Ethiopia, How Do I Love Thee? by Max Nicholas-Fulmer
My Albanian rootstock biases my temperament towards hyperbole, it’s true. But hot-damn are the Ethiopian coffees gonna be good this year! Full disclosure: I love Ethiopia. I go there a lot. The food is delicious, the culture is vibrant, the women are extremely easy on the eyes. But above all else, the coffee can be jaw-droppingly, mind-blowingly incredible in the best years, and still better than just about everything else in even the average ones. This one is not going to be average. My “Siddhartha under the fig tree” moments ensue when tasting the very best this land has to offer; eschewing all else and sustaining on nothing but the finest Yirgacheffes and Genuine Longberry Harrars that fall into my lap provides the solution to universal suffering.
I returned to the land of milk and honey in January, just as the harvest was wrapping up and the last ripe cherries were being laid on the drying tables. A perfect moment to get a snapshot of the season. Fresh off the plane, down Debrezeit Road and straight to the lab I went (with a brief interlude to catch an overmatched Ethiopian football side fight valiantly in defeat to the eventual African Cup of Nations Champions, the bestial Super Eagles of Nigeria). The ECX has actually taken strides towards greater traceability back to the farm and mill level in the last two years (it’s possible to know down to the district level where the coffee you are buying came from), but it’s still a work in progress on that front. So how to find the best coffees? Cup them. All of them. 200 of the top scoring ECX washed coffees in 2 days, whittled down to a small handful, which now appear on our offering sheet as Blue Nile Yirg or Black Ibex Sidama, or Kochere, Gedeb, Chelba, etc. These are as good as it gets.
The branded lots (including the Queen City Harrar, a natural processed coffee from a totally different region) are being processed as close to a zero-defect prep as possible, and reflect a deliberate representation of specific origin cup profiles we’ve identified. Don’t shortchange yourself by skipping the conventional ECX lots. The best private mills in the country supply their coffee this way. I am happy to talk your ear off about this. Call me, maybe. For full traceability, you go to the cooperatives or single farms which are able to export directly. After a quick trip south, expedited by the wonderful new paved road (infrastructure excites me), I found myself in that charmed zone near the border of Sidama and Yirgacheffe. Coffees from cooperatives we buy a lot from, like Shilicho, Watadera, Hafursa, Ademegorbota and many other greats, originate in this area.
The perfect stew of consistently high altitude, heirloom varietals, deep iron and nitrogen-laced soils, and a culture that has buna in its blood make this, along with the Kochere district just to the south, the ultimate producing area for washed coffee. Did someone say Harrar? Yes, it’s true, we are heavy in that game. The upheaval of the last several years threw us for a loop but that’s all in the past. Harrar has always been, still is, and probably always will be, a very different animal from other Ethiopian origins in terms of buying. It can be impenetrable, for a myriad of reasons. Also, when sourcing Harrar, your competition will be the Saudi royal family and their friends. They brew it into a tea and don’t even bother roasting it first, but trust me they can probably outbid you. Some shady dealers take advantage of these factors by undercutting quality. What gets passed off as “Harrar” is often everything but.
The few roasters who’ve been able to secure some of our Queen City coffees the last two years can attest to the difference in cup quality that selecting bona fide, Genuine Lonberry and going the extra mile in processing it yields. Fortunately this year the volumes will be a bit larger and we can spread the wealth a little bit. Oh, one more thing: we are back to the days of Ethiopian arrivals in March and April, as opposed to like, October. All the coffees mentioned above already have ETAs or will have shipped by the time you read this. It’s a bright time for the land with 13 months of sunshine.