Friday, January 4, 2013

Stumptown Organic Ethiopia Mordecofe

Name: Organic Ethiopia Mordecofe
Origin: Mora Mora River Valley, Guji Zone, Ethiopia
Roaster: Stumptown
Roast: (unknown)
Varietal: Ethiopia Heirloom
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

It is always a pleasure to experience a fusion of old world and new, especially when it puts into focus a continuous, live tradition. Coffee has many traditions, from Western coffeehouses to Latin American coffee plantations to Turkish style coffee being passed around a souk to farms dotting the numerous famous hotspots throughout Southeast Asia. It is for good reason that we continue to cherish these traditions, but where did they come from? Where did they all begin?

Much like people, coffee originated in Africa before spreading around the globe. Unlike people, coffee has traditions that did not arise until well after history was being recorded, so we can trace it all with a comfortable degree of precision. Growing wild in Ethiopia, coffee was first made an object of agriculture around the year 850 C.E. Soon the Yemenites picked up the crop, and the brewing of coffee become popular in growing numbers of places around the world. The Yemenites would have loved to keep the monopoly over its production all to themselves, but sooner or later all secrets are set loose. Coffee was brought to Indonesia for planting, and after that to the New World. Consumption was already global by that point. The rest is history.

But there it was, in Ethiopia's former Kaffa region, that it all began. (Ethiopians call coffee "bun" - it was once thought that a misunderstanding of "Kaffa bun" is why English speakers call something unrelated to beans a "coffee bean", although that explanation has since been discredited.) And it still grows there today.

Along the eastern flank of this swath of land is the Guji zone where one Mr. Haile Gebre runs a couple of farms and a washing station. Gebre ought to know a thing or two about local agricultural traditions; he formerly held a government post in Ethiopia as director of cooperative business. Little wonder, then, that after returning to his family's land and growing coffee he embraced the direct trade movement. Direct trade seems more and more these days to be a common thread among serious roasters, at least among those with, shall we say, the wherewithal. The coffee is fresher and more choice, the business is more transparent, and usually everybody wins.

In one sense, perhaps, there is nothing new under the sun. Coffee is grown, traded, roasted, brewed, and enjoyed. Some headline. But in another sense, things are different. Gebre studied in Russia. He is a learned, traveled man. He knows where his coffee is going, and he knows how to do business in the modern world that can benefit farmers in Ethiopia, businesspeople in Oregon, and consumers in New York, all at the same time. How many Ethiopian coffee farmers a thousand years ago could have said such a thing? Some, maybe. But the context of coffee, much as the world itself, was very different. The details have changed; and yet, the important principles have remained largely the same. I suppose that is how traditions live on.

So what does it taste like, a millennium-plus-old tradition? Quite delightful, really. The press turns up a rich, dark, chocolate colored brew. The aroma is initially of a winey character with florals around the edges; as the coffee cools it becomes vice versa. The florals are predominantly honeysuckle, plus there is caramel in there. There is another element to it as well, a richness, and I cannot tell if it is a full-bodied textural quality that found its way into the aroma or else a slight earthiness that has spread out and given a smoothness to the rest of things. The palate is of fruit, wine, and figs. I do not taste the mint chip ice cream that Stumptown mentions in its tasting notes, but I do taste the brown sugar, as well as hints of carob and lychee to go beside what is by now indisputably earthiness. There is also a tad of spiciness which does not jump in and add another layer to the mix but rather appears as an extra dimension of the existing layers of fruits and earth, a little kick that makes each other flavor a little more interesting. (That must be what Stumptown means by "ginger".) The liquid is rich and full-bodied; it is not syrupy, but then again, there is not much farther to go. Fruits and spice characterize the finish.

Stumptown, of course, as part of its focus on roasting for the bean, does not label their expert roasts as light, medium, or dark. But if I had to guess how this coffee may be characterized, I would say that it is a medium roast. It has plenty of room for the terroir and its flavors to spread out and express themselves, but there is an undercurrent of earthiness and the acidity is under control.

Did Ethiopian coffee beans always have these characteristics? Were they always roasted quite this way? Has the Mora Mora River Valley always been home to this crop? Have people always enjoyed Ethiopia heirloom in this or a similar way? Some people know the answers to some of those questions. Most people have no clue. I would love one day to join the first group of people. Until then, I am enjoying my place among the second. There is nothing quite like a tasty mystery to add a pleasing edge to the experience of tradition.

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