Discover Ethiopia: A Portrait of a Coffee Producing Country

Photo: Madcap Coffee Roasters
Photo: Madcap Coffee Roasters

By Christopher Schooley

Over the past few years, SCAA staff has been working closely with sponsors and volunteers in order to transform the way that we approach coffee service at the annual Exposition and other SCAA events throughout the year. The goal has been to create true specialty coffee experiences; setting a proper stage for sponsors and the coffees they choose to showcase, providing volunteers opportunities to utilize their skills and learn more, and — of course — ensuring that attendees have access to delicious coffee at all of our events.

Removing the passivity of coffee service at events — replacing it with a coffee professional who is a part of preparing and serving that cup of coffee — is one of the most important things we’ve worked to accomplish. We’ve created even more opportunities for sponsored pop-up cafes for our members, as well as a member-driven cafe that will showcase volunteer service in the hall outside of our Skill Building Workshops.

One noteworthy highlight of the coffee service at our volunteer-run cafe will be coffees from the 2015 Official Portrait Country: Ethiopia. The birthplace of coffee, Ethiopian coffees have some of the most distinct and exotic flavor profiles in the world. It is a particularly exciting and inspiring Portrait Country Sponsor, so I thought it would be appropriate to speak to professionals from across the broad spectrum of specialty coffee to see how coffees from Ethiopia inspire them.

IMG_1675I first spoke to the Chair of the Barista Guild of America, Julie Housh of Intelligentsia Coffee, about what makes Ethiopia special to her as a barista. Housh noted that Ethiopia is near and dear to many a barista’s heart, adding that, “As a barista, a coffee from Ethiopia was one of my first eye-opening, ‘OK, coffee doesn’t always taste like coffee’ kind of cups. It was the Idido Misty Valley from Counter Culture Coffee. It’s an origin I can consistently suggest to customers who are looking to delve more deeply into a cup of coffee, or as a casual sip.”

Housh sees talking about Ethiopia as a way to engage customers, mentioning that, “It’s an opportunity to share how far our favorite beverage has really traveled to get to us, and it can spark an appreciation for the specialness of each cup of coffee.”

Erin Meister, who works in customer support and as a trainer at Counter Culture’s Counter Intelligence: NYC also shared her experience with Ethiopian coffee, saying, “As a coffee educator, one of my favorite things to offer new and developing specialty-coffee professionals is context and perspective — I don’t simply want to teach them how to make great coffee, I also want them to feel connected with coffee in a larger and greater sense, and to understand that they are the penultimate step in a chain that stretches not only across continents and cultures, but across centuries. One of the clearest and most meaningful ways to start building that bridge is by teaching my baristas that all roads lead to Ethiopia: Not only is it the ancient birthplace of the plant and the beverage of coffee, but the very roots of our coffee-drinking and -sharing culture is bound by the ceremony and traditions that sprung out of that soil.”

Meister-1Meister recognizes that, as a barista, it can become easy to get wrapped up in all of the particulars of their day to day demands, but offers this: “When we can slow down and remember, even for just a moment, what coffee actually means to humankind — the savoring of a sacred beverage among friends; the sharing of information and hospitality; the alchemy of turning little green seeds into an intoxicating and delicious brown liquid that warms heart, mind, soul, and body — we are reminded that what we do and what we love is more than ‘just coffee.’ The ceremony of coffee is alive not just in Ethiopia, but we have that brilliant birthplace and those enduring traditions to thank for every special experience anybody’s ever shared with another coffee lover.”

To a coffee roaster, Ethiopian coffees provide an impressive array of flavors for the palate. Ron Heathman, Production Roaster and QC team member at Madcap Coffee talks about the romance that Ethiopian coffee conjures up, saying, “From undiscovered wild varieties to verdant valleys with handpicked coffees drying on raised beds, I like to think of Ethiopian coffee as the ‘gateway to specialty.’ The first sip of a nicely roasted, perfectly sourced, washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe is, and ought to be, a lightbulb moment for coffee enthusiasts and drinkers alike.”

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Photo: Madcap Coffee Roasters

Heathman credits Ethiopian coffee with leading him down the “rabbit hole” of discovering and learning how to best prepare and roast a coffee. Adding that nothing stands out more on a cupping table quite like an Ethiopian coffee. “From the luscious fragrance of Jasmine and Honeysuckle to the delicate tea-like body and pronounced yet balanced acidity with notes of Meyer Lemon, Bergamot, Blueberry, and a host more, it is truly a unique and special sensory experience.”

Heathman also talked about what it’s like roasting a washed Yirgacheffe, noting, “Small screen size, good density, and careful processing and sorting help to create a strong platform for relatively high charge temperature, quick rate of rise with lots of energy going into first crack, backing off heat and a short development time with a low drop temperature. When properly executed one is rewarded with a sublime cup that really has no equal with any sort of regularity.”

Madcap’s coffee buyer Ryan Knapp also offered that Ethiopia was an origin that he kept coming back to with awe and wonder. As a buyer, he sees Ethiopia as one of the most complex and challenging places to buy coffee, while at the same time being the most exciting and rewarding.

Knapp elaborated on this, saying, “Each visit to the country reveals new information and more nuance than the year before. It seems that the complexity that we all find in Ethiopia coffee is a simply a mirror of the complexity that can be found when traveling through the the countryside. Ethiopia, more so than anywhere else I’ve been in the world, is layered with culture, diversity and pride. When driving through the country, you continually pass through new districts. Throughout this journey, the culture is rich and beautiful, yet it keeps changing. Nearly every hour of driving on an Ethiopia trip there is a culture shift: the homes take on new styles, and the native tongue is unique to the area just passed through. From area to area there are obviously strong similarities, yet rich tradition is woven into the people and the practices. I think the same is true for the coffee, the depth and nuance one can explore in flavors of these coffees are nearly unrivaled.”

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Photo: Trabocco

Sean Capistrant, junior trader and QC director at Trabocca North America, echos Knapp’s sentiment, suggesting that Ethiopian coffees have a unique range that most other coffees do not. “The luscious berry notes of a Sidamo, the crisp acidity of a Yirgacheffe, or the delicate sweetness of a Limu is what keeps bringing us back to these coffees,” said Capistrant. “Roasters are able to highlight different characteristics with different roast profiles.”

He went on to say that even though Ethiopian coffees offer so much, roasters can often get lost in general profiles that end up homogenizing the experience. He points out the trend of only roasting dark or only roasting light as an example. “Coffee is so much more dynamic than this. I have learned a lot about the roasting process from the versatility of Ethiopian coffees, which comes as no surprise. Ethiopia has some of the best processing practices in the world. The coffees have cleaner profiles and have better longevity. As roasters, we are able to really dig deep into the potential of the coffees. The ability to have two different cup profiles from the same coffee opens up so many doors for roasters. Allowing coffees to sing at all ranges is truly special and unique.”

Mark Inman, Chair of the Roasters Guild and West Coast sales manager at Olam Specialty Coffee, continues the dialogue around the range of possibilities with coffees from Ethiopia. “Being the birthplace of coffee and still the home of numerous varieties that have yet to be discovered, Ethiopia will always hold a special place in the hearts of coffee traders. From rich, complex and sweet Harrar’s to bright, floral and clean Yirgacheffe’s, to multi-layered Sidamo’s, you can find it all in this great coffee country! Ask any coffee aficionado what coffee they would take if they were to be on a deserted island, and more times than not Ethiopia would be the answer.”

After speaking with so many professionals along the coffee supply chain, I wanted to reach out to someone from Ethiopia itself. Michael Mamo is the managing director of Addis Exporter, one of the country’s oldest privately held coffee exporting companies, founded in 1972. When asked to share what Ethiopian coffee means to him, he mentioned that coffee in Ethiopia is like apple pie in the U.S., a part of the culture in so many ways.

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Photo: Addis Exporter

“Ethiopia is Africa’s top coffee producer and consumer. Coffee is its largest export and generates 60% of all export earnings. It also provides for the livelihood of an estimated 15 million of its people. The country produces some of the best and genetically diverse coffees in the world. The flavors vary depending on the region and growing conditions of the coffee.  Cupping an Ethiopian coffee is like going on a wild taste adventure.”

Mamo travels regularly to the coffee growing regions to see first-hand how entire communities rely on this crop for their livelihood. He goes on to say, “I see the importance of coffee and its sometimes long ceremonies in strengthening the social bonds of communities. It’s gratifying to have a role in something that has such a profound social, cultural, and economic impact on the Ethiopian people. With the emergence of new farms and evolving production methods, emphasis on quality, and output and investment friendly policies, the future looks promising for the Ethiopian coffee industry.”

We invite you to taste the carefully selected, roasted, and prepared Ethiopian coffees presented at The Event. We hope that you can find yourself caught up in the romantic and exotic flavors in the cup, and in the complexity and spirit of everyone involved in bringing that experience to your lips. We hope to put a smile there as well.

schooleyChristopher Schooley is a coffee roaster. Schooley has served as the chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council and he is also the coffee design and experience coordinator for the SCAA. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.