Gourmet Coffee from Ethiopia

Coffee was first cultivated in Yemen, but the arabica tree originated across the Red Sea in Ethiopia, on the mountain plateaus where tribespeople still harvest the wild berries. Ethiopian coffees are now among the world's most varied and distinctive, and at least one, Yirgacheffe, ranks among the best. All display the winey or fruity acidity characteristic of African and Arabian coffees, but they play a rich range of variations on this theme.

The Harrar coffees are the most widely available of fancy Ethiopian coffees. They are grown on small peasant plots and farms in the Eastern part of the country near the old capital of Harrar, at about 5,000 to 6,000 feet. You may see these coffees called longberry Harrar (large bean), shortberry Harrar (smaller bean), or Mocha Harrar (peaberry, or single bean). The Harrar may become Harari, Harer, or Harar. In Great Britain, Harrar is sold as Mocha, adding to the confusion surrounding that abused term. Some retailers cover both bases by calling this coffee Mocha Harrar. Like Yemen Mocha, Harrar is a "handmade" coffee, processed carefully by the traditional dry method. It is grown on such a small scale and by such simple methods that it is almost certainly free of chemicals, and like Yemen Mocha a good choice for those who wish a traditional organically grown coffee.

Ethiopian Harrar can range from an extremely rough, winey coffee, gamey and light-bodied, to a coffee in which the wine quality becomes rich, fragrant, and fruit-like, and the body heavier, much like the best Yemen Mochas. Differences in quality of preparation probably have much to do with these variations.

Washed coffees from the western part of Ethiopia, usually sold as Ghimbi or Gimbi, share the pronounced winey tones of the Harrar coffees, but at best envelop them in a richer, more balanced profile and somewhat heavier, longer- finishing body.

The washed coffees of southern Ethiopia exhibit related but different flavor tendencies. These coffees may show little sign of the characteristic gamey and winey qualities of their compatriot coffees. Instead they tend to be gentle, and the wine tones turn distinctly fruit-like and flowery. They may appear in specialty stores described either by the district in which they're produced (Sidamo, Washed Sidamo), or by terms like Ethiopian Fancies or Ethiopian Estate Grown. The most celebrated of these coffees is called Yirgacheffe or Yrgacheffe. This coffee virtually has a cult following in the United States, and for good reason. Like the best Sumatran and Yemen coffees it is rich, teasing, and mysterious on the palate, with a very long, resonant finish. Like Sumatran, its acidity vibrates inside the richness of the body, but Yirgacheffe adds a soft, fragrant, flowery note so distinctive that it may make this the most unique among the world's coffees.

The recent terrifying misfortunes of the Ethiopian people, including drought, famine, and civil war, have reduced the availability of all Ethiopian coffees, particularly the washed varieties. Those Ethiopian coffees that do make it to the store bins will probably be expensive, but still worth every penny.

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