Ethiopian Coffee Fundamentals

by Aleco Chigounis and Christopher Schooley

What Goes Into Producing Top Ethiopian Coffees? 

Chris and I discussed top Kenyan coffees in our last article in this series, their brilliance and using them in these winter months to liven up your menus. This week we’ll talk Ethiopia. I’ll try to keep my bit to a minimum, which is difficult considering how fond I am of the Kenyan coffees in general. With their perfumed, floral aromatics, uniquely honeyed sweetness and tremendous balance between flavor components, Ethiopian coffees are true diamonds in the rough. These are my favorite coffees. But what makes them so?

1. Farming Style: When traveling through places like Costa Rica or El Salvador or parts of Guatemala you’ll find coffee shrubs seemingly planted on top of each other with very little spacing. The thought is to maximize total output but it comes at the potential detriment of quality. More care and general attention to good maintenance is needed to ensure that each shrub, and each node on their branches, is receiving enough nutrition. When planted too closely together, shrubs battle each other for the nutrients in the soil. The Ethiopian planting style is more garden-like than farm-like. Even at the plantation level you see several feet between them. I’ve worked on coffee farms in Costa Rica that could jam up to 7,000 shrubs per hectare. Although the vast majority of farmers we work with operate on less than 1 hectare of land I doubt you’d find more than 2,000 trees planted on any combined parcels in Ethiopia. Coffee shrubs are given the necessary space to grow stress free; to feed as needed. Under extensive shade canopies, with minimal-to-zero chemical inputs and with great spacing these shrubs continue to grow in almost the same exact conditions that the very first shrubs grew. This leads to exceptional quality but creates questions as to the viability for coffee production as a business for these farmers. They’ll never have the production levels of most Central American farmers but they also have less cost. Their viability and futures are dependent on premiums paid for producing great coffee.

2. Shade: Nicaragua has some amazing shade canopy. Peru as well. But Ethiopia has a whole other world of shade with forested and semi-forested coffees. As a coffee pro you’ve certainly heard stories of wild forest coffee and the origins of the Arabica species in Ethiopia. Very little sunlight penetrates these canopies which protects and feeds the soil as well as the shrubs themselves. Low stress and great spacing lead to proper cherry development.

3. Altitude: The concept of elevation and its relationship to high quality coffee is often painted as black and white in the industry. This is a big mistake. Proper growing, harvesting and processing techniques far outweigh the variable of altitude. That is to say, if you, the farmer, have at least 4,000 feet of elevation. Coffees grown underneath those heights just don’t have the density to take a heavy heat in the roaster well, nor do they the proper sucrose content that cherry grown higher up has do to the disparity between day and night time weather. As an example I remember tasting a 1,300 masl (4,200 feet) Ecuadorian Bourbon a few years ago that was leagues sweeter and brighter than anything we tasted from 6,000 feet. Things are different in Ethiopia however and it’s due to extreme elevation. When passing by coffee growing at 6,500 feet and above becomes commonplace you know you’re somewhere special. Having spent a large swath of my time in Ethiopia the past 7 years tasting coffee and visiting producing areas it’s safe to say that the coffees grown at 6,500 feet and above are consistently the cream of the crop. I don’t know another country in the world that has such a large volume of coffee at those heights.

4. Varietals: You’ll often hear us refer to to our Ethiopian coffee varietals as “heirloom” or “abyssinia“. That’s because we know very little about them. The Ethiopian government has kept all information very close to its chest and is unwilling to share it with the coffee world. If you visit a farmer in Yirgacheffe and ask her what varietal she grows she’ll tell you Yirgacheffe. If you ask a farmer in Agaro what he grows he’ll tell you Agaro. Everything remains a secret. What we do know is that Arabica coffee is native to Ethiopia. We know that this is where coffee shrubs want to grow and want to produce fruit. With the countless number of varietals growing in the country, which some experts estimate as over 1,000, they all have excellent nodal spacing which is a key ingredient to each cherry receiving the proper nutrition and developing good quality.

5. Drying and Storage: This may be the most critical element to the special nature of Ethiopian coffee. Whereas virtually all other coffees begin to diminish as soon their parchment is removed, Ethiopian coffees often flourish 10 – 12 months from harvest date and sometimes even longer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an Ethiopian coffee arrive in July, been less than inspired by its arrival cupping and then taste it turn into something gargantuan and just lovely on the cupping table come winter. It’s inexplicable. It is coffee’s biggest enigma in my opinion. We can’t define it perfectly but it most certainly has to have something to do with dry harvest climates and storage in Addis Ababa at 7,500 feet. Ethiopian coffees are built to last.

Roasting Coffees from Ethiopia 

Roasting coffees from Ethiopia can be incredibly tricky. While they are dense coffees, they’re also a good deal smaller and they can behave rather delicately in the roaster. There can also be a great variability to the bean size in a coffee from Ethiopia as compared to a Kenya, Colombian, or Central American coffee. And not only does the bean behave delicately, but the flavors that you’re trying to develop in the coffee are also delicate. This is not a coffee that you can bully with intense heat or one that will forgive you like a Kenya. Roasting Ethiopian coffees well is as much as a finesse game as there is in coffee roasting.

The quintessential cup qualities of the best Ethiopian coffees are the sweet floral notes, followed by the potent citrus notes. It’s important to keep your eyes on the prize of the florals though, as many roasters get hung up on the lemongrass and citrus and end up roasting to that while burying the beautiful jasmine and honeysuckle notes. In some, the citrus and floral notes are perfectly married into bergamot. Ethiopian coffees are not for deeper roasting. Getting into Full City on an Ethiopian coffee might help push some of the gingery or clove spice notes, but chances are you’ll lose most of the florals as they move into those more clove-like flavors. Roasting into Full City while making sure that no second crack occurs can be good for espresso roasts, but again you’re mostly going to get gingery spice if not a bit of well developed mandarin orange citrus.

The secret to bringing out the best of Ethiopian coffee is not just in roasting them lighter. The key really lies in the controlled velocity in 1st crack. The 1st crack in these coffees can start slow and then just keep trickling along without ever seeming to reach a defined conclusion. Allowing this to happen can result in some really muddled flavors in the cup or even just a lack of definition in the citrus notes and otherwise. While you don’t want to dry out the coffee too quickly in the beginning stages, it’s a good idea to make sure there’s a little extra energy at least when you’re going into first crack.

Giving the roast a boost right before getting into the crack and making sure that there’s a nice rolling vigorous crack is what you’re aiming for. Don’t push right on through; once there’s a nice rolling crack you’ll want to pull back on that energy or adjust the air (depending on your roaster) in order to make sure you don’t get too short of a crack. You’re looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of a good minute and a half to 1:45, and you want a clear end point to the crack as well without too many straggler pops.