Mr. Bean
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2015 - 10:00am

Geisha beans are the latest holy grail for coffee lovers, selling for $100 per pound — and Toby’s Estate has it. 

It’s not surprising that Toby Smith, the Australian founder of specialty coffee vendor Toby’s Estate, has encountered some pretty rare coffees. Nowadays, the rarest is Geisha, a “temperamental” coffee bean that is grown only at high altitudes — around 1,400 to 1,700 meters above sea level, such as the mountain areas of Costa Rica and Panama. Smith, who was in Manila to launch his latest branch at Whitespace on Chino Roces Ave., says a bag of Geisha beans can run upwards of $100 per pound. (And you thought Blue Mountain was expensive.) That’s not quite gold prices, but it’s getting close. It’s a complex, much-sought-after bean to coffee lovers, with a long cherry (the unwashed, unprocessed fruit of the coffee plant) revealing various flavor profiles — fruit, chocolate, floral hints.

We got a chance to slurp a little Geisha — literally — at a cupping session held at Toby’s newest branch. “Cupping” involves hot water poured over beans, sniffing coffee aroma, loudly slurping a taste from a spoon, and describing its flavor. Gathered around the hip coffee space were people like Gaita Fores, Celine Lopez and Toby’s local partners, Chut Cuerva, Marco Antonio, Manny Del Rosario and Marcelo Crespo.

Most intriguingly, we’re told that volcanic soil is ideal for growing coffee. It raises the question: why not start a plantation in nearby Taal?

“Anywhere near a volcano, you’ll get volcanic soil and at that altitude, cool growing conditions,” Smith agrees, adding that they’re investigating several growing spots in the Philippines, north and south, and that he’s not too worried about low volume of output. After all, it’s rare pleasure that Toby’s Estate coffees offer up: they use only top-level beans, not cheap by any stretch (though prices are comparable to other large coffee vendors in town).

Partner and Century Properties co-chief operating officer Marco Antonio says the 300 sqm Whitespace branch fills many needs: “It’s a 3-in-1 concept: a café, the head offices are upstairs, plus we were really looking for a central roasting facility.” Prior to the new branch, Toby’s Estate would air-ship roasted beans in from Singapore. Not anymore: the fancy Loring roaster in back can handle 35 kilos at a time. 

With six Toby’s locations in Metro Manila now — and four more opening next year at Greenhills, Shangri-La EDSA, Shangri-La at the Fort, and Legazpi Village — there was a growing need to roast on-premises. “There are 6,000 kilos of coffee in the back, so we will never run out,” Antonio adds.

Master roaster Alvaro Sanchez gave us a live demonstration of the roasting machine, and told us that beans can survive only a few roasts before the cooking overpowers the flavor. Generally, he says, you want to save the rarer, finer coffees for light to medium roasts, to preserve the flavor profile. “When you’re roasting, the darker the roast, the closer it gets to charcoal.” Which doesn’t sound too appetizing.

Yes, we love our roasted coffees, but when you get to the Toby Smith level, it’s all about distinguishing the unique character of each bean. With 600 branches worldwide, Smith — a lawyer by training — started his education on a coffee farm in Brazil for a few years before making his quest for the perfect cup into a big business. He’s dedicated to fair trade and committed to great coffee.

Says partner Chut Cuerva, “Toby’s story is great, it’s a romantic story. He was a lawyer, doing a 9-5 job, and sort of stumbled into coffee. Back in Australia, he started the company in his mom’s garage, and it took off. We really connected with him, we thought ‘Here’s a great guy to be partners with.’”

I asked Smith what he looks for in a plantation first. “There’s a certain feel about a place, like you come to a place and feel ‘They could grow good coffee here,’ like in Davao. The soil, a certain humidity in the day, elevation, altitude, certain moisture and clouding. It’s got to be pretty much steady 24 degrees Celsius. The trees have to look healthy, green, with abundant leaves.” He adds “the longitude in Panama is very similar to here.” Ideal for growing, in other words.

But: $100 for a bag of beans? What gives with the Geisha? “There’s a huge demand for high quality,” Smith allows, and the rise of coffee culture here — third wave cafés, foreign chains, etc. — bears this out. Geisha beans (originally from Gesha, Ethiopia) are just the latest holy grail for coffee aficionados, and the price fluctuates greatly during Panama coffee competitions, when it’s auctioned off at astronomical rates.

So how does the Geisha taste? Honestly, I could detect only hints of wood (possibly chocolate) in the slurping test. But here’s what Barista Magazine says: “The flavor profile features a delicate floral aroma with notes of jasmine and rose, followed by an intense sweetness supporting an array of fruit notes — papaya, berries and currants.” So, worth exploring for any coffee lover.

And any coffee lover knows the daily cup is more than just a daily habit: it’s a passion, even an addiction. “For myself it’s a profession and I look at it as enjoyment,” says Smith. “Other times I’m breaking it down: what value it has, the quality aspects. There’s always a new bag of coffee, a new prize to be found out there.”





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Toby’s Estate is now open at Whitespace, Chino Roces Ave. (Pasong Tamo Extension).

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