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I have a very specific memory of visiting the washing station called Homacho Waeno in Sidama, Ethiopia.
In a group of perhaps 50-60 coffee professionals, mostly producers, from around the world, Intelligentsia was leading their annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop through Ethiopia’s southern coffeelands. Despite the fact that the weather was mostly dry that day in late November, rains had muddied the dirt road leading to the site, and our group’s buses were forced to pull off and stop. We hiked about a mile through garden coffee plots and clay houses, through throngs of children enthusiastically shouting “You! You!” at us, though groves of false banana trees (enset, grown mainly for its starchy edible heart), until we reached the washing station, where well-organized employees saw to every detail of fermenting, washing, and especially sorting the drying coffee on the rows and rows of raised beds. It was like a little coffee oasis had opened itself to us. Everyone pulled out their cell phones for selfies and to document the group’s first visit to a washing station on the trip.
It was at this point that our hired photographer looked at me and said, “Oh, is this coffee? I left my camera and equipment in the bus. I thought we were just taking a walk.”
I found a teenager with a motorcycle who spoke no English, but through a series of hand crank motions and a couple of “vroom vroom” extrapolations, we began to understand each other. I handed him a wad of birr and he scooped me up to return with the photography equipment. We nearly flipped into a mud puddle a few times, but the surge of excitement at visiting this lovely washing station and the mild danger of the unlicensed driver and the thrill of whizzing past coffee trees growing wild on the side of the road all intermingled unforgettably.
Flash forward to the first week of June 2019. Evan Gilman sits across the office from me, and sends me a message: “Yo, Homacho Waeno – new Ethiopia CJ perhaps? They always do solid work.”
And the memories, the colors of the coffee cherries and smells of drying parchment, all flood back to me. And we taste the coffee, and it’s so good. “Punching above its weight class” as my old boss Geoff Watts used to say. Lush floral notes accompany stone fruit flavors like peach and apricot, and the coffee is just so damn sweet. So sweet, like candy, like candy that’s also coffee.
This early-landing coffee is also certified organic through the Sidama Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union. As it happens, we just obtained a certification for our Crown Jewels, so you can enjoy this coffee with its organic cert intact. Considering the shortage of organic certified coffees emerging from Ethiopia this season, I’d be sure to jump on this opportunity before it’s gone.
In classic Ethiopian style, we have a small screen sized coffee here with moderate moisture figures and characteristic high density. Expect the coffee to crave heat in the roaster, at least up until first crack. While smaller sized beans are often screened out at other origins, Ethiopia has a wider tolerance for these. Certain local landraces tend to producer smaller cherries, and combined with minimal fertilization the result is no less delicious despite the lot’s diminutive diameter.
Ethiopia’s genetic diversity of coffee is no secret, but increased attention is being paid to distinguishing cultivars and varieties, thanks in part to the work undertaken by Tim Hill and Getu Bekele. Established in the 1960s, the Jimma Agricultural Research Center was instrumental in selecting, breeding, and distributing scores of cultivars throughout the country, and the JARC, along with the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute maintain two of the world’s most important and extensive gene banks for arabica. Their distributed cultivars have included region-specific selections, specialty cultivars developed for optimal flavors, and hybrids engineered for disease resistance.
Thus, I’ve begun to shy away from the term “heirloom” in most cases, as it does a disservice to the wide array of genetic variation and significant work steeped in Ethiopia’s forests and mountains. Many so-called “indigenous heirloom varieties” are in fact hybrids or selected cultivars. That being said, there’s probably a sense in which many Ethiopian cultivars have indeed been passed down generationally through the hands of small farmers, preserving locally unique genetic material. Most plant biologists prefer to use the term “landrace” to describe these types of local selections, born of circumstance or necessity.
I do a little skip when I know we’re receiving an Ethiopian coffee at The Crown. The birthplace of arabica coffee is, was, and will always be one of my favourite origins. The fact that this Crown Jewel is the Aleta Wendo Homacho Waeno, one of the few organic washed coffees from Ethiopia this season, made me all the more excited! My first trip to Ethiopia was last year – yes, I’m very lucky – and I was enchanted by the beauty and diversity of the people and places I visited, and by the delicious coffee I never got tired of cupping or drinking. My typical experience roasting coffee from Ethiopia is, encountering a wide spread of screen-sizes, leaning towards the smaller end, dense beans, to let the coffee drink in the heat that it needs to allow the cascading reactions in the enzymatic and sugar browning phases of the roast to have enough heat and energy to express the classic flavors and particular nuances of the coffee. In this way, my influence on the cup hopefully only improves upon the famed, unique, and delicious flavor profile of this origin.
This coffee from Sidama presented no difficulties when roasting. As you can see from the graph, I kept the gas low until the turning point, and then turned it up to the maximum output that I use on the Probatino. As the RoR was just where I wanted it to be, and recognising that I didn’t want the coffee to take off and get away from me, I turned the gas down a half step just under a minute after the initial change. I didn’t have to make any further changes after that. Just those two gas changes enabled me to spend a higher ratio of my roast time in the Maillard phase. Rolling through first crack, I was able to allow the post-crack development phase to be drawn out a little longer. This is a little bit of an unusual approach for me with Ethiopian coffees. I am usually one to sacrifice time in the PCD stage, in order to ensure the sparkle of all the fruit and floral notes that are so prized in coffees from this region stay alive. This time, however, I wanted to see what another approach would deliver. After all, if we’re not having fun, what are we doing getting all hot and sweaty in front of a roaster for?
All in all a success, thankfully! The time in the latter stages of the roast, along with the innate characteristics of this coffee, led to a softer cup with loads of apricot, honey blossom, jasmine, peach, and white grape. All those lovely floral and fruit notes were bound up in milk chocolate, caramel, and butter, completed by a mellow, round orange acidity. I immediately raised my hand to request this coffee be served at The Crown as our new espresso. I have been dying to find a more mellow, and yet fully characteristic Ethiopian coffee to introduce as a single origin espresso on our bar. Whilst I personally love a ‘punch in the face’ East African espresso, I know that for some it can be a little overwhelming. What a way to open the door for first-time/less familiar people to walk into a soft, sweet, sparkling espresso full of flavor!
From my time at Blue Bottle Coffee until now, I have always looked forward to the arrival of Ethiopian coffees, and in specific the Homacho Waeno. Coffee from this very washing station was on our menu for a good portion of the year, for a few of my years at Blue Bottle. It maintains its fresh and lively quality for longer than almost any coffee out there, and I could drink pot after pot.
What I found out upon starting at Royal is that this is a very pleasant coffee to roast as well. I really wanted to get this coffee through the roaster quickly to maintain the bright and floral characteristics, and I believe I succeeded with this roast. Perhaps a little too well!
My charge temperature was a little higher, at 394.8F, but I attempted to level this out by keeping fan speed at full until 1:00 had passed – then I turned down fan speed to the minimum. Turning point was a little faster than normal, but nothing out of the ordinary; I engaged the fan again at 1:30, this time to about ‘3’ on the dial. This is when the roast really started cooking. At 3:15, I had already reached 310F, and I turned the fan back up to full in an attempt to draw the roast out.
This coffee took on the heat very well, however. My rate of rise dropped evenly, but a bit too slowly for my liking, and I turned down the heat to 7.5A at 6:00, just in time to roll into crack at 6:15. After 1:00 of development, I dropped the roast at about 13% post-crack development.
Looking back, the roast could have handled a bit more time post-crack, but I really wanted to bring out those bright and lively notes. I know I have a tendency to lean towards sugar development, but this was not the coffee for that sort of exploration (for me).
Results on the cupping table were good. Green grape, apricot, chamomile, and jasmine were all noted. Definitely the sorts of notes I like to see from a washed Ethiopian coffee, and perfect for filter drip. This coffee would also make an absolutely screaming addition to a blend. If you’re looking to make an incredible single origin pour-over or even a blend, this is the coffee for you. As Chris notes above, I have loved coffee from this washing station for a good many years. This year is no exception.
It’s a rare treat to get to a brew a certified Organic Crown Jewel. There is a saying that a lot of coffee people use, and I too am a believer: “don’t mess it up.” Fortunately, we have access to some of the best brewing equipment in the world. For this coffee, I chose to brew up Candice’s Probatino roast by both V60 and the Kalita to, well… not mess this up.
We launched the Crown Jewel program nearly three years ago as I write this, and only recently introduced Organic certified options. For any of you brewing this coffee back home, it might be tough to mess it up. If you start with good coffee and pay attention, you’ll probably end up with a good cup. We certainly did.
Check out the specs for a nice starting point. The Kalita’s slightly higher extraction yielded a tangy cup with lots of peach flavor, while the Hario was very floral.