Coffee Article: Coffees from Ethiopia

January 2011

African Intensity: Yirgacheffe, Sidama and Environs
by Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

When we taste our way into the world of southern Ethiopia wet-processed coffees -- the most famous names are Yirgacheffe and Sidamo or Sidama -- we enter a special and different sensory world than the one to which most North American coffee drinkers are accustomed. These coffees, produced largely from heirloom varieties of Arabica that are hardly grown anywhere else in the world, display intense and often extravagant aromatic profiles: lemon, flowers, cocoa, pungent fresh-cut fir.

Some North American coffee drinkers who taste these coffees for the first time are enchanted. Others simply don't like the experience. For the nay-tasters a fine Yirgacheffe "doesn’t taste like coffee," meaning, of course, it doesn’t taste like coffees produced elsewhere in the world from more familiar varieties of Arabica. The hint of flowers that turns up in fine Arabicas from all over the world may be dandy, for example, but the often intense floral character of exceptional wet-processed Ethiopias, particularly Yirgacheffes, can be unsettling to those not accustomed to the note.

Consequently, those newcomers who sample from the twelve exceptional Ethiopia wet-processed coffees reviewed this month can expect something different from the coffee experience they are accustomed to, though it is a something different that shares certain common sensory tendencies. Pronounced floral notes are seldom absent; citrus in various manifestations is always there, as are dry, nut-toned chocolaty notes to which we at Coffee Review often apply the shorthand term "cocoa." Usually there is also a backbone provided by a pungent but fresh aromatic wood note suggesting fresh-cut fir or cedar.

Variations in the Aromatic Repertoire

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.