Monday, April 1, 2013

Captivating photos of the Motherland

Thanks go to Peter Giuliano for sharing the link to this gorgeous set of photos of coffee growing, roasting, processing and brewing in Ethiopia:

I was only able to visit Ethiopia once during my coffee buying days and have wanted to return there more than to any other country ever since. The people, coffee, cuisine, music, sights, sounds, smells, culture and history are just mind-blowing.

Really there's no excuse in 2013 for any conscientious roaster-retailer to not be offering well-chosen examples of the two classic Ethiopian flavor profiles (bright, clean washed and wild, berry/chocolate infused naturals) at all times. Not only do these two together represent the original taste of coffee, but the great natural coffees in particular - the Harrars, dry-processed Sidamos, Mochas from nearby Yemen - are invariably the first overall choice of consumer groups I've sampled on them over the years. How interesting the "disconnect" is here between professional cuppers, who usually abhor them due to being well-trained in avoiding the slightest trace of the defect called "ferment" in washed coffees, and food-and-wine savvy consumers, who relish naturally-occuring fruit flavors (and are delighted to find them in something other than a $160 a pound Gesha grown by white folks).

I think if I had the money to open a retail store today I might well choose to feature only African and Indonesian coffees, as a gustatory and cultural necessary corrective to the Latin American focus of today's retail scene, and I'd make coffees from Ethiopia the centerpiece.


  1. Of the recent coffees that have passed through my Clever Coffee Dripper, most of the dry-process ones have been my favorites, and I try to avoid washed Central Americans. I think it's just a matter of time before more of the 3rd wave roasters discover the dry process Africans.

    - washed Yirgacheffe from a local roaster sourced from Coffee Shrub that I'd put up against any Gesha

    - Coava's dry-process Kilenso from Sidamo. This is a great example of a boutique roaster offering a great natural-process bean.

    - Blue Bottle's Nekisse, another dry-process Ethiopian. This coffee's pretentious packaging and high price ($15/150g in a metal tin), and that you could only sample it via their $6/cup siphon pot process turned me off initially, but after reading the reviews about it, I had to try it, and I loved it. It's definitely their retail environment working against themselves.

    - Coffea Roasterie's Gedeo microlot, another dry-process Ethiopian, which is possibly the most pleasurable coffee I've ever had.

    - a native Gesha from Ethiopia from RoastCo, also dry-process, costing less then 1/5 the price of a Panama Gesha.

    And of course, the Ethiopian Supernatural from Peet's.

    I love single-origin beans, because when done well, they speak so much of where they come from, like the great wine growing regions. It's a better way to engage with your coffee than just as an anonymized fast-food drink.

  2. It's really encouraging to see this array of dry-processed coffee. I've tasted coffee from half of the roasters you mention. And yeah, Coffee Shrub and sistor company Sweet Maria's are awesome sources...I see SM's has a great-sounding dry-processed Yirgacheffe Kochere at the moment. Hope this is indeed a trend. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Kevin,

    Is there any truth to the rumors about the ECX watering down good coffees with inferior ones to maximize sales? Is there anything consumers need to know about getting good coffee from Ethiopia that has not been diluted with inferior beans?

    It blows my mind that my employer, Starbucks, doesn't offer an Ethiopian coffee as part of our core coffee lineup. You can find a black label Starbucks Reserve from Ethiopia on the webstore from time to time but I really can't believe we stock Breakfast Blend, House Blend, Willow Blend and Pike Place Blend with no Ethiopian coffee in sight.

    As always, great insights. Thank you for sharing. I truly appreciate the POV this blog brings. There is nothing like it on the web. Thanks!

  4. I don't know about current practices at the ECX but as you know there are a lot of great lots of personally-selected Ethiopian coffees being imported on behalf of craft roasters that are beautifully-sorted and free from any sort of adulteration, as well as being packed in Grain-Pro or other protective packaging, which is really important given the delicacy of many coffees and the long sea voyage.

    Not only no Ethiopian coffee at Starbucks these days, but no Yemen Mocha and having one or the other of these available at all times was standard practice for decades. For one thing, you can't make real Mocha Java (with Yemen) or good ersatz Mocca Java (Ethiopians) without them. Ethiopian Harrar was the number one favorite coffee among employees during my years there and I think it would be today if it were available. I used to promote it as "the cure for common coffee" and that it is. It and Yemen are also coffees that survive and even thrive at Starbucks roast levels.

    Imagine a Starbucks menu board with just Costa Rica Bella Vista, Guatemalan Antigua, Kenya, Ethiopian Harrar, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Aged Sumatra on it, along with Espresso of course and maybe Gold Coast. Heck even I might drink Starbucks from time to time under those circumstances, but instead it's a steady diet of the crappy blends you just listed. That's what happens with the marketing department takes on the job of the coffee department.

  5. OK, now ya got me thinking . ..

    I just started a boutique roasting biz last year, and we've been buying nice, clean Centrals all along. So far, however, we've just been doing two styles: a dark (455-460 degrees, not quite full French) and a medium, some taken to second crack, some before. It works well for espresso. This is a really safe route to take.

    But when I think of great cups I've had, the Yemen Mocha I bought from James Freeman, back when he was selling at the Oakland Farmer's Mkt. (and roasting on the same model IR3 that I am), was simply outstanding. So hey, if he can do it, maybe me too? And I won't sell mine in a pretentious metal tin! Besides, how long before the leaf rust jacks Centrals prices sky high?

  6. Hi Robert -

    Clean Centrals, especially if you choose high-altitude bourbons from Guatemala and/or El Salvador, can yield espresso with a delicious dark chocolate and nut flavor range at the roasts you describe, but it's not going to be complex or memorable.

    Quite a few of the top Italian espresso blends use small percentages of both washed and natural Ethiopians for perfume. Using 100% for the washed coffees can be pretty amazing; with naturals, unless they're quite manicured, it's Russian Routlette given the possibility of throwing some spectacularly fruity/fermented cups. If you don't mind that kind of walk on the wild side AND can find just the right lot, why not? The dry-processed Yirgacheffe Sweet Maria's has at the moment might be something to play around with.

    As for Freeman and Blue Bottle, my take would be look at what they're doing and do your best to do the opposite, choosing humility over pretense and value over hosing the consumer as modus operandi.

  7. Where do I can read more about the Latin American focus of today's retail scene that you're talking about? I'm not into the coffee business and would like to know the context.

  8. You can peruse the web sites of leading "Third Wave" roasters like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture, Coava, etc. where you'll see a preponderance of Latin American coffees as both single origins and blends, along with washed coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda, though often the single origing offerings are much more limited (e.g. Bluebottle).

    The focus is typically on coffees from places that regularly have Cup of Excellence auctions. COE is an admirable program in some ways, but it is neither a price nor a quality discovery mechanism, it's a marketing program. In my opinion roasters have a responsibility to offer a selection of coffees that covers the full range of excllent country-of-origin (as opposed to roast or blend derived) flavors, rather than basin their offerings on places they like to travel to. Value for money spent should also be a consideration, but all-too-often is not. Case in point: I just peruesed the Coava coffee web site, and while there are clearly some very good coffees there the average retail price is over $26 per pound - about double the fair price for coffees of such quality. That is not the way to build a market for great coffees.