By Mischa Hedges, Director of Communications
At Thanksgiving Coffee Company, we’re always talking about how to connect our coffee community. We strive to create a space for dialogue between coffee drinkers and coffee farmers – space that allows for gratitude, appreciation and knowledge about coffee to be shared. With social media and increased global connectivity, it’s becoming much easier than it used to be to do that. For instance, check out this new feature on our website:
If you’ve enjoyed one of our single origin coffees recently, you can visit our “Farmers” page and write a message to the coffee farmer or cooperative who grew it.
Traveling to your coffee’s country of origin and meeting your coffee farmer in person is the richest way to connect, but that’s not an option for most people. We’re hoping this new feature on our website will enable you to deepen your relationship with your coffee.
Some of the farmers and cooperatives we partner with are Facebook users, and can respond directly to your messages! In other cases, we’ll gather and send your messages to the farmers and cooperatives we work with so they can see your appreciation.
Let us know what you think of this new feature…
Excitement is in the air!
This past Wednesday, we received this year’s shipment of our Sidama Natural coffee after a long journey from Ethiopia (considered by many as the birthplace of coffee). This is a perennial favorite of ours and we were all thrilled to cup it and marvel at another beautiful harvest from the Hache Primary Society. This coffee is natural processed, juxtaposed with the more typical washed or wet process methods. In the Bensa region of Ethiopia, the 2,000 farmers of the Hache cooperative pick their ripe cherries and leave them to dry in the sun like a raisin with the fruit still clinging to the beans inside. All of the sugars and fruit juice are absorbed giving this coffee a wondrous jammy, berry, fruity, even port-like sweetness. And these notes of fruit are supported by a full flavored foundation that can best be described as robust yet refined. There is something special about this coffee and you’ll know it when you taste it. Blueberries? A hint of strawberry jam? Yum.
As it is with all great seasonally produced foods, sometimes not being able to have the foods we love most every day makes the anticipation and their return all that much more special. Our Sidama Natural is our featured coffee right now, usher in the fall by treating yourself or someone you love to this exceptional coffee.
Some of you may have noticed that a few of our all-time favorite coffees have been made unavailable recently, namely Byron’s Maracaturra and Sidama Natural, Ethiopia. Indeed, we have roasted our last pounds of Byron’s, and in the case of our jammy wonderkid from Ethiopia, we’re tightening the belt and saving the last dozen or so bags for our espresso blends.
The bad news: you can’t get this great coffee right now.
The good news: these are great coffees (at least in our minds!) and they are rare, limited, and super special. These aren’t the kinds of coffees you can just order up from a broker, no, you’ve got to slog a lot of miles (and or a lot of frequent flier miles as the case may be) to find coffees of this caliber, and of course, the farmers who grow them. And though we’re out right now, new crop coffees are en route and should be here soon.
In the case of Byron’s Maracaturra, the 2009/2010 crop is on the water and should be here in our warehouse in the next few weeks. This year’s crop is more fruit-forward than ever, still with a delicate jasmine/darjeeling complexity. As for the new crop Sidama Natural, it’s a big fruit bomb again this year. We’re stoked on the pre-shipment sample and looking forward to the coffee’s arrival. It’s due to ship from Ethiopia next week, and we should see its arrival sometime in late July/early August.
We hope you’re enjoying the slightly wild ride of great coffee. Like a lot of the finest crafted foods in the world, there’s no mass-produced version. We always try to buy as much as we can, but in the case of some of the most unique coffees in our roster, there’s only so much of the great stuff out there. Please let us know if we’ve left you in the lurch…we’ve got a lot of other great coffee in stock at the moment, and we’d be happy to help you find a great coffee to hold you over until the arrival of your favorites.
Late last week we had a chance to cup the first roast of the recently arrived “Sidama Natural”, our fruit-laden wildly characteristic single-origin Ethiopian. This is the last of our new crop coffees to arrive, and it’s been the most difficult. Yes, it is late, for starters. But it’s actually one of the first Ethiopian coffees to arrive in the US. When I look a lot of the green brokers offering sheets I see that they don’t have a single Ethiopian container scheduled to land for at least another two weeks. This is a testament to the hard work of Menno Simmons, our exporter, and partner with the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union (SFCU), the producer of this fine coffee.
Also, everything in Ethiopia is a little up in the air this year. The government let out a lot of line in the past five years, and allowed for a good deal of liberalization in the coffee market. The opening this created made way for a lot of exciting coffees. This year, the government reeled it back in. It seems as if we are watching the growing pains of a 30-year marxist-inspired regime coming to terms with reality. The bummer is that a lot of great coffees are lost, and those that we can get out are held back by a lot of the strong-arm tactics of the government. The Misty Valley, for example, that turned a lot of heads last year is simply not available. The legendary Bagresh family that produced it is along with all other coffee producers and exporters mandated to sell their coffee into a new government run auction. There, coffees will be graded (by region, and then by quality) and 70 bag lots will be created by blending coffees graded by the same region and quality. It’s kind of like California telling Anderson Valley that they can’t grow grapes and then make wine out of them. You can grow grapes, but then you’ve got to sell them into the state-wide auction. Pinot Noir will be graded by quality by a government taster, and then lots will be created by blending the grapes with Pinot from around the state. The winery can then buy grapes out of the auction and make wine. Bummer if you’re Navarro or Lazy Creek or Goldeneye (a few of our many great local wineries). All that work you did to produce those distinctive grapes with exactly that character you’re looking for is all for naught….
Also, because there is no way to trace a bag of coffee through the auction, there is no way to keep the trail that’s required for organic or fair trade certification. Bummer again.
Luckily for us, there are three cooperatives who were able to get a “second window” exception that allows them to export directly what they produce. And even more luckily, Hache, the producer of our “Sidama Natural” is one of them. So though it’s been a roller coaster of a ride, we were able to maintain one of the few channels available for the procurement of Organic and Fair Trade coffee.
By now you’re probably ready for a cup of coffee, so I’ll get straight to it.
I was hopeful when I first cupped the pre-shipment sample in April. Though the coffee might have suffered at the hands of the many obstacles lining its way to us, it was still shining. Lots of honey, sweet pithy citrus, and hints of fruit—not as intensely strawberry-toned as before, but more filled out in other ways. The shots I pulled really registered—while they weren’t winey like last year’s Hache, but they were really, really sweet and caramelly, with really good depth, dimension, and crema. Not precisely a repeat performance but an impressive performance nonetheless. Then I made a decision that is probably fairly rare in the coffee world. Instead of looking at a coffee that had changed, and pushing aside in search of something more like the previous year’s, I booked another container of coffee from the farmers of the Hache cooperative.
After considering the options I decided that this was a time for us to stick with the farmers. Their coffee had showed us its potential, and though I was hoping for even better than last year, it’s still really good. If this is what an off year looks like, then this is a good place to be. If I’ve learned anything from watching Paul and tasting coffee alongside him it’s that when it comes to coffee, you’ve got to focus on people and the long term—when you find potential and invest in it, and keep your commitments, the good that comes later on down the road is well worth the wait.
All that said, I’m looking forward to sharing this coffee with you. We’re up and running in production, and if you order a package right now you’ll probably have it by the end of the week. At the end of the day, the Ethiopian government can do whatever it wants and we’ll keep coming back. The small-scale farmers of Ethiopia grow the world’s most unique coffees. This year is bright, deeply sweet, and full of nuance and character ranging from grapefruit to honeycomb. It’s heavy bodied, round, and smooth. Their coffee is simply too good to live without.
I’ll be working hard to get back to the quality of last year, maybe even surpass it. For now, we’ve got something really nice. I was talking with a friend yesterday who’s a winemaker in the Anderson Valley and she was lamenting the smoke damage caused by last summer’s wildfires. I asked her how this would affect her sales. She told me simply that the she would do everything she could do make the best wine possible. And that she expected that her customers would understand. She said that the real thrill is in riding out the hard times, making the best wine possible, and making it to those magical years when everything comes together, and each sip is almost magical. I nodded, and told her that I understood.
Thanks for reading, for supporting our search for the great coffees of the world, and for supporting us and our commitments to the farmers far away in the mountains of the coffeelands.
2 zakies of great coffee, carefully protected by secret coffeeman code.
We got a long-awaited package in the mail a few days ago, from Amsterdam. Labeled â€œ2 zakies groene koffie bonenâ€ (and although I don’t speak dutch) this was no mystery: this was the much anticipated, occasionally fretted over, often nagged at pre-shipment sample of this year’s Sidama Natural from the Hache Cooperative, part of the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union.
This is a coffee I fell in love with last year during my first trip to Ethiopia. I actually fell in love with it from across the room at first (smell) sight. I was cupping a selection of the best washed coffees of the year and the next table over samples of the washed sun-dried naturals were being preparedâ€¦suddenly, deep in my cuppers trance, I smelled sweet sweet strawberry. I stopped, interrupted everyone else, and made a fool of myself hopping around on my two overcaffeinated feet asking about that sweet smelling coffee that had just been ground. Later, after I’d settled down, had an amazing lunch of Injera and Doro Wat (Ethiopian food is as great as their coffee, if you ask me), I found the same coffee, this time hidden as sample number 17 or whatever it was.
We bought a whole container of it, and over the past year it’s become a stand-out favorite among staff, long-time customers, and new friends alike. It’s the backbone of our espresso, and a couple other signature blends. Its jammy sweetness, deep heavy body, and sweet berry aroma are unique. These flavors are the result of a graceful coincidence of dozens of critical variables, and hundreds of other weighty factors as well. Ripe, sweet cherries produced by antique coffee varietals, slowly ripened thanks to high altitude, the gentle stress of good contrasting diurnal temperatures, just the right amount of rain to encourage the coffee to blossom and then a dry period long enough to encourage good pollination, followed by enough rain to allow the coffee trees to produce full, juicy fruitâ€¦and that’s all before the coffee has even been picked!
After that it’s selection, and careful drying on raised bends with plenty of airflow and a drying period long enough to allow for some sweet wine-like flavors to emerge through light fermentation, but not so long that sour or dry flavors develop. There is certainly a lot of science going on here, but its at least as much if not more artâ€¦and the result last year was thrilling. This year it is too!
The pre-shipment sample shows that same unique jammy strawberry character. It’s becoming clear that this is the hallmark of natural coffees from Sidama, as contrasted with the distinctive blueberry sweetness of natural coffees from Harrar. Only in Ethiopia, with such elegant and intense coffees, could we get away with waxing this poetic on coffee from specific micro-climates and appellations. But it’s there, in the cup, I’m sure a lot of you have tasted these flavors yourselves. In addition to that syrupy strawberry, there are a host of flavors in this year’s Hache much more characteristic of the washed coffees from Sidama: sweet citrus pith, and heavy jasmine blossom perfume-like elegance. At a darker roast, these flavors will hold and convert to heavy chocolate notes. At a lighter roast, the acidity will shed light on the full dimension of this coffee’s character.
What changed this year is a question burning a small hole in my head at the moment. I’ve already sent out a blitzkrieg of emails, and started comparing plane tickets on Ethiopian Airlines versus KLM. I’m thrilled, and pleasantly surprised. The farmers are happy. And I can’t wait to share this coffee with you. Last year’s Hache is still standing up nicely; if you want to get a final taste of it order soon. And stay tuned for notice of this coffees arrival sometime towards the end of June.
"Natural" drying method in Ethiopia (photo credit: Menno "the Dutchman")
About two weeks ago Ben came back from Uganda and Rwanda after visits with the coffee cooperatives we are working with . You can read his blog entry to learn what he does when he makes the long voyage to Africa twice each year, and why such visits are so central to the way Thanksgiving Coffee does business. In fact, the way we “source ” our coffees is the defining difference between Thanksgiving Coffee Company and all other specialty coffee companies in the USA. On his way home Ben stopped in Amsterdam to visit with our Ethiopian Coffee intermediary and exporter at his office which happens to be less then 500 feet from where the first coffee exchange was set up over 500 years ago. There is a great book about the way coffee and coffee tree seeds were smuggled out of Yemen in the late 1490’s by a Portuguese Jewish man( who escaped the Spanish Inquisition seeking religious freedom in Holland) and his financial partner, a Dutch woman of great stature. The name of the book is The Devils Cup . It reads like a cross between a Hunter Thompson Gonzo monolog and a John Steinbeck travelog . A thoroughly enjoyable read. But I digress… While in Amsterdam Ben received a dozen samples of various Ethiopian coffee samples to bring home for us roast up and taste. This we did yesterday and the results were just wonderful . All the samples were from the Sidama Region . It is traditional in the coffee trade here in the USA to call the region “Sidamo” but I have been told by knowledgeable people that Sidamo means monkey and is considered a racist slur in Ethiopia. Regardless, the coffees were produced using the “washed” or “wet” method as opposed to the “dry” or “natural method”. I am partial to coffees produced via the wet method and Ben is partial to coffees produced using the dry method. The difference in taste each produces from the same coffee is profound and worth noting for your reference. Dry or Natural coffees are processed by allowing the cherry pulp to dry while still surrounding the coffee seeds within the cherry. This allows the fruity/fermenty flavors in the pulp to penetrate the seeds as they dry, imparting a sweet-sour flavor that reminds one of Blueberries and strawberries . When the whole cherry is totally dry, it is taken to a mill and “dehulled” to expose the coffee beans(seeds). The best “naturals” have so much personality you almost believe they have been altered with fruit syrups . Ethiopia and Yemen do the best jobs with naturals in my opinion. The blends we created for The California Academy of Science and for the Danville Chow Restaurant are based on Ethiopian naturals that ben discovered last year while trekking through the coffee regions of Ethiopia in search for a great Natural . I believe the one he found at the Hache Cooperative is one of Ethiopia’s best.
Coffee blossems have a fine aroma
We purchased 37,500 lbs of it last year and we anticipate the coffee will be just as fruity in 2009. I, however, prefer the wet processed ethiopian coffees. The pulp is removed from the seeds within hours of picking. The seeds are soaked water for 24-36 hours depending on water temperature, and then the seeds(beans) are set out to dry on cement patios to get down to a stable 11-12 % moisture . Coffees processed this way have a distinct citric brightness or acidity , showing hints of lemon and stone fruits like apricot and peach. They are bright and lively in the cup , which I prefer over the heavy and mellow mouthfeel of the naturals. But dont get me wrong, my preference is for washed coffees but a good natural is a wonder to behold. We are now at 601 words. Enough! You all are in for some great Ethiopian washed coffees this year in addition to the great naturals we found last year. We will keep you posted as to their arrival date and availability