Origins: Ethiopia Coffee
“That's what I want to drink the rest of my life.”
At Blue Bottle, we give coffee from Ethiopia its own name—indigenous Arabica—because it’s unlike coffee grown anywhere else. The birthplace of the plant where it still grows wild, southern Ethiopia has the perfect conditions for coffee: high mountains, cool climate, and shaded forest canopy. The route traversing these southern regions where coffee likely originated—Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Guji—is often spoken of as coffee’s Holy Land and doubles a kind of coffee pilgrimage. And yet, even among coffee lovers, Ethiopia’s best coffees can be surprisingly controversial.
THE BASICS: WASHED VERSUS NATURAL
Using indigenous Arabica, Ethiopia produces two radically different kinds of coffee, each with its partisans. One is called natural, the other washed. The names have to do with how the Arabica is processed after harvest—how the beans, aka the seeds within the coffee cherry are separated from the surrounding fruit. The short version: Naturals are dried whole, with the cherry infusing the beans with berry flavors as it desicates. Washed, however, are just that—washed clean of fruit, leaving behind more delicate flavors.
In the cup, Ethiopia’s natural and washed coffees taste as different as a brandy to black tea. That’s about how they taste, too: Naturals have a rounded berry flavor that can taste as wonderfully boozy as port or even Cognac. To detractors, they taste like a flavor abomination. If they were music, think something boundary-pushing yet polarizing, like late Miles Davis. On the other hand, the best washed indigenous Arabicas have all the delicate floral and citrus notes of the finest Earl Grey—or the contrapuntal beauty of Brahms’ second string sextet.
The differences are so extreme, some coffee companies only to sell one or the other. But at Blue Bottle, you’ll find each type all over our menu because they both have their fans. Case in point: Our head green buyer Shaun Puklavitz says of naturals, “Ask a group of roasters about the first coffee that blew them away and naturals will be the most common answer.” Meanwhile, Director of Quality Control Ben Brewer says about washed Arabica, “You try it and you say, ‘Aha—that’s what I want to drink the rest of my life.’”
Naturals and washed Ethiopias play in heavy rotation in our single origin selections, and depending on the month, show up in at least half our blends. Three Africas, for instance, is roughly one-third Central African coffee, and two parts Ethiopia—one natural, one washed. Because of their delicacy and subtle acidity, washed Ethiopian coffees are best used in limited quantities, like a squeeze of lemon to brighten a dish. They tend to make up a small percentage of most our blends. A key exception, our 2019 Summer Blend is designed to taste buoyant and bright, so it comprises half washed Ethiopia, half Kenya.
Within the naturals category, these can fall on a spectrum from lightly fruited to jammy. We even have an in-house expression, “danger fruit,” for naturals so fruit-laden that they ride the edge between drinkable and rotten. Within that, we generally favor more fruit than less. When we’re not featuring them as single origins, we add naturals as a rounded middle note in some of our most enveloping blends, such as Bella Donovan.
COFFEE’S FLAVOR SPECTRUM
In the best possible way, Ethiopia upsets our expectation of how coffee can taste. The flavors we think of as “classic coffee” like chocolate and nuts are, by coffee’s true timeline, not classic at all. They only date back to Latin American coffee plantations of the 1900s, which grew two cultivars of Arabica—Typica and Bourbon—and its less refined cousin Robusta and tended to roast them until dark.
In Ethiopia, coffee’s native territory, Arabica still grows wild, with many spontaneous genetic mutations. Even the smallest farms can have multiple strains, some of them with names that can’t be translated from the local dialect—and some with no names at all. That’s a key reason why we use the term “indigenous Arabica” for Ethiopia—it’s a helpful catchall for the wild or heirloom varieties of Arabica that it contains. (For a visual representation of this phenomenon, look at how a typical handful of Ethiopia beans often includes a range of shapes).
The extreme variety is also a result of such a high number of Ethiopian coffee growers. This isn’t entirely a good thing: in Ethiopia, an estimated four million farmers grow coffee cherry, many of them in extreme poverty. Many sell their coffee through an auction system called ECX which is rife with problems. At Blue Bottle, we primarily buy from estates or single growers and cooperatives—and not just out of a sense of fairness. Buying direct is where we find the best quality.
Buying direct also helps us capture the incredible regional diversity—how, for instance, a washed Arabica from Yirgacheffe tastes like flowers when washed Arabicas from nearby Guji taste like stone fruit, even though they are both processed the same way. Genetics also play a role there, as well as microclimates. Like two fields of wildflowers, each bouquet is unique.