As coffee professionals or passionate enthusiasts, we spend years searching for the golden goose (perfect cup). Full of sweetness and floral notes, fruit characteristics that are so clear you may have just eaten a fresh berry and forgotten. Usually, it was this cup that truly opened our eyes to the possibilities and the great untapped potential of coffee.
With this drive in mind, we can spend years trying to recreate and find that cup again, learning how to profile all the known coffee varietals, regions and processing methods, roasting batch after batch and sourcing from across the world, though you may get close you may never see that cup again.
This is the story of Ethiopian coffee, and in particular what is generally referred to as Ethiopian Heirloom varieties. As the grandmother origin, these great ancestral coffee plants have given birth to some of the most recognisable varietals on earth, like; Bourbon, a shorter high-yielding tree that mutated from Typica while being cultivated in the Isle of Reunion. Caturra, an even smaller mutation from the Bourbon plant popular in Brazil, and of course the famed Gesha. All of these contribute to a delicate cup, and a delicate cup is known for fetching immense prices at auction. The list of plants born from Ethiopia heritage goes on and on, and each week we see new names added as we try to fight the many challenges faced by producers and cultivators alike.
But we are not here to talk about the hundreds of coffee varietals you will find throughout the world, or the numerous hurdles that challenge our ability to produce the coffee that drives us all. Today it’s about shedding some light on the varietals that started it all. As the birthplace of modern coffee, one would expect to see Ethiopia as a thriving producer of coffee, ahead of the game with innovation and transparency. Unfortunately, as we spoke about previously, that’s not the case. Although there are mechanisms in place to help Ethiopian farmers access a platform for selling their coffee, they are not awarded the same transparency as many other coffee-producing countries. Similar to the restrictions around producing region names and types, there is a generic term used that contributes to the murky guise surrounding Ethiopia. Heirloom varietal as a term started gaining traction in the early stages of the third-wave coffee movement. This term was widely adopted by western specialty roasters who lacked the resources or ability to deep dive the supply chain of their coffee, instead adopting region, altitude, and cupping scores as a means to differentiate coffee. This isn’t without context though, as Ethiopia has somewhere between six to ten thousand different varieties of wild coffee, many of which still lack genetic testing and classification. Some producers have spent years working on naming the plants in their own ways through traditional markers like leaf shape, size, and cherry colour, giving each plant a local name instead.
With all this in mind it does not mean there isn’t the possibility of transparency in Ethiopian coffee, as outside of the wild and indigenous lots of coffees, we have the varietals introduced by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC). Like the government research centres we find in many coffee producing regions, JARC develops offshoot varieties to help preserve coffee cultivation as an agricultural pursuit, working against growing climate strains and more virulent pests. As for the term Heirloom, we mostly will see this being used as the blanket term across the remainder of Ethiopian coffee, the wild and indigenous lots.
As a roaster, it can be tempting to push the narrative of wanting to segregate varieties so we can have more transparency around our cups. But there are many firm counterarguments for preserving the status quo, as Ethiopia’s diverse micro-climates, natural flora and fauna, and enriched soils will all influence the mutations that arise as new varieties grow. If we choose to only cultivate a Pink Bourbon in Yirgacheffe as we know it for example, it will yield good crops with a distinctive profile, but we would likely not see the results we wanted, losing out on much of the distinctive characteristics that made that regional cup so desired in the first place.
Ethiopian producers are also used to mixing varieties at harvest, their need to separate and define each varietal for specific purchases would reduce the volumes of coffee they can offer, limiting the scope of each sale and making it harder to sustain a liveable income through being a coffee producer. This is something we see through much of Central America where western influences lead farmers and producers on what they should do, often causing stresses and reducing the ability to effectively farm quality coffee. The term Heirloom has in fact been supportive of the nature of Ethiopian farming landscape, where the majority of producers are small holdings farmers who only produce limited amounts of coffee as a cash crop each year. Being able to sell into generic regional terms through the government auctions system, allows them quick access to money for their product and supports a growing economy.
One day we may see a full list of definitions and denominations of the wild varietals that make up Ethiopia’s Heirloom coffees as different organisations work together to document each variety, but that task is a long and strenuous one that may never be 100% complete. In some ways it’s nice to preserve the wild mystique around Ethiopia and the amazing coffees that we see from there.