The eleven coffees the Coffee Review panel cupped this past month represent the essence of coffee romance and history. They are representatives of the world’s original coffees, quite literally embodying history in the cup. Ethiopia is the botanical home of the coffee arabica tree, and Yemen, just across the Red Sea from Ethiopia at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is where the tree was first cultivated as a commercial crop.
These two regions are nominally on separate continents, but remember that continents are the invention of European geographers. In fact, Yemen and the Harrar region of eastern Ethiopia share a typography (high, semi-arid mountains), a religion (both are predominantly Muslim), and a distinctive and ancient kind of coffee: Coffee grown from very old, traditional cultivars of coffee arabica, dried inside the fruit in the simplest way, and then husked, usually with millstones. These two ancient coffees, owing to their similar processing method and traditional cultivars, form a flavor family often called the Mocha (or Mocca or Moka) taste. (Ethiopia Harrar coffees should be distinguished from the equally celebrated but much different coffees from southern and western Ethiopia — Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and others — which are wet-processed by modern, state-of-the-art methods.)
Drying coffee inside the fruit is tricky and dangerous, which is why most of the fine coffees of the world are wet processed, meaning the fruit around the bean is stripped off immediately after picking, before the beans are dried. While it is drying, fruit can ferment, mould, or even rot, irrevocably tainting the coffee inside the fruit. But, if the drying is performed with care (and luck), coffee dried inside the fruit can be extraordinary in flavor: sweet, saturated with dry fruit nuance, complexly and fragrantly rich.
Fortunately, we were privileged to have some of these extraordinarily flavored coffees in this month’s cupping. One in particular, a Harrar imported by Royal Coffee, attracted the highest rating of any coffee in the history of our panel cuppings. And throughout the cupping the panel’s excitement was evident. During some cuppings panelists are satisfied with assigning a rating and half-heartedly circling one or two of the adjectives that appear on the cupping form. This month several panelists scribbled entire paragraphs, and circled adjectives with abandon.
If the Harrars more than lived up to their fruity, fragrantly rich reputation, the Yemens in this month’s cupping all suffered in varying degrees from a taste-dampening, baggy staleness. I suspect that most if not all of these Yemens came from the secondary harvest in April-May, rather than from the December main harvest. Secondary harvest coffees typically are weaker in character than main harvest coffees, plus these coffees would have undergone several months in storage. Because Yemen coffees are hulled in the high, semi-arid mountains where the air is bone dry, they immediately lose moisture upon being liberated from the fruit husks, moisture which they then regain while they are waiting to be shipped in the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah. This see-sawing of moisture content seems to make Yemens particularly vulnerable to flavor loss during storage.
Nevertheless, and particularly for those familiar with Yemen coffees, the sweet, explosive aromatics were still there to detect behind the dull veil of the musty, baggy overlay. I can only recommend to readers that they not give up on Yemen coffees owing to the relatively low scores the Yemen samples attracted in this month’s cupping.
But, if anyone doubts the aromatic splendor of a really fine Ethiopia Harrar, this cupping should convince them that these ancient, subtly powerful coffees, with their shifting, kaleidoscopic nuance of wine, berry and chocolate, are among the world’s greatest and most singular coffee experiences.