New crop Ethiopian coffee is in!
I’ve always loved Ethiopian coffee. Ever since I started paying attention to, and appreciating, the flavors of regional beans, the nuances of various roast levels, the variations of crop years and the other elements that make up a really exceptional cup, Ethiopian coffees have kept their spot at the top of my personal taste list. Their remarkable, always interesting, winy, at times blueberry-like, big flavors aren’t, I know, for everyone, but they’re definitely for me. I love ‘em.
Without question, I drink Ethiopian coffees more than any other single offering!
Happily, having just been to Ethiopia (see page 6 of Zingerman’s July/August newsletter) I can see why they’re so special to me. Not only do they taste great. They have a fantastic history to go with them.
Although not that many folks out in the world know it, Ethiopia is the literal homeland of coffee. It’s where the coffee plant probably originated, and pretty surely where coffee was first consumed as a beverage. As the story goes, a young goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats frolicking more than usual after eating the berries of a certain bush. He picked the berries and brought them to an Islamic monk who showed his disapproval by tossing them into the fire, from whence the first coffee roasting commenced. Somehow Kaldi decided to grind and brew the toasted beans and, apocryphally at least, coffee was born. Ethiopia is also the place from which Yemeni traders took coffee to Europe and the rest of the world. All of which is why coffee means about 88 times more in Ethiopia than it does anywhere else in the world.
What’s it like everywhere else? In most every other country in which it’s grown, coffee was introduced in relatively recent history, primarily by European colonists, and primarily for one purpose—not to make good mocha available, but to make money. Coffee was grown, not for personal consumption, but almost exclusively, for export. Unlike a garden where you grow your own tomatoes to enhance the excellence of your dining table, coffee was grown for cash. If someone wasn’t making a living growing coffee, he or she could be just as likely to grow tobacco, timber or tea. As a result, coffee is generally well-integrated, and often downright essential, to the economy of places like Costa Rica, Honduras and Kenya, but it’s generally NOT part of the culinary culture. Coffee is important to create jobs, earn income, and pay bills. But brewing and drinking great coffee is just not that big a deal. While clearly coffee has grown to become an important part of the culture (probably in Brazil more than anywhere else) the reality is that instant coffee is still a huge product in most producing countries.
Ethiopia is the exact opposite. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) drinks coffee. Nearly all of it is really good, if not, at times, excellent. More importantly, the majority of the population (there are exceptions) love—and almost revere—the stuff. About half of the annual crop is consumed internally. They appreciate coffee for the income it brings, but they care about coffee emotionally as much as they do their history, the culture, traditional dance, and language. Coffee in Ethiopia is like . . . cheese and wine in France, fish in Boston, rice in Japan, chiles in New Mexico, really wild, wild, rice for the Ojibwe people here in the upper Great Lakes.
How does that play out? Well, for openers pretty much every place serves pretty darned good coffee. To be clear, I don’t say that lightly. Honestly, I would really never drink coffee in a hotel, and only rarely in restaurants unless I know who roasted it and I like and trust the people who run the place. Commercially brewed coffee in those sorts of places is so rarely enjoyable (the general guideline for me is that bad tea is nearly always much, much better than bad coffee) so I just order black tea. But in Ethiopia at nearly every single place I ordered it the coffee was good. That alone is an amazing thing, a feat that would be unthinkable almost anywhere else in the world (including Europe and the U.S.) And some shops serve some seriously great coffee.
Some shops even brew beans from specific regions—called out by name—in Ethiopia. While that might seem mundane to folks in Southeast Michigan who are used to having access to regional and estate offerings of various coffee beans from Zingerman’s Coffee Company or in other quality focused cafés, it’s actually rarely seen in producing countries (other than maybe in a cafés run by growers or government sponsored coffee boards).
Most all of what I had on my visit to Ethiopia was brewed in filter pots and a fair few places used French press pots. A good many others pull shots of espresso (although often much longer shots than we’re used to here). Ethiopia, of course, is the only country on the continent never to have been colonized by a European country. As a result, energy and independence of spirit seem particularly high. Ethiopia was invaded by Italy back in the 1930s. The only big legacies of the invasion seem to be a high affinity for pizza, and the frequent use of Italian coffee brewing methods. Café Macchiato—the traditional Italian style, with only a small bit of milk and a shot of espresso—seems to be the most commonly consumed brew.
Ethiopians do have a very important traditional coffee ceremony which plays the same sort of role there that the tea ceremony does in Japan. Green coffee beans are roasted over hot coals in a metal pan. The coffee is then ground, often with a mortar and pestle. The new grounds are put into a special ceramic carafe. Water is added and brought to a boil so that it starts to rise through the long neck of the carafe. It’s then poured into another vessel to cool it a bit, then boiled again. To serve, the coffee is poured through a filter into handle-less cups. Generally the pot is moved back and forth over the series of cups so that the liquid is evenly distributed. Many Ethiopians add sugar. Some in the countryside add the traditional clarified butter and salt (this version of coffee becomes a bit of a traditional instant breakfast). The grounds are typically brewed three times. Teddy Araya told me that, the first round is called Abol, the second is Tonena and the third is Berk, the blessing. In some places like Tigrai, they serve to the fourth round. The best part is the first since it is the thickest. The subsequent ones will get lighter on every round. In Tigrai, they give the fourth round to kids.
The traditional accompaniment for coffee in Ethiopia? Not a croissant, not a cookie, not vanilla syrup. It’s popcorn. That’s right. If you order coffee in a traditional setting, say after dinner, it will come with a bowl of popcorn. And while that may seem odd, I’ll tell you that it’s actually darned delicious. Try it!
For me, here’s the ultimate testament to the import and care that accompany coffee culture in Ethiopia. When you goto the markets, alongside stalls selling vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. there are many that are selling green coffee beans. A few sell already roasted beans but the majority are still in their green, unroasted state. “Everyone here roasts their own at home,” a friend told us. Since our visit was short and I couldn’t speak Amharic to the men and woman working the stalls, I bought a half-kilo from one woman who seemed nice. She had three baskets (others had even more) of different green beans on display. I had no idea really what I was buying but just for fun, I bought some to bring back to the Coffee Company’s managing partner Steve Mangigian.
When I got back Steve roasted it up. After what I’ve written here, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn it was really good. No, not the single best coffee I’ve ever had in my life—but for a blind random choice it’s actually amazing that it was so tasty. If you’d told me it was a sample from one of our high-end brokers I’d have told you I really liked it, certainly very respectable. Culture, I’ve always believed, is a much better enforcer of ethical standards than any formal certification. The fact that it happened the way it did, by random meandering around the market in Addis Ababa, says a lot. Coffee in Ethiopia is serious business, so much so that market stalls wouldn’t even think of selling something bad. Coffee drinkers won’t tolerate it.
Our current Ethiopian bean from Zingerman’s Coffee Company is, as I said in the beginning, at the top of my consumption list. It’s a new crop—a 2015 harvest of coffee beans from the Harar district in Ethiopia’s northeast. It’s grown at very high altitudes—nearly 6000 feet—which contributes to the quality and complexity of the beans. The city of Harar, which sits at the center of the region, was founded between the 7th and 11th centuries and over time became a significant center of Islamic learning and culture. The Harari language is one of over 80 in Ethiopia! Aside from the excellence of its coffee, the area is also known for its basket weaving, bookbinding and poetry. Speaking of the latter, in the late 18th century it was home to the French poet Rimbaud. More importantly to matters at hand it’s said to be the first region in which indigenous wild coffee was domesticated.
The best Harar coffees, like this one, have wonderful winy, fruity flavors that remind me of blueberries, or at times maybe blackberries. It is a “natural” or “dry” processed coffee. The pulp of the coffee “cherry” is left on the “beans” in the center and dried naturally in the sun, which yields a more intense, fruity, full flavored coffee, which is, of course, the kind that I particularly love.
Available at Zingerman’s Coffee Company and Zingerman’s Deli!