This season, we’re singing the praises of natural process Ethiopian coffee. Here’s why.
There are so many reasons to love African coffee, especially Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia’s coffee industry is steeped in history, tradition, and a rich blend of fact and historical fiction. From tales of Kaldi and his antsy goats to the reverent tone of voice with which coffee lovers say the word “Yirgacheffe”, Ethiopian coffees conjure up pure coffee romance. Go ahead, say it. It rolls off the tongue.
Coffee from Ethiopia runs the gamut from full-bodied, sweet and fruity to lighter-bodied, citrusy and floral, depending on how it’s processed. When you hear people rave about coffee from the well-known Yirgacheffe region, they’re mainly referring to washed, or wet process, coffee. This is the coffee that’s delicate, floral, and tea-like, with shimmery citrus notes and a clean, light body.
(It’s worth mentioning that the prized Geisha or Gesha varietal, which carries similar tasting notes to washed Yirgacheffe beans, comes from Ethiopia as well– discovered in the 1930s outside of Gesha, Ethiopia, and eventually brought to Panama.)
Washed Yirgs have a rather high-class, coffee-snob reputation and, at a lower price point than Geishas, they’re a great gateway to appreciating specialty coffee (and/or impressing your friends).
But what about the other kid sister of Ethiopian coffee, the natural processed Ethiopians? With their honey-thick body and bright, decadent berry flavor? Where’s their hype?
Until recently, natural (or dry process) Yirgs have taken a back seat to their washed colleagues; they’re generally seen as comparatively common, and of variable or unpredictable quality. Conventional wisdom holds that they’re suitable to brighten up a blend, perhaps, but far less favored as a single origin on the specialty market. We’re glad that’s changing! It’s time for natural processed Ethiopians to have their time in the sun (which is funny, of course, because natural process beans already spend a lot of time in the sun).
Baby, You’re a Natural
The division between natural and washed processing in Ethiopia has a rich history. Ethiopia, as many people know, is famously the “birthplace of coffee”, where coffee plants grow wild throughout the lush, green highlands. Its thousands of indigenous coffee varietals have been cultivated and enjoyed for centuries–long, long before there was such a thing as a wet processing mill. Natural processing, where the freshly-picked beans are spread out to dry in the sun, has always been the traditional means of processing coffee, and by far the most common. Many locals pick their own coffee beans from wild plants and put them out in their backyards to dry–the Ethiopian equivalent of plucking wild blueberries from the bushes in your back yard.
When done right, naturally processed beans retain a ton of fruit flavor, and often carry a pleasant wine-like acidity. They can be punchy and very sweet, suggesting a variety of fresh fruit-salad flavors. Natural Ethiopian coffee can taste like cantaloupe, cherry, grape, lime, green apple, or even peach. They have heavier bodies with a silky mouthfeel, like velvet, or a syrupy, honey-like texture. They have heft, spiciness, and taste more like they came from the Earth.
Natural processing can be tricky, however, and this is where a reputation for variance arises: poorly-dried beans can taste sour or musty, or become brittle and unsuitable for roasting. The drying process is perhaps the most important step to ensure a quality green coffee bean.
Wet Process: Ethiopian Coffee meets Money and Marketing
Wet processing was introduced into Ethiopia in the 1970s, and Yirgacheffe was the location of the very first wet processing mill. During the washing process, beans are immersed in large vats of water and soaked until the fruit and mucilage comes off, and then the naked beans are dried. This strips the traditional, wine-like fruity, or fermented flavors from the beans and results in that well-known washed Yirgacheffe cup: a lighter body with clean flavors of citrus and florals.
Now, a washing mill is an expensive investment on the African content, not just in terms of cost, but for the vast amounts of water required to process the coffee, and the infrastructure needed to handle waste water. And remember, we’re talking about Ethiopia, where water isn’t known for being abundant. Given this, few growers waste their time wet-processing lower quality beans. By contrast, beans put through a wet processing mill are bolstered by more modern methods, education, and oversight: more standardization and quality control both add up to a more consistent product. These new, washed Yirgacheffes could be “marketed” to the world for the first time as a specialty product, and coffee lovers embraced them. Delicate washed Yirgacheffes soared to prominence while the traditional naturals, still relatively unknown, remained a commodity product.
The New Naturals
Within the past decade or so, however, there’s been a lot of moving and shaking within the coffee industry. Education and technology previously used in wet processing mills have been extended into natural processing, resulting in a more consistently high-quality product among naturally processed beans. Today, there are more co-operatives and organizations supporting fair trade and direct partnerships than ever before. And, with specialty coffee gaining more and more of a foothold in the U.S. and elsewhere, Ethiopia continues to gain more opportunities to market its beans on the world stage.
Hence, the “new naturals”, the recent wave of fruit-flavored single-origins from Ethiopia with names like Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Harrar, Worka; high-quality beans, with bright, appealing flavors, worthy of all the popularity and reverence that Ethiopian coffee evokes.
These new naturals represent Ethiopian coffee as has been enjoyed for centuries, and the terroir-like experience of drinking a natural process coffee from Ethiopia connects us back to the very beginnings of our favorite beverage.
OK, Enough Education, Let’s Drink Some Coffee!
Since Seattle is experiencing a nice early summer this year, we at the Beanery find ourselves hankering for coffees that are lighter and fruitier–brews we can enjoy hot in the cool mornings and brew into crisp, cold iced coffee in the heat of the afternoon. Two of our most recent favorites just happen to be natural Ethiopians (who woulda thunk it?). Both are fruity, silky smooth, and roasted to perfection by a couple of our favorite Seattle roasters.
Ethiopia Worka, from the Worka Cooperative in Yirgacheffe, is a full-bodied, red wine lover’s treat of a coffee. You’ll taste the intense dried cherry flavors immediately, followed by a spiced nutmeg that rounds out the cup and adds more depth than you might expect from a lighter roast. Brewed in a Chemex, the texture of this coffee is wonderfully smooth and silky. It’s a complex cup, but not delicate: the cherry is a hefty fruit, and the baking spice at the end leaves you feeling like you just took a big bite of cherry pie. This is the perfect coffee to dip a ginger cookie in; or to brew, perhaps, for a coffee novice who really likes fruit-flavored herbal tea.
Dismas Smith, the coffee buyer and head roaster for Caffe Ladro, often chooses bright, distinctive Ethiopians for their seasonal line-up. It was at Ladro that we tried our first Harrar, an Ethiopian coffee from a region so prized for its natural flavors that no one would dare send it through a washing mill.
Order your bag of Ethiopia Worka here! As a bonus, it ships free if you use code freeshipping at checkout.
Maine Hofius, owner and roaster for True North, prefers natural Ethiopians for their bright fruit flavors. “I like fruit flavors in my coffee. I’m a pie girl,” she explains: she loves farmers’ markets, her freezer is full of fresh berries, and she chooses coffees with this profile in mind. “Like wine, natural Ethiopians have a lovely terroir aspect to them– coffee grown on different hillsides, even in the same place, can taste very different. This is what makes them so appealing.” She ensures the quality of her beans by only buying Grade 1, the top of the coffee-rating scale, and then roasting them with care to bring out the brightness.
To us, True North’s Yirgacheffe Kochere bridges the gap between washed and natural: you can tell it’s natural process because of the initial sweet grape flavors, the full body, the honey-smooth ending. But this coffee also has a nice perfume to it, a floral character, and a little bit of citrus acidity like you’d find in a washed Yirgacheffe. The lingering honey flavor is light, reminiscent of that last sip of tea with honey, where the honey’s collected a bit at the bottom.
Try it as an iced coffee, where the grape acidity becomes crisp and distinct, and the honey-sweetness precludes the need for sugar.
Order your bag of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere here! Use code freeshipping at checkout for (can you guess?) free shipping.
Curious To Try More African Coffees?
If you’re interested in expanding your coffee palate, a great place to start is with our African Sampler box: a hand-picked selection of four freshly-roasted coffees that showcase the flavors of Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, and other seasonal favorites from Africa’s top coffee-growing regions.
We’re excited about the crop of recent naturals from Ethiopia, especially this Spring. Happy caffeination!
Team Bean Box