January 1, 2024

Ultra-rare coffee varieties: How they rise and fall


It all started with Gesha. In 2004, Hacienda la Esmeralda entered one of its Gesha varieties into the annual Best of Panama auction. It sold for US $21/lb – a world record at the time – and the industry was introduced to a coffee like none it had ever experienced before.

Although some Geshas still fetch eye-watering prices – like the 96.5 point washed Carmen Estate Gesha which sold for US $10,005/kg at the 2023 Best of Panama auction – it’s not uncommon to see the variety served in more high-end coffee shops around the world. Technically, Gesha is no longer an “ultra-rare” coffee.

In more recent years, specialty coffee roasters and competitors alike have started looking elsewhere for more exclusive coffees – think Wush Wush, Sidra, eugenioides, and Pink Bourbon, to name a few.

So why do these varieties (or species) start to become more popular? And why do some of them eventually start to fade into the background?

To find out, I spoke to James Fairbrass, green coffee buyer at Proud Mary Coffee in Portland, Oregon, US.

You may also like our article questioning why some roasters are willing to spend more than US $10,000 per kg on Gesha.

Two coffee farmers inspect a type of rare coffee in Latin America.

Gesha: a variety for the ages?

Many of us know the story of Gesha – largely considered the first ultra-rare coffee variety. First found in the Gesha region of Ethiopia in the 1930s, the seeds were eventually transported to research centres in Kenya and Tanzania – where the variety was first recorded as “Geisha”

It was during the 1950s that CATIE (the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre) in Costa Rica acquired Gesha seeds. By the 1960s, Don Francisco Serracín of Don Pachi Estate had planted the variety in the western parts of the Boquete region of Panama.

Over the course of the next four decades, more and more Panamanian producers planted Gesha, but it took some time for the industry to fully recognise its excellent quality potential and desirable sensory profile.

The breakthrough moment came at the 2004 Best of Panama auction when Hacienda La Esmeralda set a then-world record of US $21 for the highest amount paid for a pound of coffee. 

In the years since, it’s a huge understatement to say this record has been broken, as we have seen buyers pay increasingly more for Gesha at a number of auctions:

  • Panama’s Ninety Plus sold an undisclosed micro lot for US $10,000/kg (or US $4,535/lb) at its own private 2019 auction
  • At the 2022 Lamastus Family Estates auction, a honey processed Gesha produced by Elida Estate sold for an unbelievable US $6,034/lb. This equates to more than US $12,068/kg – by far the most expensive coffee in the world
  • The highest bid at the 2023 Best of Panama auction was US $10,005/kg for a washed Gesha. In total 1,250kg of coffee received US $1,085,275, which set a new record for the Best of Panama auction

Once you taste Gesha, it’s easy to understand why it has become one of the most sought-after exclusive varieties. Its uniquely floral flavours and tea-like body make it one of the most exceptional coffees available on the market. Additionally, Geshas also often receive 90 points or above when scored using the Specialty Coffee Association’s 100-point scale.

As a result, many baristas and coffee professionals have opted for Gesha at some of the most prestigious coffee competitions over the past two decades, including the World Barista Championship and World Brewers Cup.

Events such as these often have a direct influence on trends in the wider specialty coffee industry. As such, despite remaining relatively expensive, it’s become more common to see Gesha on the bar or retail shelves in some of the world’s more high-end coffee shops.

A farm worker harvests ripe fruit on a farm.

But has its popularity waned? 

We always see Gesha on stage at high-level coffee competitions. But its popularity at these events has noticeably dipped in recent years, particularly at the 2021 World Barista Championship and Brewers Cup where competitors were opting for even more exclusive varieties or species.

James Fairbrass is a green coffee buyer at Proud Mary Coffee in Portland, Oregon, US – a pioneering roaster which specifically focuses on more high-end coffees. 

He emphasises that when questioning whether Gesha has become less popular, looking exclusively at competitions doesn’t always provide us with the full picture.

“To look at barista competitions as an indicator for what’s popular in specialty coffee is quite a narrow view of the industry as a whole,” he tells me. “It’s a niche within a niche.”

James continues that in his experience, demand is actually higher than ever – with both roasters and consumers willing to pay more. 

“Just look at the vast majority of coffee auctions, from Cup of Excellence, to Best of Panama, to single producer private auctions,” he says. “The highest scoring – and often highest valued – coffees are usually Geshas.

“If the popularity of Gesha was waning, I’d argue that we would also see a decline in the amount of money that roasters around the world are willing to pay – and we’re simply not seeing that,” he adds.

Farmers inspect a type of rare coffee in South America.

The emergence of other ultra-rare varieties (and species)

Given that Gesha has become more widely available in specialty coffee shops in recent years, it’s fair to say we can’t really refer to it as an “ultra-rare” variety anymore.

We can, however, look at competition trends as an indication of which other exclusive varieties (or even species) could be on the rise.


At the 2021 World Coffee Championships, this “forgotten” coffee species very much had the spotlight. Coffea eugenioides is a parent species of arabica, and is believed to have originated from east Africa.

Both the 2021 World Barista Champion (Diego Campos) and World Brewers Cup winner (Matt Winton) used eugenioides in their routines, with several other competitors also using it that same year. And there’s a reason for this: the species has a fascinating sensory profile – with strong notes of tropical fruit, high levels of sweetness, and a silky mouthfeel.

Although interest in eugenioides certainly remains, demand is still very low. Moreover, growing this species is especially challenging and yields are relatively small.


Another variety that has quickly gained more popularity is Sidra. In 2019, Jooyeon Jeon used a Sidra from La Palma y el Tucán in her winning WBC routine. Likewise, Cole Torode – who placed third – used the exact same coffee.

Three years later, Sidra also won the World Barista Championship when Australian competitor Anthony Douglas used it in his routine.

The exact origins of Sidra are somewhat unknown. Many believe, however, that the variety originates from the Pichincha province in Ecuador. Claims about its origin vary from that it’s genetically similar to Ethiopian heirloom varieties to that it is the result of crossbreeding Typica with Bourbon.

But again, as with other more exclusive varieties and species, scaling production of Sidra is challenging – largely because it requires full-shade conditions and is highly susceptible to certain pests and diseases.

Pink Bourbon

During the final round of 2023 World Barista Championship, we saw two competitors use the Pink Bourbon variety – including the winner, Boram Um. Known for its slight pink hue and complex flavour profile (similar to Panamanian and Ethiopian coffees), interest in this variety has been growing for some time now.

There is, however, very little verified information available about its origins. Owner of Aromas del Sur Rodrigo Sanchez Valencia is often credited for helping to discover the variety. Recent research indicates Pink Bourbon is genetically linked to Ethiopian landrace varieties, but this study has not yet been scientifically verified.

The potential for more producers to grow Pink Bourbon is currently largely limited to Colombia, which means it will most likely take some time for production to scale.

Wush Wush

Originating from the Wushwush region of Ethiopia, the Wush Wush variety can now also be found in Colombia. With a fairly varied range of flavour notes (including blueberries, vanilla, maple, and lavender), this coffee became particularly popular a couple of years ago.

Proud Mary Coffee, meanwhile, has been buying Wush Wush from Nancy and Oscar Maca at Finca El Zafiro in Colombia since 2016.

“If people are still sleeping on Wush Wush, they need to wake up – it’s delicious!” James says.

In fact, Proud Mary sometimes sells Wush Wush as part of its “deluxe” range.

“We often see these coffees purchased for competitions or for special events, which is great, but it inevitably means that very few people actually get the opportunity to taste them,” he adds. “To sell more, we need to get more customers to taste them and realise that they are special coffees. And that’s where the deluxe menus in our cafés have had a huge impact.”


In 2018, MAME Coffee co-founder Emi Fukahori used an anaerobically fermented Laurina for her winning World Brewers Cup routine. In partnership with Daterra (which produced the coffee), Emi helped to re-introduce specialty coffee to one of the most exciting varieties in some years.

As well as having a desirable flavour profile (including flavour notes of melon and citrus fruits), Laurina is also naturally low in caffeine. In turn, the variety has been a unique selling point for many roasters looking to offer higher-quality alternatives to decaf coffee

Laurina has definitely become more popular in recent years, so it’s not exactly “ultra-rare” in comparison to other varieties and species. But it’s still difficult to grow at scale – mostly because it contains less caffeine, which is a natural pest repellant.

Various trophies on display at a barista championship.

Are ultra-rare varieties destined to rise and fall?

Competitions will always continue to have an impact on which rare varieties and species become popular in the wider specialty coffee sector. And with competitors always looking for the “best” coffee to use during their routines, it’s becoming more important for them to rediscover more unique coffees.

“As an industry, we’re always searching for something new and exciting,” James says. “Innovation has always been a part of the specialty coffee industry. From what we’re seeing, the varieties that people are looking to experience are a part of that mindset, too.”

However, considering that Gesha has seemingly fallen out of favour with competitors, is it inevitable that other varieties will face the same fate?

For most of these “rediscovered” coffees, there is still a lot of potential for them to remain in the spotlight. What’s more, outside of competitions, it’s likely that they will stay popular for even longer – but production of these coffees will remain low for the foreseeable future.

Based on James’ experience at Proud Mary Coffee, demand for Gesha continues to be high – so it’s possible that the same will apply to other ultra-rare varieties.

“We’re selling more Gesha than we ever have before,” he asserts. “Both as pour overs in our coffee shops and through our e-commerce platforms.” 

The impact of experimental processing methods

In conjunction with a growing interest in more exclusive and ultra-rare coffees, there has been a rise in more experimental and advanced processing techniques. These methods can have a huge impact on flavour and mouthfeel, and open up new possibilities when it comes to experiencing coffee.

They can, however, often mask the innate characteristics of coffee, which can pose challenges when it comes to more delicate varieties and species.

“As an industry, we have spent the better part of the last 25 years telling our customers that origin, variety, terroir, and processing are all important – that these are the things that make coffee special,” James explains. “With the rise in popularity of experimental processing, I worry that we’re going to lose a lot of that.”

Processing beans on a farm in South America.

The range of ultra-rare and exclusive coffees is continuing to grow. And if Best of Panama prices are anything to go by, some roasters are still willing to pay a premium to secure them. 

“We’re going to continue buying as much deluxe, rare, and exotic coffees as we can, and we’ll find ways to sell them,” James concludes.

But whether these varieties and species will retain their levels of popularity – or eventually begin to fade – remains to be seen.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring whether coffee competitions are moving away from Gesha.

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