Master Cuppers: Ethiopia is creating its own gourmet coffee experts

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In a room that resembles a high-school chemistry lab, the keepers of the world’s oldest coffee culture are learning a new way to understand the rich aroma of a cup of java. Is that a waft of honey? Of shoe leather? Maybe walnuts?

That last one is particularly hard here in Ethiopia, where most people have never seen, much less smelled, a walnut. And in a gourmet coffee market dominated by Western corporations and Western terms, that’s a handicap.

Until now, those companies had a near monopoly on the expertise to capitalize on Ethiopia’s best beans. But that may be changing. Ethiopians know that coffee, which originated in this East African nation, can be their ticket to the first world. And the biggest profits are in the most gourmet blends. So during the past five years, a partnership has grown between private buyers, humanitarian agencies and local government to nurture homegrown experts in pursuit of ever-more-boutique brews to capture higher prices.

Coffee already is the main source of foreign currency here. So much so, the government prohibits the selling of export-quality coffee domestically. But the coffee market fluctuates and past downturns have threatened Ethiopia’s livelihood. Specialty beans are less affected by market dips and hitching its fortunes to those brews could help the nation stabilize its economy. Success also could be good for the country’s partners — buyers of gourmet beans — who need new specialty beans with which to woo the type of Western consumers who buy $1,000 coffeemakers. Two African-American brands, Real Men Cook Coffee and Sweet Unity Farms Coffee, are 100 percent made of East African Arabica and Tanzanian specialty beans, respectively.

The coffee-smelling training is a key step. While Ethiopian farmers and traders can distinguish between exportable and nonexportable beans, they’ve lacked the training to make more refined — and more lucrative — distinctions. “You can really, if you taste well, connect a sense of taste with a sense of place,” says Ted Lingle, head of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, who is leading the coffee training for growers and traders in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

His group wants to develop rivals to Panama’s Esmeralda Special, a coffee that set records last year when its unroasted beans sold for $130 a pound at an online auction. Those beans are believed to come from a tree variety that was exported from Ethiopia in 1931. The hope is that the next Esmeralda Special could be discovered here. And the odds seem to favor it.

Columbia, the world’s second-largest coffee producer, has about a dozen tree varieties, while Ethiopia boasts about 6,000 varieties, thousands more than anywhere else in the world, according to Lingle.

Progress already is being made. For the 2006-2007 growing season, Ethiopia was the world’s fifth-largest producer of coffee, growing about 794 million pounds. In specialty coffee, it exported 119 million pounds, making it the third-largest source of gourmet beans after Columbia and Guatemala.
But Ethiopia still has a long way to go. This is what the coffee-smelling class is trying to change. With funding from the U.S. and expertise from international coffee professionals, the class offers Ethiopian coffee growers, traders and even government officials the opportunity to become “master cuppers” who can identify the subtlest differences in taste and smell. And so the white-aproned participants sniff, and slurp and spit repeatedly, in motions that recall a wine-tasting, noting characteristics such as color and bitterness.

For Ethiopians, the training requires an entire re-imagining of coffee’s taste. In the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the woman of the house grinds beans with a mortar and pestle, then pan-roasts them over a charcoal stove while incense burns. The scent of roasting coffee rouses children and neighbors, who gather to receive the brew poured from a black clay pot into espresso-sized cups. That silty dark roast and the macchiato-style espresso preferred by Ethiopian city dwellers are worlds away from anything found in Western coffee mugs, or in the cupping training.

The trainers use a medium roast, which cooks the beans long enough to draw out flavor but not so long as to flatten the lighter notes.

Another effort to brew extra profit from its coffees fell short last year. The nation sued to require U.S.-based Starbucks Corp. to pay a licensing fee to use the names of Ethiopian coffee regions — Yirgacheffe, Harar and Sidamo — in its branded products. But the two parties agreed to work together to get geographic certification for Ethiopian coffees, much like Florida oranges or Bordeaux wines.

Ethiopian exporters also are working with farmers to nurture coffees from subregions, creating distinctive high-quality brews with a consistent taste. Instead of just looking for a generic coffee, exporter Abdullah Bagersh says he wants to start hearing foreign buyers saying, “I want coffee from Ethiopia and from this particular region.”