego taste like? Given the long and arduous journey it made from the high hills of Panama to your cup, it should taste like sweat and trouble, with lingering notes of obsession and drama. The fact that it tastes more like a summer garden party with a whiff of piña colada is just one of its elusive charms.
Officially, the coffee is named after Gesha, the town in Ethiopia where it was discovered. Somewhere along the way, “Gesha” morphed into “Geisha,” a name that captures the coffee in all its quietly temperamental glory.
Not to be confused with the hard-to-find kopi luwak coffee, which is produced from coffee beans that have been digested by the civet cat and can sell for $35 to $100 a cup, Geisha coffee is produced in the usual (poop-free) way, but under demanding conditions.
The Geisha shrubs must grow at high altitude, or the coffee will be bitter. Even under the best of circumstances, crop yields are stingy. The beans are delicate and demand precision roasting. Too much heat, and you kill them. Too little heat, and all those award-winning, customer-seducing flavors stay locked away.
“It’s pretty much a pain from start to finish,” Patton said cheerfully, as he set up a side-by-side “cupping” comparison of the Geisha and a Sumatra coffee in Bird Rock Coffee Roasters’ Little Italy shop, one of three in town. “But people look forward to it every year. And when they try it, it opens them up to what coffee can be. When you taste something like this, you realize there is more to coffee than what you’re getting at 7-Eleven.”
Like professional wine tasting, cupping involves sniffing, slurping and savoring, but not much in the way of swallowing. We started by sniffing a small glass dish of ground Sumatra beans. They smelled earthy and a little flat. Your basic Eau de Cubicle.
Then we sniffed the Geisha, and the difference was so huge, I think I gasped a little. It smelled light, vaguely fruity and slightly nutty. Less like earth and more like the air outside a cabana.
Then Patton poured hot water over the grounds, and after letting them steep for four minutes, we dipped our spoons below the crust and smelled again. When we finally tasted it, Patton found jasmine in the background and tropical fruit and berry in the foreground. I found myself thinking I needed a new word for coffee, because the delicately perfumed Geisha was something else entirely.
“The first time I tried it, my reaction was, ‘Wow.’ It was wow-inducing,” Patton said of the Geisha sample he tried in 2007. “What struck me was how un-coffee-like it was. It was so sweet, it almost tasted artificial. It was like someone put a tablespoon of sugar in it, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how that could be.”
When the Bird Rock baristas make you a cup, the three-minute process will start with the grinding of the beans, followed by pouring 200-degree water over the grounds in carefully timed pulses.
If they do not strongly suggest your refrain from polluting it with milk and sugar, it is only because they assume you know that already.
Like San Diego’s craft-beer scene, our burgeoning artisanal-coffee movement is passionate and a little fetish-y. Patton hopes this attention to detail is less a turnoff than an indication of how far our palates have come.
“But you’re still going to tell me I can’t put milk in this, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling sheepishly, bowing to the Geisha to the unbitter end.