Ethiopian and Kenyan Coffees by Kenneth Davids |

September 2002

Ethiopias and Kenyas
by Kenneth Davids

Ethiopia and Kenya are favorite origins for attacking coffee complacency. Think all coffees taste the same? Try a Kenya that tastes as though it were spiked by a fine cabernet, or an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe that tastes like lemon blossoms on a balmy evening.

Arguments can be made that other coffee origins produce a more classic cup than Ethiopia or Kenya, but no other origins come close to either for flat-out capacity to surprise us and make us notice what we're drinking.

Not Quite Astounding

Given the intrinsic (if different) beauty of these two cups, I was prepared to be impressed by this month's samples, maybe astounded.

It didn't quite work out that way. True, some of the Kenyas were exciting, and one was extraordinary. Why the rest of these coffees came across as pleasant but without the sensory fireworks that normally erupt from these origins is not entirely clear to me.

One reason may be that this apparently was a bad year for wet-processed Ethiopias. Not one of the Yirgacheffes submitted for this cupping displayed the pronounced floral perfumes that typically mark this great origin. They certainly had the lemon and crisp fruit tones, and an occasional hint of flowers. But the shimmering top notes were generally missing, while the pungency that also distinguishes this origin often seemed heavier and more bitter than usual.

For coffee drinkers who have never experienced an Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, enjoy these, but wait for another year to sniff the whole garden.

The Roasting Story

Also dampening some of these coffees: distinctiveness may be the same old story: contemporary American roasters' tendency to dark-roast everything, even distinctive single origins like Kenya and Ethiopia. True, both of these origins stand up to a dark roast well, but certainly anything past a moderately dark roast mutes almost all the characteristics that clearly mark them as different from all other coffees. The muting impact of aggressive roasting seemed to take a particularly dampening toll on this year's disappointingly under-aroma-ed Yirgacheffes.

Two Fine Kenyas

So we were left with two great Kenyas, one very agreeable, though certainly not astounding Yirgacheffe, plus a number of very pleasant but not particularly distinctive coffees whose virtues had more to do with the impact of roast than with the intrinsic character of the green beans themselves.

Fair-Trade Roasting

The tendency to roast the distinctiveness out of single origin coffees was particularly striking among roasters who have taken on the strategy of basing their business on Fair-Traded coffees, those coffees certified to have been produced by democratically governed cooperatives of small- scale farmers who have been paid a fair and sustainable price for their coffee. It would seem to me that these Fair-Trade-oriented roasters ought to pursue the opposite roasting strategy. Given that their business is based on foregrounding and dignifying the achievements of those hard-working farmers who actually produce the green coffee beans, perhaps they ought to roast these green beans in a way that best foregrounds the farmers' contribution to the cup rather than their own.

Instead, the samples generously submitted by small roasters who specialize in Fair-Trade were often among the darkest and/or most aggressively roasted of all of the submitted samples. The results in two cases were quite pleasant darker-roasted cups, but the expressiveness of these cups was more the product of the creative contribution of roaster than of the contributions of grower and mill-operator, which were masked rather than showcased by the roast. Roast styles certainly don't need to be light or even medium to showcase origin character, but they do need to stop short of the dominating impact of roast that is gotten when coffees are brought past the beginning of the "second crack," or around Agtron 40 whole bean on the M-Basic/Gourmet scale.

But grouching about roast level aside, this does appear to be a fine year for Kenyas, and even a mediocre Yirgacheffe can help pass a morning pleasantly until a better year for that splendid origin rolls around.