Yrgacheffe and a favorite coffee… (a follow up to my previous post, for those of you with looong memories!).
As a curmudgeon I take it with high dudgeon (cute, huh?) that people appreciate the transient nuances and subtle differences of wine and other beverages, Scotch, for example, but they want to dumb down coffee’s complexity. (Even some people IN the coffee business have said to me, “C’mon, Tim, it’s just coffee!”)
I wonder if it’s because most people don’t really like or understand coffee THAT MUCH, and would just as soon establish a regular routine based on a choice that they won’t be ridiculed later; even if it means that they will not have found something they really like, but just an acceptable groove they can settle into.
It may also be the dichotomy many of us have experienced as we became familiar with coffee, that the enticing aroma of ground coffee is never equaled in the cup — the full, thick aromatic allure that coffee promises is never fulfilled in a way that we expect on the palate. (To many of us who taste coffee daily, that expectation may be exceeded, but never in the same way it was promised.)
But there’s a bigger problem than one’s “favorite” coffee, there’s that fact that, generally, it seems, there’s been a gradual loss of regional character to the point that the argument about whether one CAN have a favorite coffee will become moot. A lot of good coffees are all starting to taste alike…
Yrgacheffes, Yergacheffes, Yirgacheffes….Yirga Chefe! (with parenthetical asides…)
Originally I wanted to talk about this coffee in the context of a larger, more complex and tendentious topic: that of having a “favorite coffee.” After writing several wandering paragraphs introducing that daunting “larger context,” I have decided to simply (that’s a lie) address (with ever more wandering paragraphs) the subject of Ethiopian Yergacheffes (which seem to have many different spellings, the one I just used is also used by a friend of mine who was born in and who lives in Ethiopia). And in this instance, the context is narrow (not true, as it turns out!), in fact my “topic” is really just a gripe… a perfect subject for a “curmudgeon!” (OK, THAT’s true…)
And my gripe is that very few Yrgacheffes taste like what I remember Yirgacheffes tasting like any more. This coffee was originally described as being from the land that used to roughly comprise the summer estate of the former Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. I remember it being introduced to the specialty coffee trade by the woman that is credited with coining the term, “specialty coffee,” Erna Knutsen.
Recalling the original Yirga Cheffes (this spelling from a map of Ethiopia, published in Ethiopia), I first tasted in the early 1980’s, were, if they were anything, LEMONY. As I tasted various lots of what I thought was a wonderfully complex and delicious coffee I found myself wondering if the strong “lemony” taste wasn’t, really, a taint, some sort of introduced flavor actually foreign to the coffee itself.
The flavors I found in the Ethiopian Yirgacheffes, I remember from 25 years ago fascinated me and have been the source of several interesting, frustrating arguments. The whole dynamic of THAT conversation is that there are INTRINSIC and EXTRINSIC flavors found in coffee. The extrinsic flavors are introduced by some artifact of its processing or some sort of microbial activity. I’ve used the comparison to Sauternes many times, for example; where a fungus (botrytis) concentrates the sweetness of the juice that goes into making this sweet wine from Bordeaux and at the same time adds its own mushroomy, nutty overtones to the wine’s flavor profile.
Anyway, after tasting this coffee year in and year out for several seasons (fifteen?), I decided that there were two possible styles: 1) there was an overtly candied lemon Yergacheff (another spelling I’ve seen) and; 2) a less aggressive, more fragrant lemon flower profile that was possible. At the time, before the Ethiopian coffee industry was somewhat radically restructured (some say for better; some say for worse) there was a “Grade 1” Yrgacheff that seemed to conform more consistently to this style. I was told the “Grade One’s” weren’t really that popular with “Westerners,” and that this coffee was created more for the Asian, and in particular, the Japanese market.
By the time I figured out what I liked of the best that this particular coffee had to offer, I realized that the ground had shifted under me quite considerably, and that while many Urgachiefs tasted quite good, none (as in “not one”) tasted anything like the coffees I used to parse for their freshness (as opposed to cooked-ness) of flavor.
So, more importantly, my complaint here is really about a mini-globalization of what the basic flavor palette that we in the specialty coffee industry used to have, and that we may be losing. I believe there is a reason we are losing those basic flavors and, ironically, I believe it is because that we (I include myself) have all been striving to create and/or improve “standards” but, unknowingly, we have, at the same time been CREATING standard coffees…the bar we’ve been setting is one we’ve adjusted to fly (just) under rather than over.]
There was a guy that used to taste all the coffee (or a large percentage of it, anyway) of the coffees that went out of Ehitopia. He, in most cases, it is my understanding, decided what a “Grade One” Yrgacheffe would taste like — I like to imagine, I flatter myself, that his taste for this coffee was similar to mine. I believe his first name is Abraham.
In the meantime the Ethiopian coffee industry has been totally restructured in a way that has been explained to me but that, after receiving said explanation, I could not then understand or now remember. The Ethiopian coffee industry (again, the structure of which I will choose to let the kind reader delve into at their own discretion) has meanwhile aggressively Trademarked terms like “yurgiecheese” (whoops, I went too far there, didn’t I?). In the MEANTIME, however, the original, magical, intoxicating taste of what I remember this coffee tasting like has been lost in the shuffle and perhaps to the dry winds of the (relatively) nearby Sahara.
I wonder if specialty coffees, in general, as more interest in the category has been generated, and more buyers, even those working for small roasters, have been communicating directly and frequently with producers all over the world have not unintentionally (and I have been there with them!) imposed (by virtue of our commercial insistence, or, well, perhaps our “noble pursuit of advancing quality”) standards of production and uniformity that have smothered what I used to consider the idiosyncratic taste profiles of each of these coffees
The best Kenyan coffees used to have, and very few of them do now, the “black currant” taste that George Howell (formerly of Coffee Connection and now of Terroir and George Howell coffee companies in Massachusetts) found in the best of these coffees (just in terms of sheer enjoyment) or the sweet, but overtly “defective” BLUEBERRY taste you could find in the naturally processed, more earthy and even fruitier Ethiopian Harrars.
Even Guatemalan Antiguas don’t taste like anything in particular these days and whatever charm they used to impart has seemed to have given way to “better and more professional” farm management and processing techniques.
I have often wondered, from a purely “green” point of view, what the cost was of the seemingly constant travel that the coffee industry now engages in as part of an effort to secure the best possible sourcing (mea culpa, I do it myself) but one of the more ironic, if less truly destructive results of this dissemination of artisanal coffee doctrine may be is that we end up with the same great tasting coffee, from wherever it is produced. Like a software virus, monoclonal plantings, or a non-native species, the idea that there is a “correct” way to grow and process coffee may be trammeling underfoot a whole lot of, as yet and maybe never, unacknowledged expertise and understanding of what makes coffee special.
I will conclude (this portion) of my ongoing, curmudgeonly (I can only hope) rant with a couple of anecdotes (I know, I know, as everyone seems to say these days, ANECDOTES are not FACTS):
1) A fellow I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with, Leonardo Henao, and who now works with a group of farms in Antioquia, Colombia owned by C.I. Café de Santa Barbara, used to work with a company that conducted a competition for a group of roasters I was working with at the time: he told me that he interviewed the ten “best” farmers, that is, the ones that rated highest in the competition by a well-regarded selection of artisanal coffee roasters. His finding was this: every farmer among those top ten told him, some rather sheepishly, that in processing their winning coffees had “made a mistake” and strayed from the recommended methods of growing and processing coffees for export. Needless to say, these “mistakes” would be purged if an all-out, world-wide coffee quality orthodoxy were to prevail.
2) I recently had the honor and pleasure of participating in a tasting conducted for the benefit of the Hawaii Coffee Association. I was amazed at the advances that Hawaiian coffee farmers have made in producing high quality coffees. Hawaii, while it is a state and a group of unique islands that I have loved visiting, has never impressed me as a place that could produce anything more than “island coffees” (a term I made up that includes all the highly over-rated, wildly over-price coffees coming romantic vacation paradises that don’t have mountains high enough to even approach producing “high grown” coffees): coffees that are neutral, sweet, low grown, low in brightness (pleasant, brisk acidity) and otherwise inoffensive. The good news was that the coffees I tasted were really, really good — bright, solid and densely flavored but otherwise inoffensive — despite all their attributes I could discern no sense of place in tasting these coffees, no “terroir” (land), no “garrigue” (air), nothing that distinguished these coffees as “Hawaiian,” (much less from one of the particular islands). The fiercely determined farmers that produced these otherwise great-tasting coffees, I became more and more convinced, needed to, now that they knew the basics of coffee production, start making mistakes. They now need to now go their own idiosyncratic and hopefully magical way. (I remember, 30 years ago, working with an old farmer and a wonderful, kind, warm generous man name Mr. Okumura (I believe his first name was Kazuo) and he used to traditionally wet-process his coffee and then “shade cure” it by bagging up the parchment and storing it in sheds for three to four months. The coffee was definitely spicier, sweet and cleaner (the “cleaner” part probably due to other expertise and care Mr. Okumura put into the coffee). I love the coffee, it definitely tasted like Kona coffee, only better, and THAT is what we need to see more of…or at least I do! (Needless to say, when Mr. Okumura sadly passed away, his heir and successors had no interest in waiting three months before they sold their crop and the concept of “Shade Cured” Kona coffee died a dusty death….)
3) Finally, I am reminded of a presentation made by a winemaker and winemaking consultant (Danny Schuster) from New Zealand made once. I don’t remember everything he said, of course, and I am sure he would approve of that, but he did posit that there were three or four things that all great wines needed (and he said that he had long ago stolen this concept from someone else; I am sure that he would consider me quite the weenie for not to be stealing it from him right now). ANYWAY, he said that the final thing that all great wines needed was CORRUPTION. OR, as we might have called it in the 70’s: FUNK. In other words, A Mistake, in yet other words, GENIUS — a window into another world, and a sense of identity; a sense of place and origin. That little twist of odd-ness, off-ness, spin, that makes a really good wine (coffee, tea, cheese, painting, sculpture, photograph, whatever) something truly memorable and great. (All the emphases are mine, Danny be gosh darned on that!)
I will leave it to the reader to parse these anecdotes until my next post… Maybe sometime this year?
Postscript: My thanks to Alex Russan, a friend, colleague, and passionate coffee-quality obsessive (with whom I work) for his input on this post…that does not make him responsible for any errors or the parts where I dug in my heels and refused to be coherent.