An interesting trivia question to pose to purported coffee enthusiasts is where their favorite beverage originated. They usually look confused and, when pressed, name a Latin-American country - say, Colombia or Brazil.
Of course, Coffee Arabica, the species that produces all fine coffees, originated in the highland forests of Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. The arabica tree, which apparently still grows wild in the middle tier of the Ethiopian forest, was most likely domesticated as a kind of medicinal herb, and carried very early across the Red Sea to Yemen in southern Arabia, where someone discovered how good the seeds tasted when roasted, ground, and steeped in hot or boiling water.
Europeans discovered coffee in the coffeehouses of Cairo and Constantinople and they began importing it from Yemen. Eventually they carried it to the rest of the world, including Latin America.
Ethiopia continues to be a rich, mothering, deep source of coffee. Ethiopia coffees range from those gathered in forests to those grown on large farms. Ethiopia coffees on the American specialty market tend to break into two categories: dry-processed coffees and wet-processed, or "washed," coffees. Most dry-processed Ethiopias on the American market originate east of the capital of Addis Ababa and are called Harrars, after the name of the principle market city. Wet-processed coffees tend to originate south and west of Addis Ababa and carry various market names, including Yirgacheffe (spelled in a variety of ways), Washed Sidamo, and Limu.
This month I report on a cupping of the remarkable wet-processed or washed coffees of Ethiopia by the coffeereview.com cupping board. If the Harrars and other dry-processed coffees of Ethiopia are idiosyncratic, mysterious, and ambiguous, the finest washed coffees of Ethiopia are the quintessence of elegance: bright, high-toned, and buoyant, with citrus and floral tones. Both are complex, but the complexity of wet-processed Ethiopias shimmers at the top of the profile, alive with lemon, spice, and flower tones that at times almost shock with their intensity.
Wet-processed Ethiopias are produced in several regions to the south and west of the capital of Addis Ababa. However, from the American buyer's perspective they really fall into two categories: coffees carrying the celebrated Yirgacheffe mark, from a region southwest of the capital, and all of the other wet-processed Ethiopias, which include wet-processed Sidamos, Limus, and others. In other words, from a cupper's perspective, Yirgacheffes set the standard and the other origins compete, usually with lower-key, less extravagant versions of the perfumy Yirgacheffe profile.
Of course, there are stories of coffees from other areas being marketed as Yirgacheffes. But there is no mistaking the goal of any coffee that purports to be a Yirgacheffe. It is one of the world's most distinctive origins, always easy to pick out in a blend, singing its citrusy, floral song high above the chorus of mere mortal coffees sounding below.
This month's cupping brought 12 Ethiopia washed coffees: four Yirgacheffes, three Sidamos, three Limus, and two unusual coffees from the Mt. Welel area near the Sudan border. Of the 12 coffees, four were supplied by the Gourmet Coffee Project, an initiative funded by the United Nations designed to identify and develop new specialty coffees in producing countries and promote those coffees in more well-heeled parts of the world like North America and Japan. The four Gourmet Project coffees are identified rather specifically in terms of estate or mill.
In the case of the other eight coffees, no farm or cooperative is identified because Ethiopia sells most of its coffees by auction. Exporters bid on small lots of coffee based on appearance, grade, and cupping reports provided by government "liquorers" or tasters, then combine them into larger lots for export. This is why I have identified the various coffees by market or regional name (Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, etc.) and by the name of the American importer (Holland Coffee Group, Ethiopian Highland Coffees, etc.).
Perhaps predictably, Yirgacheffes continued to rule the wet-processed Ethiopia roost, with a considerably higher collective rating than samples from other regions. However, only one Yirgacheffe, the entry from Royal Coffee, displayed quite the astounding high-toned aromatic fireworks of which this origin is capable. A second Yirgacheffe, this one from Holland Coffee, also was impressive, though a bit lower-toned and perhaps more seductive than the Royal Coffee sample. The other coffees in the cupping were fragrant and agreeable, but failed to deliver quite the perfumed thrill that professionals and aficionados always hope for when dropping their noses over a cup of this most distinctive and exotic of coffee origins.
Cuppings are conducted by the Coffee Review, which is available on line at: www.coffereview.com.
Procedure: Coffees are not identified until cupping is completed. A minimum of three cups per coffee are sampled, using standard North American cupping procedure. Coffees were roasted to a uniform degree of roast measuring 45 whole bean 47 ground on a Roller Roaster by Robert Barker and Kenneth Davids at Keystone Coffee, San Jose, California.
Panelists: Mane Alves (Coffee Lab International); Robert Barker (consultant); Doug Belling (Amcafe); Lindsey Bolger (Batdorf & Bronson); David Dallis (Dallis Bros. Coffee); Kenneth Davids (writer/consultant); Martin Diedrich (Diedrich Coffee Roasters); Jan Eno (Thanksgiving Coffee); Don Holly (Specialty Coffee Association of America); Paul Katzeff (Thanksgiving Coffee); Kevin Knox (Allegro Coffee); Ted Lingle (Specialty Coffee Association of America); Jim Reynolds (Peet's Coffee & Tea); and Linda Smithers (Susan's Coffee and Tea).
Scoring: Cuppers report scores from 0 (low) to 10 (high) for the standard cupping categories of fragrance and aroma; acidity; body; flavor; and aftertaste. Scores reflect both intensity and quality in each category. The overall score of 50 (low) to 100 (high) is based on overall consideration of the total merits of the coffee.