Straight Coffees from Africa
A good East African coffee has the disconcerting capacity to make coffees from other parts of the world taste rather tame. The robust wininess of a Kenya or the startling floral tones of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe are among the grand gestures of coffee. Few East African coffees can be accused of timidity.
But what do consumers actually taste when they get their bag of Kenya, Ethiopia, or Zimbabwe home and dump some into the grinder? Do these coffees live up (taste up?) to their romantic image and the lush descriptions that often grace bags and brochures?
We asked six distinguished roaster-retailers to each supply us with two of their favorite African coffees. We received six Kenyas, two Ethiopian Yirgacheffes, three additional Ethiopian coffees, and one estate Zimbabwe.
As I prepared for this cupping I admit to bracing for a bit of a letdown. The Kenya government's introduction of a disease-resistant hybrid variety of coffea arabica, Ruiru 11, has coffee professionals fretting over the future of Kenya, heretofore one of the world's most reliable fine coffees, and the people of Ethiopia have barely recovered from the various disorders and disasters of immediate past decades, leaving them, it would seem, little space to respond to the refined expectations of coddled American coffee reviewing palates.
I was reassured, however. So profoundly reassured that I ended up assigning ratings of "Outstanding" to 33% or four of the twelve coffees in this cupping, much to the consternation of my colleague Ron Walters, who reminded me that we anticipated ending up with only about 10% in the outstanding and truly exceptional categories combined. Neither Ron nor I want to go the way of some American colleges, where half the students get A's and the other half, having suffered the indignity of B's, are ready to lynch the teacher.
But I suspect that it would be difficult to find a group of single-origin coffees much better than the Kenyas in this cupping, or a pair of coffees more distinctive than the two Ethiopian Yirgacheffes. If anything, I restrained myself with these ratings.
Before discussing the coffees themselves, I need to devote a paragraph or two to how these coffees have been handled by the roasters. Eight of the twelve coffees were brought to a very similar roast, a style the Specialty Coffee Association of America calls "medium-dark," a bit darker than the traditional East-Coast American norm. I suspect the roasters chose this slightly darker roast style to mute or round out the powerful acidity of these coffees. The remaining four coffees were brought to a considerably darker roast, a style that many stores might call espresso or French, but which apparently represents the normal roast style for these coffees when you buy them at New York's Oren's Daily Roast or Seattle's Caravali.
Readers should keep in mind that darkness or degree of roast profoundly influences taste, and that flavor differences between the coffees roasted medium-dark and those roasted dark brown may reflect differences in roast taste as much as differences between the green coffees themselves.
Finally, turning to those coffees, it is no surprise that Kenyas and Ethiopias dominate the roaster's choices. These two celebrated origins are equally distinguished, even though in some respects, they define opposite ends of the East African coffee spectrum.
The carefully managed, aggressively up-to-date Kenya industry produces what is probably the most consistent of the world's fine coffees. The Kenya Ministry of Agriculture's goal is to make every Kenya AA as similar to (and as good as) every other Kenya AA. By contrast Ethiopian coffee production is anything if not diverse. Intriguingly wild, rather rough-tasting coffees like the dry-processed Sidamo and Harrar in this cupping ship out next to wet-processed coffees like the Yirgacheffes that rank among the world's most delicate and refined.
First the Kenyas. The four medium-dark roasted examples in the cupping differ considerably, even though they all very much taste like Kenyas. In particular, they share the origin's prominent, winy acidity. However, these Kenyas share another quality that is difficult to categorize or get into language. I experience it as an echoing expansiveness that unfolds behind and around the first impact of taste and acidity. I prefer to call this quality depth or dimension, but others may describe it with words like richness or complexity.
Whatever we call it, along with the wine-like acidity it's what makes Kenya one of the world's great origins. All four of the medium-dark roasted Kenyas in the cupping are superb coffees that play elegant variations on the acidity-depth themes.
The remaining two of the six Kenyas, from Oren's Daily Roast and Caravali Coffee, have been brought to a dark roast. The success of these coffees confirms that Kenyas, unlike many other origins, are sturdy enough to stand up to a dark roast without completely losing their character and individuality.
The five Ethiopias in the cupping include two wet-processed Yirgacheffes and one wet-processed Sidamo, plus two dry-processed coffees, another Sidamo and a Harrar.
Yirgacheffe, with its exhilarating floral tones, is one of the world's most distinctive origins. The offering from Barnie's Coffee & Teas is particularly fragrant; it may be hard to believe someone hasn't snuck some lavender into your cup. The drawback to Yirgacheffes is their delicacy; behind the startling floral perfumes the profile may lack power and fade quickly in the finish. Willoughby's Yirgacheffe struck me as a rather less floral but a bit sturdier than the Barnie's version.
All of the Kenyas, the two Yirgacheffes, and the one Zimbabwe in the cupping are wet-processed coffees, meaning the moist fruit was stripped from the beans before the beans were dried. Two of the Ethiopian coffees are dry-processed, which means that the beans were dried with the fruit still clinging to them. Doubtless because the fruit is in contact with the bean for a longer period, dry-processed coffees are often sweeter and fruitier than those processed by the wet method.
This truism is confirmed by the two dry-processed Ethiopian coffees in the cupping: The dry-processed or "natural" Sidamo from Dunn Brothers and the Longberry Harrar from Oren's Daily Roast both display variations on the rough, light-bodied fruitiness such coffees are famous for.
If the fresh coffee fruit is not dried with care, however, the pulp can spoil or even rot while still in contact with the beans, imparting various taste taints to the coffee. The two dry-processed Ethiopias in the cupping hint at just such a taint: Slightly fermented notes, a sort of overripe-just-short-of-rotten taste, hidden amid the otherwise pleasant fruit tones. You will need to strain to detect these off notes, however, and some palates may even find them attractive in the context of the general ripe wildness of the profile.
The only coffee in the cupping that I consider outright unsuccessful is the wet-processed Ethiopian Sidamo from Caravali Coffee, simply because the dark roast pretty much overwhelms the coffee's character and distinctiveness. Either the Sidamo is too delicate to stand up to a roast this severe or the roastmaster rushed things a bit with this batch.
Zimbabwe is an appealing and under-recognized origin. I once considered it Kenya Lite, a milder, understated version of the bigger, bolder Kenya profile. That characterization now seems glib and unfair. Usually less sweet and deep than Kenya, Zimbabwe is nevertheless its own coffee, presenting a distinctively crisp, dry version of the East African wine and fruit theme. The Smaldeel Estate Zimbabwe from Café del Mundo displays this profile with elegance and subtlety.
If the coffees in this cupping are any indication, the American buyer of East African coffee is getting something real in the cup to go with the elephant logos and fancy descriptions.