Specialty coffee can be grown in many parts of the world. The main requirements are a tropical climate and proper altitude. The differences found in coffee producing regions of the world are exciting and easy to decipher when you know a few basic conditions that contribute. We will be spending some time exploring these conditions as we go region by region.
Where To Begin
We will start in Ethiopia since it's considered the 'birthplace of coffee.' Ethiopia is quite the mixed bag. Far from being the poster child for traceability, it still boasts some of the greatest potential and continues to wow all tongues from the professional coffee taster to the home brewer.
Ethiopia has many very small producers. Most of these folks contribute to cooperatives who submit their larger lots as slightly generic, regional examples. Single estate Ethiopian coffees do exist, but it is far from the norm. Due to some convoluted history and quite complicated socio-economic politics, the regional model is currently the most profitable option for these family 'garden farmers.'
Since Ethiopia is where coffee was first consumed, it actually boasts a longstanding tradition of 'coffee ceremony,' involving social fresh fire roasting and immediate consumption. This is not going to be a coffee experience that maximizes the gourmet potential of the bean, but it is still captivating and humbling to experience. An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is to specialty coffee what a bluegrass jam session is to classical music.
A pan similar to a wok is used to roast coffee directly atop an open flame. The beans are stirred as the aromatic transformation takes place. Afterward, they are immediately ground and extracted in a very concentrated brew. The ceremony is offensive to specialty sensibilities for many reasons, but it embodies the undeniable social element we all associate with coffee and showcases much more of its fundamental craft.
The Earth And The Bean
No matter what other origin countries may boast, there are none who can claim what Ethiopia can. Coffee started there. What this means is that coffee is most happy there. The relationship that Coffea Arabica has with this particular African soil is not to be taken lightly. The varieties that grow in Ethiopia are referred to as 'heirloom' because they are unclassified examples of the original of the species.
Even with the lack of single farm traceability, there are fantastic features that these coffees carry. Some of the most floral and fruit-forward coffees in the world have been associated with Ethiopia. Even the renown 'Gesha' (sometimes referred to by the malapropism 'Geisha') variety is simply a direct transplant of an heirloom Ethiopian variety. This particular one flourished in the new world, but it begs the question of other Ethiopian possibilities.
Processing And Taste
In production, Ethiopia is known for its processing involving raised 'African' beds. These are basically permeable sheets which are above the ground to allow airflow for drying of coffee. These beds can be used in either the natural or the washed method at different stages, and have become a bit of a staple throughout the rest of the coffee producing world.
The most traditional method in Ethiopia is the natural method, which will always translate to a more berry like coffee experience in the cup. Washed coffees have become equally common as well, showcasing much more balanced fruit and floral notes.
The Full Package
Ethiopian coffees are extremely versatile, able to be expressed wonderfully as single origin espresso, filter, or even cold brewed iced coffee. Arguably the very definition of coffee complexity, let this country of origin be a staple in your kitchen. If for no other reason, it is a great way to be connected to the full history of the bean. Perhaps you may even be inspired to develop your own form of coffee ceremony.