For the last 20 or so years, Harar has been little more than a dusty, faded memory – a fable, a callback, an immortalized reference point that could perhaps never be lived-up-to again. For a time, however, there was no other coffee quite like dry-processed Harar. The flavor, distinctively blueberry-like, was unparalleled and instantly recognizable in the 1980s and 90s. Harar was the jewel of the adventurous coffee drinker, an uncommon gem with a mystique that could not be described, only experienced. It was unquestionably the most memorable coffee of a recently bygone era, and a gateway for specialty coffee drinkers into the first eye-opening sips of something that transcended hot, caffeinated sludge.
Royal CEO Max wrote some hopeful words recently about the origin. Don’t skip the comments at the bottom. Our taste buds have been tingling like phantom limbs for this. This is a big deal.
Rashid Abdullahi is responsible for bringing this coffee to Royal. He is the nephew of the O.G. Harar Horse supplier, Mohamed Abdullahi Ogsadey. His project has brought the tools of the modern coffee trade to an ancient region, infused with historical significance and nostalgia, and has produced the finest tasting Harar in a generation. Let’s back up a little, though, because there is much more to this coffee than the opinions of grumpy old coffee drinkers blowing hot air on the beans of yesteryear.
Harar is a walled city in eastern Ethiopia, an ancient trade hub, and an important Islamic spiritual center that was at its cultural peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, connecting eastern Africa with the Arabian peninsula. It is almost certainly the city where the first non-Africans – including Dhabhani, the sufi imam responsible for introducing coffee to Yemen – would have first tasted coffee.
Harar is too far east to be coffee’s original home. That distinction belongs to the Kingdom of Kaffa far to the west. Yet Harar’s important location and significance as a cultural and economic epicenter gave it prominence in the very earliest means of coffee transit and trade infused its coffee with historic gravitas.
With pleasure, we’ve selected a small quantity for release as a Crown Jewel. The coffee is available in limited quantities as standard 60kg bags as well.
This is an odd green coffee. It is fragrant, not uncommon for dry processed Ethiopian selections, with notes of dried coffee cherry and sweet grains. Some mild inconsistencies in color are responsible for the grade 4 designation, the lower physical grade for specialty naturals. Roasting will reveal a few quakers. The seeds are relatively small, long in shape, dry with stable water activity and a surprisingly low density. It will not be the easiest coffee you’ve ever roasted, but it will be worth it.
Drying in the cherry, as is the case with this coffee, is the original tradition in Ethiopia. Natural or dry-process, fruit-dried or cherry-dried – however you prefer to talk about this style of ‘zero-process’ coffee post-harvest production, it all comes back to Ethiopia. While farmers across the globe still practice this method of letting the coffee fruit dry like raisins around the seed, it all started in here. It’s still common to see smallholder farmers drying their daily harvest on their porches or lawns across the country.
Up for a challenge? This is a unique lot, and I wasn’t really sure how to handle it initially. My first step included two Ikawa roasts, one Jen has been using to great success, another I’ve been using with mixed results. You can download them both and try them yourself, if you like: Jen’s Profile involves a smooth slope and soft landing in first crack, ending at 5:15 and 405F. Chris’s Profile starts with a lower charge temp and more dramatic fan speeds, races through Maillard and counteracts high end temperature of 425F with very high fan speed.
This Harar was very late to crack, and had barely begun by the end of Jen’s profile. Her style produced a coffee that cupped true, however, showcasing berry preserves but also revealing a little yeastiness likely the result of insufficient post crack development. My airflow drama made for a more delicate cup that tasted a little more herbal and stone-fruit-like.
With the Ikawa roasts under my belt, I plugged into the Probatino and kept in mind the effort I’d need to balance a gentle approach (given the low density) with an eye to extend sufficient time after first crack to avoid the bready flavors of underdevelopment.
My first roast started low and slow, with a heat increase prior to the start of Maillard and another slight increase before first crack, employing a Scott Rao style declining rate of rise throughout the roast. True to form, the coffee cracked a little late, and I let the roast draw out a little more than two minutes afterwards. It’s a darker style, and showed dried berry and chocolate in the cupping.
The second roast I used a hotter charge temperature which allowed the coffee to race through drying into Maillard reactions. Noticing a tapering in RoR at the beginning of Maillard, I increased the heat, then decreased just before first crack, as I’d hoped to achieve a lighter color but with a decent amount of PCD. The cupping showed a lot of canned peach and sweet, winey fruits with a hint of dried grain.
Unless otherwise noted, I follow a set standard of operations for all my Behmor roasts. Generally, I’ll use the 1lb setting, manual mode (P5), full power, and high drum speed until crack. Read my original post and stats here.
The Behmor handled this coffee very differently than the Probatino, and this was the fastest cracking coffee of the three released this week (the other two being CJ1191 – Tanzania and CJ1189 Guatemala). So fast in fact that I decided to engage P3 immediately upon first crack. The Harar coasted through first crack with verve, and after 1:25 development I achieved 12.2% loss. The initial moisture content of this coffee was low, so 12.2% is likely more significant than it would be for a wetter coffee, and this coffee was indeed a bit roasty on the cupping table. However, if I understand correctly, that is the style to be sought after with this coffee.
The result was a cup with plenty of berries and tobacco, and heady cocoa finishing notes. The classic rustic character of this coffee came through clearly, and perhaps the only thing I would have done was move more slowly into first crack as suggested by Chris above. This coffee is all about the texture and the deep chocolate flavors, so it would be best to play those aspects up whenever possible (in my humble opinion).
If you’ve been in the coffee game for a bit, this classic coffee should bring back memories of the original Harar Horse. From all accounts, it’s memories in a cup!
While I can’t share the nostalgia many feel towards this coffee, I am always enthusiastic about interesting new (or newly improved) coffees. This natural Harar is certainly interesting, both to brew and to drink. And since I missed out on the prime years of the blueberry Harars of yore, I was excited for the opportunity to see what all the hubbub was about.
As Chris mentioned above it’s a funny looking coffee – it doesn’t really look like a washed Ethiopia, and it doesn’t quite look like a naturally processed coffee either. On the cupping table I found that the sweetest flavors became more pronounced after aggressive extraction, although at times they would become overwhelmed by herbiness. My solution for this was to utilize a full immersion brew method, in this case a clever, to reach those jammy fruit notes while preventing over extraction. The Clever tasted lovely, with clear crisp notes of canned peaches, cascara, and purple grape balanced by dates, vanilla, and cedar. I was surprised to note the low TDS count despite a 4:00 minute total brew time, but didn’t feel that a higher extraction would necessarily benefit the final cup.
Since this coffee is a kind of homage to bygone times, I decided to try it on espresso as well. Leaning towards the old fashioned ristretto shot, I dialed in a 1:1.5 ratio and found that it produced a thickly syrupy shot full of cacao complexity, overripe strawberry sweetness, and a little bit of caramel and graham cracker that balanced this espresso nicely. Looking for a fun, fascinating, and delicious challenge? This lovely coffee from East Harar is the way to go.