An interesting trivia question to ask people is where coffee originated. Virtually everyone looks confused, and, when pressed, usually tries a Latin-American country: Colombia, say, 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 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 figured out 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, began importing it from Yemen, and eventually 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 or estates. However, Ethiopia coffees found in American specialty stores tend to break into two categories: dry-processed and wet-processed or "washed" coffees. Dry-processed coffees are dried with the fruit still adhering to the bean, generally making them fruitier, fuller, and more idiosyncratic in the cup than the more transparent-tasting wet-processed beans, from which the fruit has been removed before drying. Most dry-processed Ethiopia coffees originate east of the capital of Addis Ababa and are called Harrars, after the name of the principle market city. Wet-processed coffees come from the south and west of Addis Ababa and carry various market names, including Yirgacheffe (spelled in a variety of ways), Washed Sidamo and Limu.
The simplicity of dry-processing, for which the farmer needs no machinery whatsoever (the dried fruit husks usually are removed from the beans later at centralized mills), connects it to the very earliest days of coffee production. The dry-processed coffees of Ethiopia and Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, are the world's most traditional coffees. Both are processed in the same way they were centuries ago. They also come mainly from trees of very ancient cultivars of Coffea arabica. In its December issue Coffee Review will report on a cupping of some of these extraordinary dry-processed coffees of Ethiopia and Yemen, which represent the literal flesh and taste of living history.
This month, however, we report on a cupping of the equally remarkable wet-processed or washed coffees of Ethiopia. If the Harrars and other dry-processed coffees of Ethiopia are idiosyncratic, mysterious, ambiguous, the finest washed coffees of Ethiopia are the quintessence of elegance: bright, high-toned, 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 (or "washed" as wet-processed coffees are often called) 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: the celebrated Yirgacheffes, 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 us twelve Ethiopia washed coffees: four Yirgacheffes, three Sidamos, three Limus, and two unusual coffees from the Mt. Welel area near the Sudan border. Of the twelve 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 we 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.