What's It Like Tasting The World's Most Expensive Coffee?

What's funny about a morning coffee routine is how it can evolve, making you look back on how you used to take your coffee the same way you might reflect on past relationships. How young you were! How foolish! How much you have learned in the ensuing years!

My own coffee journey began in high school with the thick, sugary Oreo and French Vanilla "cappuccinos" dispensed from machines in the snack cake aisle at White Hen Pantry and 7-Eleven. Once more babysitting money came rolling in, it was Starbucks specialty lattes. Bitter black cups of coffee for $0.80 became the move in college, but I spiked them with every International Delight you could imagine: French vanilla, hazelnut, French vanilla, pumpkin pie, sweet cream, amaretto, more French vanilla. What I'm saying is, the road to quality coffee is paved with good confections.

My morning cup is just spiked with a little milk these days, foamed up like a cafe au lait. Quality coffee, like fine wine, is wasted on me. It's not that I don't enjoy it, but it really ought to be allotted only to those whose palates demand something more; I'm happy with a lot less.

So when I was invited by Colectivo Coffee a few weeks back (pre-quarantine, relax) to come taste "the rarest coffee in the world"—a direct quote—my first instinct was to clam up and say, "Well, sure, but isn't there someone, anyone else you'd rather invite?" But attend this press/influencer event I did, and I'm happy to say I learned a lot.

The coveted coffee in question is Panama Geisha. It comes from the Hacienda La Esmeralda coffee farm in the Boquete region of Panama, though the prized Geisha (or Gesha) variety of coffee isn't native to the country. It's believed to have originated in Ethiopia, but thrives in the warm and humid Panamanian climate. The same could be said of the founders of Hacienda La Esmeralda: it's owned by the Peterson family, whose late patriarch, Rudolph, came to the U.S. from Sweden as a child in 1905 and then arrived in Panama in the 1960s to manage a cattle pasture as a retirement venture. Only in the 1980s and '90s did coffee become part of the operation, once the Petersons acquired some additional farmland with coffee plants growing on it.

By the early 2000s, the world at large had awakened to the delights of high-quality coffee (look no further than the rise of Starbucks locations across the globe during this time). And in 2004, Panama Geisha's fate was sealed by little more than a fluke: That year, Hacienda La Esmeralda decided to process coffee from each of its various farmlands in discrete "lots," rather than processing all the coffee beans from various areas of the estate together. This imparted each lot's beans with the flavors of its particular microclimate. And while Geisha coffee cherries were already known to have exceptional flavor, this new production method meant that you could sip a cup of 100% unadulterated Geisha coffee, grown at higher altitudes and full of unique floral notes. It won the Best of Panama coffee competition that year, as well as an infamous reputation that has preceded it for 16 years.

Which brings us to early March 2020, Colectivo Coffee, Chicago. By now, the sterling reputation of Panama Geisha has driven demand and prices upward exponentially, and advancements in technology mean that Hacienda La Esmeralda can now sell all of its coffee lots via online auction. According to Al Liu, Vice President of Coffee at Colectivo, bidders from such far-flung places as Tokyo and the United Arab Emirates often manage to secure these lots for roughly $1,000 per pound, unroasted (and, as Liu reminds us, the beans lose 15% of their weight during the roasting process). Normally, it wouldn't make any sense at all for a 20-location Midwest coffee chain to blow that kind of money on a specialty product, but Colectivo was offered three 60kg bags of the green (unroasted) coffee beans at a special rate by an importer who had secured the bags directly from the Peterson family—meaning, it was a one-time offer the company couldn't refuse. The windfall was converted into 400 12-oz. bags of Panama Geisha gold.

Customers jumped at the chance to purchase these bags online, and all of them sold out in under five days. But a smaller amount of beans was kept for serving at select locations, including Chicago's Wicker Park cafe, for $6 a cup.

"In the specialty coffee industry, Panama Geisha is akin to an A-list celebrity," says Liu, and it's clear that he's not trying to impress us with this statement—it's a display of genuine fandom. The cups of pour-over were doled out like gold nuggets, and I was excited to try not only sophisticated coffee, but the certifiable best. Finally, perhaps I would understand how a coffee could be so good that milk would only mar its delicate flavors, and truly get excited about a drink that has heretofore been a pleasant background element of my morning routine at best. This was the big leagues—the only concern was living a life hereafter in which I knew what I was missing and dispense of my 365 coffee grounds immediately.

So, what's it like tasting the world's most sought-after cup of coffee?

Well. It tasted exactly, precisely like coffee. Coffee is what the coffee tasted like. The flavors were that of a cup of coffee.

Thinking my initial sip was maybe too hot—I know beers are often best enjoyed at varying temperatures—I let it sit for a moment, then sipped again, awaiting the Hallelujah Chorus. The tangy, almost sour flavors were stronger this time, which I suppose was the floral note that Liu had talked up big time. Tellingly, however, he had also mentioned in passing earlier that Chicagoans are generally more primed to enjoy the deep flavors of dark roast coffee, because that's what Starbucks brought us first, and it's what our palates have grown to expect. Maybe by the mere circumstances of my birth, I was ruined on the flavor profile of Panama Geisha from the start: any coffee that reminds you its "beans" are actually cherries just might be a bridge too far for this palate, raised as it was on French vanilla cappuccino sludge. Perhaps my coffee habits haven't evolved as much as I thought.

But I wouldn't go so far as to say that ultra-luxurious coffee doesn't have its place in this world. Geisha was clearly making all the folks around me so happy, and not just for the taste: Liu understands this product as the marvel of agriculture and terroir that it is, and the baristas doling out the pour-overs had the rare opportunity to serve something they probably never thought they would get their hands on; they had even been given specialized training in how to handle the precious Geisha grounds. Luxury coffee, just like all those fine wines I don't drink, will always be a foreign language to me, and even if I can make out a stray word or two along the way and appreciate its musicality and cadence, it'll remain indecipherable all the same. But then again, the Peterson family of Hacienda La Esmeralda likely wouldn't understand my root dialect, either. It's probably all French vanilla to them.

And coffee, like anything artful, inspires its own community. Following up with Liu this week over email, I asked how fast the pour-over cups of Panama Geisha had sold out at the cafes. "We had planned to use most of the remaining volume to sell as pour-overs at ten of our cafes during the week of March 16," he said—but that was the very same day Colectivo made the call to temporarily close all 21 of its locations during the COVID-19 quarantine orders. So instead of selling rare Geisha coffee to customers at $6 per cup, "We ended up sharing it with our coworkers, including those who have continued roasting and packaging coffee." I can't imagine a better ending for those beans.