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Ethiopian coffee - some of the best coffees in the world

From our roaster…. “It is my considered opinion, after cupping and tasting coffee from around the world for many years that, if I had to choose coffee from only one country of origin, it would undoubtedly be coffee from Ethiopia,”

Caffea Arabica as we know it, originated in Ethiopia. Sadly, only 3% or so of the worlds coffee still comes from Ethiopia, this said, coffee is nevertheless still responsible for an economically critical 60% of the nations foreign income. Legend has it that, some 600 years ago, a goatherd noticed his flock behaving in a strange manner… this was blamed on the fruit from a coffee tree. Coffee has also been used to invigorate warriors in times of war and was considered a drug in many parts of the world…I mean, at one stage the fairer sex were not allowed into European coffee halls which were the exclusive domain of men! Who knows whether this is urban legend or not - be this as it may, let’s immortalize Kaldi the goatherd and be thankful for his discovery!

Coffee from the regions of Harar, Sidamo (Sidamu; Sidama)   Limu and Yirgacheffe are all internationally acclaimed. As a coffee lover, if you haven’t tried a good quality single origin from Ethiopia, it’s surely time!

Most commercial blends available to South African consumers on a supermarket shelf will be made up of Brazils and other South and Latin American coffees. A dedicated roaster who is proud of his product will certainly add and African coffee here and there, but as a general rule, the delicate Ethiopians are firstly too expensive to include in a blend and more importantly, would get lost and be wasted when asked to arm-wrestle against the mass-produced and mostly over-roasted coffees.

The term “Ethiopia” when it comes to coffee does need to get expanded a little - we’re talking here about the “mother-node” of world coffee, beans which are rarely grown in other parts of the world and also rarely available for the above reasons. One can expect some intense and aromatic flavours, think a lemon flavoured dark chocolate, a hint of honey in it’s rawest form, a freshly cut floral bouquet and recently cut trees in a fresh rain. Now this might come as a bit of a surprise - one might not like Ethiopian (or other Africans) the first time! You might be accustomed to stale off-the-shelf coffee or other lower priced blends and this might take a bit of getting used to.

But folks…our roaster waxes lyrical…”this is what coffee is supposed to taste like. Just because a coffee drinker is more accustomed to an over-roasted Brazil, this doesn’t make this the right thing! The other day I did a tasting for a coffee shop owner who wasn’t too keen on our filter blend, I went back to our laboratory and did a private tasting of our Signature Blend versus three “supermarket” packs. No wonder she didn’t like ours, she had never tasted good quality, freshly roasted coffee.”

Another interesting note about the Ethiopians is that one can really taste a difference between the coffee of each region. In stock at the moment we have speciality grade Yirgacheffe; Sidamu and Harrar…spoil your self and enjoy the experience!  

Nonetheless, once this fundamental aromatic repertoire is understood and accepted, one notices striking variations, variations that we have tried to highlight in our reviews. Sometimes the floral character dominates, sometimes the lemony citrus, sometimes the dry chocolate, nut and fir. Citrusy profiles are typically more brightly acidy than profiles in which the flowers or the cocoa/nut dominate; floral profiles are generally sweeter and arguably more balanced. The citrus can be ripe and orangy, richly lemony, or sometimes bittersweet, similar to the bergamot used to flavor Earl Grey tea. The flowers can be lush and jasmine-like or spicy and rose-like. What we are calling cocoa can be rather chocolaty or drier and more nut-like.

Taken together, all of this sounds like an entire aromatic universe, which it is. But, again, it is a universe somewhat apart from other sensory universes of coffee. Its features are shared by many fine coffees of the Arabica species, but it is only expressed in its fullest intensity and range in the best wet-processed Ethiopias, and in the striking (and much more expensive) coffees produced by the Ethiopian-heritage Geisha or Gesha variety now emerging in Panama and elsewhere in Central America.

Regions, Names and Distinction

Yirgacheffe, a relatively compact growing region, lush and Edenic, produces by far the most consistently distinctive exemplars of the southern Ethiopia wet-processed sensory universe. I was told during a visit to a large Yirgacheffe coffee nursery some years ago that no outside cultivars or varieties ever have been introduced into the region, and that all new plantings represent offspring of the traditional local varieties. Assuming this assertion is correct, it undoubtedly accounts for the uniqueness and intensity of the Yirgacheffe profile. Note that of the eight highest-rated coffees in this month’s reviews, all but one are Yirgacheffes. One can only hope that the well-meaning innocence of some who work purely on the commercial or technical side of coffee doesn’t lead to a dilution of the singular and extraordinary beauty of Yirgacheffe through introduction of conventional-tasting hybrid varieties into the region.

By comparison, coffee entering the market as Sidamo or Sidama tends to express the intensity and uniqueness of the classic southern Ethiopia wet-processed profile with less reliability. My assumption is that this is true because the region tapped for coffees sold under these names is larger and the production more diffused, with more opportunity for dilution of the classic profile through introduced varieties of Arabica. Since the 19th century the term Sidamo has been used by the coffee industry to describe coffee that had been grown in a quite large area of southern Ethiopia. This area includes the current Sidama Zone, within the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, as well as parts of the neighboring Oromia Region. In the mid 1990s the Ethiopian government changed regional boundaries and names, eliminating Sidamo Province, and in 2008 the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX) officially changed the name of coffee traded from this area to Sidama. But old habits die hard, so we now see both Sidamo and Sidama used on sacks of green coffee as well as on retail bags of roasted beans. Generally we have chosen to call the coffee by whatever name the retailer assigns to it, whether Sidamo or Sidama.

Roast Impact

Of course roast has an impact on how the Ethiopia wet-processed profile works out in the cup. One of the striking outcomes of our reviews is a strong implication that a classic medium roast (a roast concluded toward the middle of the interval between the first and second crack) best develops the virtues of the typical southern Ethiopia washed coffee. Recall that we never look at the roast color before we cup samples, much less test for it, and of course we identify samples only by number until we’ve committed to our ratings and descriptions. Only then do we test for roast color. Nevertheless, five of the six top-rated coffees reviewed this month showed a whole-bean Agtron or roast color reading of exactly 50, and the sixth a reading of 52. (For more on Agtron numbers see Ted Stachura’s blog on the subject or our reference section.)

Such a tight clustering of roast color among coffees at the top of the ratings is unusual. On our instrument (Agtron instruments may differ in the detail of their readings) 50 reflects a classic medium roast. Samples we tested for these reviews that were only a few points lighter or a few points darker on our instrument did not impress as much as the samples that hit this unusually tight target.

I can safely say that with other origins that we review on a regular basis the apparent optimum roast level is not nearly so tightly expressed. The optimum roast level for Sumatras often appears to be darker than a classic medium roast, for example, yet we have awarded several fine Sumatras high ratings at very light roasts. Most Latin American origins also seem to show well at a considerably wider range of roast color. One cupping does not a generalization make, but such consistency does invite attention.

A Good Fit for Organic and Fair Trade

A word on socio-economic and environmental issues. Coffee in southern Ethiopia is generally produced by small holders, with fruit removal and drying performed at centralized “washing stations” or wet mills using traditional methods. Some mills are operated by cooperatives; others by exporters. The small-holding, subsistence farmers typically grow their coffees in movingly simple and beautiful “gardens,” with coffee trees mixed among many other plants and trees that provide food and other essentials. There is little to no use of chemicals by these small holders; they can’t afford them.

This context explains why so many certified organic coffees appear in this month’s reviews, and why many are certified Fair Trade as well. Minimal use of chemicals facilitates a transition to certifiable organic practices, and the prevalence of cooperatives encourages Fair Trade certification, a certification that is explicitly designed for democratically run cooperatives.

The Ethiopian coffee industry is certainly not without its problems. The main one from a roaster/consumer perspective is getting these great coffees out of Ethiopia in a timely way before they fade or turn musty. But the roasters and their exporter/importer partners appear to have achieved that with the twelve coffees reviewed here, which together give a fine and varied account of this striking coffee type.

Buy specialiy grade Ethiopian coffee Roasters reserve - coffee of distinction.

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