• Natalia Setio

Tales from Africa Series 1 - Ethiopian Coffee


Ethiopia is considered as the birth place of coffee. The regal coffee from this country is deserving of such a heritage and stand up to the calling.

Most Ethiopia coffees are grown without use of agricultural chemicals in the most benign of conditions: under shade and inter-planted with other crops. The only exceptions are a handful of wet-processed coffees produced by large, government-run estates in southwestern Ethiopia that make discreet use of chemicals. Harrars and Yirgacheffes in particular are what Ethiopians call "garden coffees", grown on small plots by villagers using completely traditional methods.

Ethiopian Coffee Regions

Ethiopian coffee that is broadly wet-processed, comes from one of three main growing regions — Sidamo, Harrar, Kaffa — and often bears one of those names. The complex mix of species and varieties that are native to Ethiopia gives these coffees their unique flavors. The variety isn't usually known when buying Ethiopian coffee because they label most of their coffee under variety called Ethiopian Heirloom. This means that your batch/crop might be a mix of SL28, SL38, Catuai, Geisha and Typica which is quite unusual. Ethiopians do this because once upon time Panamanians stole the Geisha variety from them and they don't want that to happen again. Geisha is considered as the most prestige and valued coffee variety in the world, kind of like the queen of coffee. Not telling the variety might also be because coffee grows so wildly in some parts of Ethiopia that the farmers aren't able to tell which variety they are farming.

Natural Processing

When done right, naturally processed beans retain a ton of fruit flavor, and often carry a pleasant wine-like acidity. They can be punchy and very sweet, suggesting a variety of fresh fruit-salad flavors. Natural Ethiopian coffee can taste like cantaloupe, cherry, grape, lime, green apple, or even peach. They have heavier bodies with a silky mouthfeel, like velvet, or a syrupy, honey-like texture. They have heft, spiciness, and taste more like they came from the Earth. Natural processing can be tricky,, however, and this is where a reputation for variance arises: poorly-dried beans can taste sour or musty, or become brittle and unsuitable for roasting. The drying process is perhaps the most important step to ensure a quality green coffee bean.

The best washed coffees can be incredibly elegant, complex and delicious, and the best naturally processed ones can be described as wildly fruity and enchantingly unusual. Coffees are famous for their distinct and elegant floral, herbal, and citrus notes. The flavour is inimitable, sensitive and delicate; from Ethiopian coffee one can sense notes of jasmine flower, bergamot and blueberry in aftertaste. The body of the coffee is not very strong and acidity is mild and pleasant. In general, Ethiopian coffees are heavy and winey or floral and tea like.

Within the past decade or so, however, there's been a lot of moving and shaking within the coffee industry. Education and technology previously used in wet processing mills have been extended into natural processing, resulting in a more consistently high-quality product among naturally processed beans. Today, there are more co-operatives and organisations supporting fair trade and direct partnerships than ever before. And, with specialty coffee gaining more and more of a foothold in the world, Ethiopia continues to gain more opportunities to market its beans on the world stage.

Wet Processing and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Yirgacheffe (also spelled Yirgachefe, Yergacheffe, or Yerga Chefe) is a micro-region within the much larger region of Sidama (or Sidomo) in southern Ethiopia. Ethiopian Yirgacheffe has a light to medium body (although they can be full body as well). As is typical with other coffees from this region, it has a distinctively fruity flavor profile and a bright, floral aroma thanks to wet-processed beans cultivated at a high elevation (between 5,800 to 6,600 ft).

Most people enjoy a quality Yirgacheffe for its floral, fruity, and tea-like finish. These qualities are attributable to wet-processing. Wet-processing was introduced into Ethiopia in the 1970s, and Yirgacheffe was the location of the very first wet-processing mill. During the washing process, beans are immersed in large vats of water and soaked until the fruit and mucilage comes off, and then the naked beans are dried. This strips the traditional, wine-like fruity, or fermented flavors from the beans and results in that well-known washed Yirgacheffe cup: a lighter body with clean flavors of citrus and floral. Now, a washing mill is an expensive investment on the African content, not just in terms of cost, but for the vast amounts of water required to process the coffee, and the infrastructure needed to handle waste water. And remember, we're talking about Ethiopia, where water isn't known for being abundant. Given this, few growers waste their time wet-processing lower quality beans. By contrast, beans put through a wet-processing mill are bolstered by more modern methods, education, and oversight: more standardisation and quality control both add up to a more consistent product. These new, washed Yirgacheffes could be "marketed" to the world for the first time as a specialty product, and coffee lovers embraced them. Delicate washed Yirgacheffes soared to prominence while the traditional naturals, still relatively unknown, remained a commodity product.

Whatever the brew method, use fresh-roasted and fresh-ground Yirgacheffe to experience the distinct flavours and aromatics of Yirgacheffe. Its floral and citrus profile make Yirgacheffe ideal for cold brew or iced coffee. And if you're brewing with hot water, be careful not to over-extract the beans or you might lose some of the more delicate fruity flavours. Yirgacheffe brews great in a chemex with a metal filter to allow more oils to pass through. It's also great brewed as a French Press.

Coffee still continues to grow wild and naturally mutate in Ethiopia, so its genetic diversity is unrivalled amongst the rest of the coffee producing world. This diversity extends into the unique flavour possibilities that vary by region and landscape and that are much sought after by all coffee fans.

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