Serious Eats: Drinks

Ask a Coffee Roaster: What's Your Favorite Coffee-Growing Country?

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[Photo: Liz Clayton. Roaster origin photos provided by the roasters]

As with coffee drinkers, coffee roasters have their own special favorites in the wide world of coffee. Nowadays, folks who roast coffee for even relatively small, artisan roasting companies are able to travel the world to visit the places where coffee grows, and meet the farmers who grow the fruit these roasters will one day transform into beautiful coffee beverages.

We asked four roasters what their favorite growing origins are, and why. It's worth noting that every single roaster said Ethiopia was their ultimate, but some of them were willing to speak about some other favorites, too.

Ed Kaufmann, Joe Coffee, New York City

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Do you have a favorite coffee growing origin? What makes it special?
I have to say Ethiopia. There are many things I respect about many of the other origins but this always ends up at the top of my list.

There are a few things about this origin that are very special. The first is that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee (and possibly humans). Coffee is a plant that grows wild in the forests there, yielding thousands of different varieties, many of which have not been discovered or catalogued. No other origin in the world can claim that title. Coffee has been farmed in every other origin, cultivated by humans.

The second thing I appreciate about this origin is the diversity of flavors that can be produced here. You have floral, refreshing, sparkly coffees alongside deep, fruit jam, earthy, flavors, etc. My list of flavors of Ethiopian coffees is longer and more diverse than coffees from any other region. I have my preferences but I think the diversity is astounding and praise-worthy.

What are some of the most memorable coffees/experiences/challenges you've had with coffee from this place?
Like many coffee pros of my generation, I would say that Idido Misty Valley opened my eyes to how amazing and wild coffee could be. It was a naturally processed (dry processed) Yirgacheffe from a well-known exporter named Bagersh. I fell in love with the tangy, blueberry fruitiness of this coffee. It had such a mind-blowing flavor profile compared to anything I had ever tasted (coffee or not). From there, my preferences have since swayed towards washed-processed coffees from Ethiopia but I will always hold my first experiences in high regard.

What do you tell people trying a coffee from this country from the first time?
I try to emphasize the main differences between our Ethiopian offering and our House Blend. People drink our house all the time but when I am lucky enough to find myself at a shop speaking with customers or our staff, I think the A/B comparison is the first step towards opening eyes to how different and how special it can be.

Andrew Barnett, Linea Caffe, San Francisco

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Do you have a favorite coffee growing origin? What's so special about this place?
Brazil! I love the people, and I love the coffee. I love the geography. Their best coffees are exceptionally sweet, they're extraordinarily balanced, and extraordinarily clean. Those are things I look for in any coffee, but there are "thoroughbreds" in Brazil, coffees that really distinguish themselves with balance, cleanness.

Brazil really suffers to this day with the stigma of being commodity coffee. Which it deserves—Brazil has a lot of commodity coffee, but it is in many ways where California was with wine 40 years ago. There are some companies where you don't see Brazils on their menu. Many think of Brazil as kind of boring, that it doesn't have the altitude that Ethiopia has, but these coffees are lovely, they're sweet, they're really great for espresso, and not just espresso. Unfortunately we don't see a lot of them in the US, but you see the top roasters in the world like Coffee Collective or Tim Wendelboe or George Howell are really onto these coffees.

What are some of the most memorable coffees/experiences/challenges you've had with Brazilian coffee?
I would say a highlight would be serving on the 2005 Cup of Excellence jury. That was the year that the coffee from Santa Ines took first place in the competition. At that point it was the highest scoring coffee in any Cup of excellence competition. You watch the whole process of juror calibration, you see one juror give a coffee a 76 and one juror give it a 95, you see kind of a bell curve. You think, this is interesting, we all have our different takes and predilection in coffee. But this one time, these peoplewere unanimous that they loved this coffee. Not just a little bit, but—that's amazing! Here's a flavor that can bring us all together, what's in this coffee that really unifies people.

Have you ever traveled to Brazil? What was it like to go there?
I think that some of it is the physicality, how beautiful the country is. But I think there's a warmth in the people. People meet you in the US and say "Yeah, let's get together sometime, have a cup of coffee and have a beer", but in Brazil, you meet someone and they say "Come stay at our house!", this kind of warmth and welcoming that blew my mind, and it's genuine.

I also love the food, the tropical fruits, the pineapple, the mango, the papaya, the watermelon in season, that's spectacular. There's a lot of cultural diversity. There's very strong African influence, very strong Indian influence, the Portuguese influence—and I love Portuguese, I just think it's a beautiful language, especially the way the Brazilians speak it, it's like music.

What do you tell people trying a coffee from this country for the first time?
They'll find something with a softer acidity, really integrated, really sweet.

Ryan Knapp, MadCap Coffee, Grand Rapids

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Do you have a favorite coffee growing origin? Or favorites?

If I had to pick one, I'd have to say Ethiopia! Kenya and Colombia are very close runners up. Kenya has such a consistent unapologetic sweetness and character that is hard to rival. And with Colombia, I love how there is coffee being harvested nearly year-round throughout the country where many micro-regions experience two harvests, and with all of the different climates and terroir there is an abundance of flavor profiles to experience. However, Ethiopia takes the cake for me!

What about Ethiopia is so special to you?
Mainly, the flavor of the coffee. The fine coffees from Ethiopia present so much complexity, layers of flavor, unrivaled aromatics and a long lasting finish.

So often Ethiopia get reduced down to the main regions, but there are so many beautiful micro-regions. It seems like every year I'm learning of a new pocket that is producing outstanding coffee. As a whole, I really prefer washed coffees, and when speaking of Ethiopia in general have a personal preference to the sparkling complex washed coffee than the juicy, syrupy dry processed, however, Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that I feel has regions where dry-processed works well from both a flavor and sustainability standpoint.

What are some of the most memorable coffees or experiences you've had with coffee from Ethiopia?
Visiting Ethiopia is always such a treat. Even aside from the lovely coffees, there's the opportunity to experience a lovely place than quite unique from anywhere else I've visited. The cultures are rich! And there are so many. As you drive through the countryside, over the course of a few hours you will pass through dozens of districts. About every few kilometers you see a culture shift: the homes take on a different style, the native tongue is unique. From area to area there are obviously strong similarities, yet rich tradition is woven into the people and the practices. It's an amazing experience!

What do you tell people trying a coffee from Ethiopia for the first time?
Stop what you are doing and take your time. The thing I love the most about coffee from Ethiopia is the subtitles. Much like a great wine from Burgundy, a stunning white peony tea, or a nuanced farmhouse ale...if you don't stop and spend time with it, you may miss a really stunning experience. To the busy taster, it may just taste like a coffee. But if you stop, spend some time with aromatics, allow the coffee to cool, I think that's when you can truly experience the sparkling characteristics, the subtle complexities and the terroir of where coffee was born.

Gabe Boscana, Paramo Coffee, Bay Area

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Do you have a favorite coffee growing origin?
I have three: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Colombia, in that order. For me, Ethiopia is the most ethereal of all the coffees: it truly transcends what we think of coffee, it's a very emotional experience to taste a really good Ethiopia. The romance, or fact, that coffee comes from Ethiopia lends to that experience.

I didn't like Colombian coffee until about maybe 4 years ago. I tasted a Colombian that reminded me of a Kenyan coffee—it had both this really light, lively acidity and also a kind of heft. Colombian coffees can get, pretty much, any kind of profile, meaning the range in Colombian coffee is pretty huge.

I think it's the range of flavors in Colombia that's super exciting, and the processing is pretty exemplary, much like Kenya. Really clean, big citrus fruit, washed coffees. And Kenya is the gold standard in coffee processing. They wash the coffees multiple times, they ferment longer without spoiling them, to get a really clean cup. I think of Colombia as the Kenya of Latin America. And Kenya, I think of as the Colombia of East Africa, because the coffees have a big presence on the cupping table, but are controlled.

What are some of the most memorable coffees, experiences, or challenges you've had with coffees from these origins?

I think for the most part, the challenge with Kenyan coffees that you face is that it's extremely difficult to source directly. You have to source it through the auction system in Kenya, and you kind of have to cross your fingers that it's the coffee that you bought the year before—and first, you have to find it! And if you can find it, and the quality is there, sometimes it's at a totally different price. But if you secure a good Kenya, you're golden, you're good to go.

In Colombia, you've got something market-driven, and that's going to determine pricing and availability. The challenges in Colombia are that they're so dependent on the market, and leaf rust has made a huge impact on coffee growing and selling. That said, it's not difficult to find good Colombian coffee. There are so many regions, that even if you can't get the one you want, you can go elsewhere and find really great coffees. Another challenge in Colombia is coffee being over-fermented.

Have you ever traveled to these countries? What was it like to go there?
I've been to Ethiopia, Kenya and Colombia. There are only two countries in Africa that haven't been colonized, and that's Liberia and Ethiopia, and that's really apparent in social interactions in Ethiopia. I'm not talking about coffee mills, but more the people—people are a lot more open to visitors, just a really warm friendly country, but also devastating in terms of poverty. And that part of it for me was really hard to deal with, because that's where the traceability aspect comes in for me in coffee. There's no way truly, unless you buy from a private farm which is very rare in Ethiopia, to see where my money went for that coffee. You're talking about 20, 30, 50 farmers bringing in a few sacks of coffee and they all get put together in a mill. Unless I know the mill or the people that own a farm, traceability is a huge problem.

In Kenya, the way they do coffee is different. Mills are called factories in Kenya, and are way more regulated. So there is more consistency in those mills. It's a little bit more controlled, but socially speaking, Kenya is an old British colony, so it's really weird.

Colombia is interesting because it's a country that knows exactly what it has: it's very aware of its power in coffee, it's aware of the potential it has, it's aware of where it stands in the world of Latin American coffee. They definitely know they have amazing coffee, and they'll tell everybody that asks them that they have the best coffee in the world.

What do you tell people trying a coffee from this country from the first time? Not to overgeneralize—countries are big places—but is there any part of the legend, the kind of processing done there, your personal experiences, or common flavor profiles, that you share with people?

To someone who's never had a Kenyan coffee before, I would probably start by telling them, this is not like any other coffee you've tasted before, so have an open mind. They're going to find acidity for sure, and they're going to find an expansiveness and complexity, probably very sweet cup, and have a really hard time pinpointing why it's so different. Kenyan coffee just doesn't taste like any other coffee in the world! Kenyan coffees are probably the most Hawaiian Punch-like coffees. It's got an intense, almost primal, taste of fruit that's got fruit, juice, acid, and it's all playing just right so that it's not offensive. You want to keep going back to it.

About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs, and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop, is the New York City correspondent for Sprudge.com, and contributes to other outfits worldwide.

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