Coffee Varieties: Heirloom Ethiopians

Roasting coffee for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Dieter Zirnig on Flickr

Variety isn't just the spice of life: It's also one of the most beautiful and exciting things about coffee. In the next few columns, we'll be taking a closer look at some of the diversity that exists among coffee plants.

Let's start where it all began, with the vast biodiversity of coffee plants in East Africa.

Part of the reason we know East Africa to be the birthplace of coffee is the sheer number of distinct varieties present there. (While Ethiopia has long been figured to be the true origin, it's starting to look more likely that what we now know as eastern Sudan is likely the true genesis spot, but border history and land disputes being what they are, we'll just say coffee is indigenous to the general region and leave it at that for now.)

While thousands of coffee varieties grow throughout East Africa, the coffee community as a whole knows relatively little about them. Until recently, not much research or catalog work has gone on in the field of coffee types, and because many different plants here grow wild in forests, the task is seemingly insurmountable. To further the confusion, most coffee strains here are called by the name of their locality, so coffee grown around Yirgacheffe becomes "Yirgacheffe type," while coffees near Jimma are "Jimma type," near Sidama are "Sidama type," and so on. Which means that one variety might have many different names, depending on where it's grown, or varieties called the same thing might be distinct from one another.

While scientists are still picking apart and putting back together the mysterious pieces of the puzzle that African coffees comprise, there are certain things we do know about them—like what some of them look and taste like.

Long, finger-like leaves are classic to Ethiopian varieties. JUST COFFEE COOPERATIVE on Flickr

Washed coffees from Yirgacheffe create some of the most delicate, floral brews on earth. They tend to have a heady jasmine aroma, lemongrassy brightness, and a super soft mouthfeel. Most people remark that the finished beverage is almost not like coffee at all, but rather like drinking a very elegant tea.

Most coffees from Harar are processed in the "natural" style, which means their fruit is allowed to dry completely around the coffee bean before being removed. (In a "washed' process, the fruit is removed within 12–24 hours after harvest.) The additional time left in the cherry provides the coffee with an intensely deep, fruity flavor that is most often described as blueberry, and there are also typically a lot of sweet yeasty and rich chocolatey notes present as well.

Unfortunately, due to the limited nature of the naming conventions, it's hard to know precisely how one "Yirgacheffe type" varies from another. Guess we'll just have to drink every one of them we can get our hands on to find out. Boo hoo for us!

Want to taste? A good place to start would be with Stumptown Coffee Roasters' Chelbessa, a lovely and floral washed coffee from Yirgacheffe that has all the classic notes: jasmine, honey, tea, delicious. $16.50 for 12 ounces.